A strange thing happened in my local park the other day. As temperatures nudged 20C, coats and jumpers came off at the long queue for the ice cream van. Families on half-term picnicked on the grass in the afternoon sunshine. It felt like a warm August day. But then, at 4.45pm, the temperature dropped and it started to get dark. Everyone, scrambling to put their coats back on, seemed taken by surprise that it was not August after all but the end of October and the clocks had gone back.
It is difficult to imagine winter is so near when it is unseasonally warm. But the National Grid is warning that our energy supplies could become a national emergency if we have a “one in 20 winter” – weeks on end of freezing temperatures and snow. A series of unforeseen incidents, including the fire at Didcot power station last week, has led our spare electricity supply capacity to fall to 4.1 per cent, compared to 16.8 per cent just three years ago.
But it is not just the unpredictable event or extraordinarily cold winter that threatens our energy supplies. Household consumption of gas and electricity has been falling steadily over the past 40 years, thanks to more energy-efficient appliances and boilers, But demand, and that of industry, it still too high.
Energy consumption by electronic equipment like computers has, unsurprisingly, risen 377 per cent since 1970. Because supplies are so low, the National Grid says we should expect “brownouts”, where our lights dim temporarily, or our TVs and computers lose power, to help the system cope. Without it, we could see a return to the blackouts of the 1970s.
Factories and major businesses are being offered money to switch off their lights and equipment at peak times, while hotels can do their bit by turning off fridges in unoccupied rooms. The money is, inevitably, going to be added on to consumer bills. The high cost of fuelling our homes is punishing for those on low incomes, so isn’t there a better way around this? What if households could collectively sign up to these deals to switch off at times of highest demand in return for bill discounts?
This challenge also needs a government to be serious about energy – and I don’t mean one that is betting the farm on fracking, which, apart from being hugely controversial for local residents, has not been proven, in the UK, as a reliable, long-term energy resource. Nor do I mean a Prime Minister who thinks that measures to encourage renewable energy generation is merely “green crap”. Renewable energy like offshore wind cannot be 100 per cent of the answer, but it can be a major part of the solution.
As a society the environmental argument has been put on the back burner, as it were. Economic austerity has been used as an excuse to deprioritise renewable energy, and it is a tragedy. Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy Secretary, nobly defends the environmental case in the Cabinet but he is battling against the Chancellor George Osborne. And in response to the National Grid outlook this week, Mr Davey denied that blackouts would happen. Wouldn’t it have been better to acknowledge it is a possibility to force people to take our energy seriously?
The latest figures showing that Antarctic sea ice is at record high levels for the third year running is only fuelling the climate-change sceptic claim that global warming isn’t happening. And so, in our cosy homes, we are untroubled by the comforting yellow glow of our electric lights. We would only really notice if it was no longer there.
So what can we do? If brownouts are to become a feature of our lives, we should welcome them and heed the warning that they bring. Half the population is not old enough to remember the blackouts and three-day weeks of the 1970s – I have a faint memory of my mother getting the candles from the cupboard under the sink before it got dark, but not much else.
We do not know what it is like when the lights go out. Higher bills from profit-making big six energy companies are contentious and in many cases indefensible, but even that has not done enough to focus our minds. There is no effort involved in using energy, and there needs to be. We are so used to our lights and heating coming on at the flick of a switch. What would we do if nothing happened when we flicked that switch?
As drastic as it sounds, anyone who cares about the UK’s future ability to keep the lights on should be dreaming of a brownout Christmas. A few days of dimmer lights would be inconvenient and frustrating, but it would not be the end of the world. It would remind us how precious and easily wasted our energy is, and how close we are to losing it. Better that than to be caught by surprise, like half-term picnickers, to find it has gone suddenly dark.Reuse content