The heat is on: Britain’s power supplies should not be allowed to fall this low


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Bring on the dark nights, and the cold ones too. The annual winding back of clocks has lately been accompanied by another autumn ritual – that of the National Grid warning that Britain’s power supplies are perilously low. This year’s message from the guardian of the nation’s pipes and wires was more shocking than usual: that the gap between peak demand for energy and total generating capacity is at its narrowest for seven years.

The theme of Britain’s crumbling energy infrastructure is not a new one, but tackling the consequences of it rarely gets the attention it deserves. National Grid’s offer to pay businesses to cut their power usage at peak times is the kind of move that no leading economy should have to resort to. Even a conversation about the lights going out is as damaging to Britain’s prospects as the country actually falling into darkness.

How have we got here? There has, it must be said, been too much focus on the renewables agenda and not enough on everything else. Offshore wind will not blow strongly enough this winter to keep the lights on. The shifting sands of government subsidy in areas such as solar don’t help either. Meanwhile, the hoped-for dash for gas, and suggestions that there is £90bn to be unlocked from fracking beneath London, is either unproven or plain fanciful.

The fact is that coal has become our cheapest source of energy – just as dirty and aged coal-fired plants are being shut down. The very companies required to invest in the next generation of power plants are reluctant to do so because of the uncertain path for energy regulation that lies ahead. Nor have they explained well enough that higher bills might actually be needed to pay for tomorrow’s infrastructure, and not just to line shareholders’ pockets.

The British Chambers of Commerce has it right when it calls for the creation of a 50-year national energy strategy. But are government minds sufficiently focused on the problem?