“Ministers predict energy shortage within eight years” [UK]

(This article reproduced from my blog)

The title of this post is the tagline of a news story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph, September 1st 2009. The article can be read in its entirety here.

To summarise: as energy reserves run low and demand increases, there is a predicted shortfall of 3000 megawatt hours in 2017 and 7000 megawatt hours in 2025. The paper tell us that this second number is “equivalent to an hour long blackout for half of Britain over the course of a year”.

This is not a lot and if they were to do this when I am asleep each night I would not notice. However, it shows that as time goes on we can expect our energy situation to get worse and worse. An hour can quickly become a day, and energy demand will almost certainly rise more than predicted.

In fact, the paper cites Greg Clark, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, stating (the article) that “some of the modelling used was ‘optimistic’ because it assumes little or no change in electricity demand up until 2020.” Oh dear. We can safely assume that the predicted shortfall is an underestimate, and probably a gross one at that.

Why is this happening? Several coal and oil power plants are being closed due to environmental concerns, existing nuclear power plants are being decommissioned, and investment into renewable energy is not sufficient.

The solution seems obvious: create rapid investment into renewables and nuclear power. Extend the lifetimes of existing nuclear plants and build more as a matter of utmost haste (and continue research into carbon sequestration and storage just in case we still have to burn coal.)

Well, there are the problems. Renewables are not developed enough to provide such a proportion of the energy supply, and their intermittent nature would require the creation of a large scale national energy storage system. Not only is this technologically beyond our means (on such a scale), but it would be novel and hence extremely expensive. Nuclear power plants take a long time to build, are expensive, and given the privately owned (foreign) utilities companies’ distaste for risk, it seems there will be no new nuclear power plants for decades.

We can see this shortfall coming, but we are like an enormous supertanker heading for an iceberg, unable to slow down or change direction quickly. We see it coming but it seems we can do nothing to prevent our demise. It would be almost comical if it were satire.

What is the answer, then? Government has known about this for a while, but it has been largely ignored, or if not ignored, then not taken seriously enough for any real solution to be present now.

Should we nationalise energy again? The only real way of ensuring safety and speed of nuclear and renewable builds would be a concerted effort from a single body, rather than contracts being won by the highest bidder, and work done as cheaply as possible. Nuclear power is safe if done properly; deadly if not. Is the government that bothered? Would it be up to the task if it were?

Rapid investment and building of nuclear or renewable sources seems unlikely. Coal and nuclear are protested against by environmental activists. Renewables are protested against by residents and other environmental activists.

Gas seems to be our only option, being much cleaner than coal. But as North Sea reserves dwindle, more of this will be coming from Russia. This would be widely regarded as a Bad Thing, given Russia’s history of cutting supplies to countries to enforce a position of power. Not only that, but reliance on a single energy source, like gas, increases the risk of something going wrong or costs skyrocketting, considering the volatile nature of gas prices.

Better stock up on candles, then.