Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
Keeping the lights on should be the prime purpose of energy policy. In the UK in recent years, the first aim – and sometimes, it seems, the only aim – has been to decarbonise our energy supply.
The UK has rushed ahead of others to close all its coal power stations, to avoid putting in new combined cycle gas stations, and to rely on a growing forest of windmills. I asked how we will keep the lights on when the wind does not blow – or when it blows strongly requiring shutdown to protect the turbines. The experts and officials told me they are putting in interconnectors to the continent so we can import. Let’s hope the wind is still blowing there.
Ministers now tell me they will keep the lights on by building more nuclear. That could be an answer for some time in the next decade. They need to recognise that over the next ten years, whatever they now do, the amount of power coming from nuclear in the UK will decline, not rise.
Currently supplying 17 per cent of out typical needs, every nuclear station bar one is scheduled to close this decade. Only one new one opens. It means we need to find even more additional power for most of the years up to the early 2030s to make up for closing nuclear stations. I repeat my question. How do we keep the lights on?
Despite the big push to rely on wind and solar the UK still depends most days on a substantial contribution from gas-powered stations. Here the same decarbonisation policy seeks to manage “transition” or the progressive closure of North Seal oil and gas.
Under half the gas we now need for electricity generation and heating comes from our own sources. Once again experts assure us we can depend on imported gas, as they hastily put in more pipes to allow easier import of this “transition fuel”. Even so we need to use LNG tankers to ship a fuel many thousands of miles which then produces more CO2 when burned than our own natural gas.
This is a kind of madness, a self-inflicted harm on a huge scale. Making us import gas from abroad does not cut the world output of CO2, but it does stop the UK having any of the better paid jobs and investment that comes from replacing our own declining fields with new ones at home.
Instead those jobs and investment go abroad to provide us with the gas from a longer distance away. Importing electricity may well end up importing power from continental generators that need coal or Russian gas to fuel their power stations. It makes us dependent on the goodwill of foreigners like Mr Putin of Russia.
As we are emergency buyers when the wind does not blow or when our own gas resources are reduced, it could also lead to us paying much higher prices to procure energy when we are visibly in a weak bargaining position. This policy fails to deliver a greener answer, puts our own people out of work and undermines national security. Energy is a crucial weapon in world diplomacy, as we see with Russia’s use of its ownership of some important gas taps.
Decarbonisation is also the main driver of much of our industrial and levelling up policies. The main urge is to invest in renewable energy, but not in the sinews that deliver such investment. Any project that entails activities needing to burn gas or coal as part of the process is at a great disadvantage in the UK from high energy policies and the wish to exit fossil fuels early. We come to depend more and more on imports for steel, glass, ceramics, aluminium, and other basics that need a lot of fuel to produce high temperatures for their creation.
Once again it does not save the world carbon dioxide output, merely shifts where the carbon dioxide is produced. It ensures the UK is at a disadvantage when it comes to making these crucial materials. You do not have windfarms or electric cars or greener buildings without these essentials they are made from. Indeed, by importing you usually increase the amount of carbon dioxide used in their manufacture and delivery. You have much higher transport costs and carbon output from long distance haulage, and often older and dirtier factories for their production. Many of the windfarm towers, blades and turbines were made abroad along with the materials needed to fabricate them.
In my new small book about building back green, I have a simple message for the Government. There will only be a successful green revolution when there is widespread public buy in. Only when the public are rushing to buy electric cars and new heating systems will we succeed in getting carbon dioxide down on a large scale.
For that to happen the new cars and the new ways of heating need to be affordable and visibly better than what they replace. The digital revolution sweeps on without laws to require it or taxes and subsidies to boost it. That is because people think smartphones, laptops and pads offer them new access and the better and wider service they want. They improve on what went before. I am all for the UK leading a green revolution but it must be a popular one which works for people.
If green policy means bossing us all around, telling us what to do and what to buy it will be resisted by many. If a green policy is based on taxing or banning us from buying existing products we like it will not succeed. If decarbonisation is pushed to the point where power cuts become common or where the prices of electricity and gas are pushed too high because we do not produce enough of our own, there will be few people thanking the green movement or wanting them influencing government.
In the last General Election the Green Party urging us to go further and faster with bans and taxes polled under three per cent. That should be a warning that the state-led version of green policy is not popular. We need a popular green revolution, which must start and finish with keeping the lights on and creating and investing in suitable jobs in the UK. Relying on imports and pretending that means we have decarbonised should suit no-one in this big debate. We need the iconic new cars, the affordable new heating systems and the more efficient industrial processes that can power us to success.