Everyone will think differently about risk after the havoc wreaked by the pandemic. So it’s staggering that the fragility of the UK’s energy system — another risk that is staring us in the face — does not warrant more attention. Next month, the government is likely to publish a much-delayed energy white paper that will spell out how it thinks the country will meet its energy needs for the coming decades. Ministers will have to decide how much will come from renewables, from gas and from nuclear — and how much taxpayer cash should be put at stake. The need for more power generation is clear: coal has largely been erased from the system, and most of the UK’s nuclear power stations — which supply about 17% of our electricity — are due to close over the decade. Just one new nuke, Hinkley Point in Somerset, is under construction to replace them. Power-hungry electric cars are eating up a growing slice of the market, and demand for them has soared during the pandemic. Meanwhile, we’re increasingly entwined, at least where power is concerned, with the Continent, via a series of interconnectors that bring in gas and electricity. But how much security will those links provide if power shortages hit the Continent at the same time as us, or Russia decides to restrict Europe’s gas supply? Earlier this month, National Grid had to issue an urgent call for power stations to fire up when cold, wind-free days left us with perilously slender supplies. Seductive-sounding ideas have been waved under ministers’ noses: a hydrogen economy, nuclear fusion, dozens of small reactors dotted around the country. None of these offers us certainty, which, more than ever, is what we need. Before going for moonshots, the government should opt for the tried and tested: a huge expansion of offshore wind, and several big nukes, with more experimental technologies filling the gaps. Like any insurance policy, it’s going to be expensive, and could require the state to take stakes in those power stations. But the cost of doing nothing may be far greater.
Times 15th Nov 2020 read more »