As the energy crisis in the UK deepens, plans were revealed by the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to delay the closure of coal-fired power stations in the UK and to plan for rationing of electricity for around six million homes over this coming winter. Consumers who are already facing a cost-of-living crisis and potential food shortages can now add blackouts to the list as a ‘reasonable’ worst case scenario.
Any delay to the shift away from dependency on fossil fuels could impact the government’s own net-zero target of 2050, as well as impede the investment in domestic renewable energy forms that will be needed to counter balance the climate crisis. This is more noticeable with Yorkshire’s Drax coal-power plant, as it is one of three stations being asked to extend beyond their scheduled closure in September.
Alok Sharma, the president of COP26, was quoted in the Guardian, as saying, “Solving the global energy crisis and the chronic climate crisis requires the same solution – it’s about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels as part of a managed transition.”
At the recent G7 meeting, the promise was made by the world’s largest economies to stop funding fossil fuel development overseas from the end of this year. As the communiqué stated, “we commit to end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022”, with the rest of the statement highlight the urgent need to develop renewable energy:
“The current crisis highlights the real, urgent need and the opportunity for Europe to reduce its dependency on Russia by diversifying supply, accelerating the roll out of clean, safe and sustainable energy technologies, and critically enhancing energy efficiency, with significant progress possible by the end of the year.”
COP26 promises abandoned
Despite these clear warnings that renewable and sustainable energies are necessary, Kwarteng has welcomed the approval for a major North Sea oil field (the Jackdaw field) to be developed. He posted on Twitter, “We’re turbocharging renewables and nuclear, but we are also realistic about our energy needs now. Let’s source more of the gas we need from British waters to protect energy security”.
This blinkered continued expansion of fossil fuels was met with ridicule by the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty report ‘Fuelling Failure’, with report author Freddie Daley commenting, “What governments now need to understand is that all policy is climate policy. It’s not just a matter of energy or transport – it’s about health; it’s about the natural world; it’s about children’s education; it’s the building blocks of life. There needs to be a more comprehensive understanding of the scale of the challenge”.
Nuclear bridging solution dealt a body blow
If Kwarteng and the UK government want to ‘turbocharge’ renewables and nuclear, then their reliance on fossil fuels seems contradictory. Additionally, the long-term solution of nuclear energy being the bridging energy source for the UK was dealt a body blow with the recent announcement of the closure of Hinkley Point B.The reactors at Hinkley Point B will be shut down in the summer and not extended, so it would appear that nuclear energy will not form part of the immediate energy solution for the UK. Boris Johnson’s pledge of a new nuclear plant every year is starting to ring hollow.
It was also notable that nuclear energy was not mentioned significantly in the G7 communiqué, with only a short paragraph in a 39-page document, covering the views of the G7. There were no promises made to reduce nuclear energy, simply that “Those countries that opt to use it, reaffirmed the role of nuclear energy in their energy mix. Those countries recognise its potential to provide affordable low carbon energy and contribute to the security of energy supply as a source of baseload energy and grid flexibility”.
The government does not appear to be actively supporting any genuine solution so far for the energy crisis and is instead repeating old mistakes.
Can the UK electricity infrastructure cope?
The ageing electricity infrastructure in the UK may face the same challenges as those in the US, where energy experts are alarmed that their grid is “Not designed to withstand the impacts of climate change”. This concern was raised last year by the UK’s climate change committee, who warned that the power system was one of the eight priority risks that needed immediate attention.
For the majority of UK residents, power cuts for a few hours are seen as an inconvenience, but when this extends to a few days, major disruption can follow. The most at risk – including hospitals and care homes – rightly need to be the priority, and then transport and ensuring that there is adequate refrigeration to maintain food supplies. But consider how much of our lives these days relies on accessing electricity and the internet – blackouts in 2022/23 will be more of a challenge than they were in the 1970s.
The food crisis, the energy crisis and climate crisis are all interconnected and need flexible solutions, without which politicians may face the mounting anger of residents.
A return to the 1970s blackouts and a ‘Winter of Discontent’?
The solutions offered so far by the government do not seem to meet the needs of the 21st century and hearken back instead to the 1970s and the three-day working week in the early part of that decade. One of the complex factors during that time was the impact of rail worker strikes. Worryingly, in recent weeks week rail workers have voted 8:1 for strike action over jobs, pay and conditions, with action likely to start this month. More than 25,000 workers were balloted with 89 percent backing strike action, so we may yet see the impact of transport disruption and the service that provides.
The government seems to be keen on a return to 1960s and 1970s, with discussion of imperial measurements being part of the platinum jubilee celebrations, but the prime minister may well be warned to ‘be careful what you wish for’. Industrial action in the 1978/79 played a large part in the original ‘Winter of Discontent’ and it appears that history is repeating itself. With a disaster charity being called in over the last week to come to the relief of truckers stuck in Kent with a lack of food, water and toilet facilities, anger is mounting over the perceived inability of the government to understand the reality of life under these various crises.
A perfect storm
As well as an uncertain summer ahead – with initial issues emerging already – the end of the year does not seem rosier. Energy bills are expected to rise again, this time by £800 in October, leaving customers, already heavily impacted by the April rise, struggling to pay. The chancellor’s £5bn ‘windfall tax’ on oil and gas companies this past week, although welcomed in the short term, will not be enough, once the rises in October hit, to stem the tide of affected customers.
It appears that a perfect storm of crises is approaching the UK this winter, with the energy crisis, the food crisis and strike action disrupting supply chains. Yet there are still those in government who would rather distract the public by rejoicing at the return of the pint stamp on beer glasses than take proactive action to protect and support those in need. It’s a shameful dereliction of duty.
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