Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

When the wind doesn't blow - we'll need candles.

It seems that the country's forward energy policy - that of building loads of highly visible wind turbines that only make electricity when the wind is blowing - isn't going to produce the goods in the not very distant future.

Mrs Rigby has been banging on about this to her family for absolutely ages, and at last she feels vindicated because today's newspapers are awash with dire warnings of power cuts within a very few years, and possibly even this coming winter if global warming doesn't kick in quickly enough to raise temperatures above freezing and so ease the surges in demand caused by the ad breaks of Coronation Street and Eastenders.

Mrs R remembers reading, some ten or more years ago, that we needed to replace our power stations. She remembers there being a plan in place to do so, but it was quietly dropped by our current government and no doubt the money that had been set aside has been used elsewhere. Mr Miliband has at least admitted they've got it a bit wrong, it's he who has forecast these power shortages.

There are all sorts of alarmist stories doing the rounds - it'll be as bad as during the three day week, we'll all need candles - which are a fire hazard (and they give you cancer), and none of us will be able to watch the Olympics because all the country's electricity will have to be diverted to power the floodlights, CCTVs and so on - even though it'll be summer!

The thing is that we're very much more dependent on electricity than we were in the seventies. Almost every home has a computer - and most are in use whenever people are at home. It's the way we communicate with each other, how we find out what's going on in the world and, for many, it's the sole means of entertainment and relaxation.

Computers are also the way we do business, so having power cuts would be catastrophic for the economy. So it's essential we have energy security, it's almost unbelievable that any nation's government could have ignored the warnings for so long - but they have, and we'll all have to deal with it, somehow.

The country possibly faces being held to ransom in return for electrical energy (and will be nothing to do with Gordon Brown's brother who's currently head of media relations at EDF, which owns London Electricity, Sweb and Seeboard). It's now common knowledge (thanks to the MSM) that we soon won't be able to make enough electricityof our own for our needs, so providers will be able to name their price - and no doubt the consumer will end up being fleeced, as always.

We've got rid of gasometers at a rather alarming rate too (no doubt because of H+S regs) so can now only store a week's gas supply, unlike our neighbours in Europe who can each keep oodles of the stuff in store. This means that if there's a breakdown of a transcontinental pipeline we're all going to be very cold.

Mrs Rigby remembers the three day week, brought in by the Heath government to combat the effects of the miners' strikes. She was a bit younger, obviously, and it was something of an adventure when she learned about cooking in hay boxes - which were absolutely useless! She also learned how important it was to make sure a house had a secondary source of heating - an open fire, a woodburner or even one of those mobile gas heaters that steamed up all the windows when the cylinder was running low.

"Modern" homes aren't quite so well planned, they're almost hermetically sealed and almost all are totally dependent on gas for heating - and gas boilers won't work without electricity. Few, if any, houses built over the last ten or so years have a separate fireplace that could be used to burn coal or logs on a frosty night during a power cut.

So what are people supposed to do - when domestic wind turbines are a waste of money, solar panels are expensive, and you run the risk of falling foul of planning rules if you want some for your roof?

We'll all have to huddle round a candle of course, and blame the nasty Tories who will probably still be in government when the brown stuff fails to hit the fan because there's no energy to turn it round. And, of course, the Labour "opposition" will have a field day, no doubt carelessly forgetting that it's all their fault - in the same way that one commenter in the Mail said, "It's all because of Thatcher!" Somehow they never see themselves as culpable, and never seem to find a dry path out of a mire.

Pushing all that aside there must be things we can do to prepare ourselves - but apart from buying up the complete stock of Prices Altar Candles (they burn for absolutely ages) there doesn't seem much. Perhaps it would be a good idea to get a woodburner (which needs a flue) because the top can be used for cooking almost anything that would normally go on a hob. That'd solve the problem of cooking - but not for people living in high rise flats, or even low-rise apartments.

We could all make our own electricity, and quite easily too. Mrs R remembers seeing a very clever invention - probably on Tomorrow's World. It was a tiny turbine that would fit into the flue of a gas boiler and could generate electricity from the movement of the exhaust gases. The inventor claimed it produced enough for his home, with enough left over to go into the National Grid. But, try as she might Mrs R's never seen the thing for sale, and can't find it mentioned anywhere online.

What can businesses, central and local government do?

For a start they could turn off their lights at night, it'd reduce their energy use and save a fortune in bills as well as cutting the amount of light pollution. Perhaps councils could be persuaded to turn off every other street light? They're all so bright these days that those left turned on would still provide enough light to read a newspaper at midnight, even on the darkest night.

Perhaps also there should be some serious effort into finding truly alternate forms of energy.

Wind turbines are all well and good - they're highly visible, so make it look as if somebody or other's expending huge efforts into "doing something", but in reality most of them use more power than they'll ever generate - energy used in construction and because when there's no wind they use electricity to "feather" the blades so the motors don't seize up.

Aside from wave power and things like the Seven Barrage scheme, which has environmentalists in a tizz, one city seems to have had a great idea, and that's Southampton - which since 1986 has been using geothermal energy. It's now used to heat shopping centres, houses, flats, hotels and a swimming pool as well as providing all the electrical energy needed by the port of Southampton. (More about it here)

There are also the mountains of rubbish we produce, which is failing to generate any income from recycling even after its' long journey to the far east - it could stay here and be burned to generate electricity, surely? And if not, why not?

Before you leap to green conclusions, Mrs R is only a bit of a tree-hugger. She's always done her bit to conserve energy, if only because it keeps the bills down, but she's never truly believed that government has wanted to do anything that was more than show - and the latest EU regulations regarding lightbulbs are a good example - why force us use something containing mercury, when it's been banned from barometers and thermometers because it's so terribly dangerous to both people and the environment? And what are we supposed to do with the things when they stop working? (Oops! That was a sidestep and a half.)

But, of course, there's no mention of any sensible policy in the government's ideas portfolio.

All they can think about is ordering a future generation to reduce their carbon footprint (because the earth is going to turn into a desert) and then they talk about building more power stations, either nuclear or gas, some time, some when, in the future - when it'll be a different group of people who have to make the decision about where they should be.

All this will, of course, get the environmentalists in a tizz, and the health lobbyists in a tizz ... but, because we'll all be sitting in the dark hugging our candles, we won't have the slightest idea what's going on because our computers won't work without electricity!


Excellent piece on the same subject written by leg-iron is here

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