Will the lights go out for Britain?

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For too long the issue of energy in the UK has been placed on the back burner. Now it is at the point of boiling over.

On Thursday 6th March, a collaboration between the Durham Energy Institute and DONG Energy brought the issue sharply into focus in the form of a public debate at Durham’s own Calman Learning Centre.

Before the debate itself, Palatinate was lucky enough to meet with the panellists: Jenny Saunders OBE – Chief Executive of National Energy Action, Benji Sykes – DONG Energy U.K. Wind Power, and Janusz Bialek – DONG Energy Professor of Renewable Energy, Durham Energy Institute.

In 2-3 years, they told me, there was a risk of blackouts during winter peak hours, however it would be nothing like the Three Day Week of 1974 to which so many other factors were attached.

In our present situation, Benji explained there would be a ‘managed turn down of demand’ which Janusz foresaw would particularly affect industry.

Yet how can there be a shortage of electricity when consumers are paying through the nose for it?

According to Jenny, on average 5% of earnings are spent on energy. People are only beginning to understand the real price of energy. Benji and Janusz agreed with this, pointing out that consumers have experienced what they want the price of energy to be.

A solution to this problem needs to be found, fast

Then came the debate itself, chaired by Chris Jackson from BBC’s “Inside-out North East” broadcast.

To begin with, the panellists reaffirmed what they had told me with stark statistics – 22% of our electricity generating sources are due to go offline by 2020 and 4 million people in Britain are currently classed as living in fuel poverty. This served as a reminder that a solution to this problem needs to be found, fast.

There was also another issue to contend with – to fill our national energy deficit, renewable sources of energy will need to be used in order to keep carbon emissions low. In 50 years carbon emissions will need to stand at 50g per kWh of electricity produced opposed to the current 500g per kWh, which means major investment in renewable energy sources is sorely needed.

This massive shift in our energy production is why, Benji stated, DONG Energy were committed to investing £4 billion in offshore wind technology with a further £1bn each year until 2020.

Currently however, offshore wind is amongst the most highly priced forms of energy and can be anywhere from £150 per MWh upwards whereas coal and gas costs as little as £55 per MWh. This was a factor Benji said DONG Energy and others were trying hard to address.

‘What about nuclear?’ a member of the audience proposed. The fact of the matter is nuclear power comes in over budget and won’t fill our energy shortfall quickly enough – two crucial requirements of any solution to this crisis. The likely course of action, the panel agreed, would be a mix of renewable technologies, the development of which would aid Britain’s energy production for years to come.

But what does this mean for the consumer? In short average energy costs are set to rise, and the government will have to shell out more of the taxpayers’ money on providing energy solutions that are not only secure, but also low on carbon emissions.

On the face of it, this is a lose-lose situation but one that is imperative for Britain’s energy security and to keep our lights well and truly on.

Photograph: Megan Liardet

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