Power and water. Whether we’re talking the UK or the world, power and water are – without question – the two most pressing infrastructure needs. Yet worryingly, they are the two forms of infrastructure that are being addressed the least.
Take power. In the UK, plans for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset are now so delayed that we have a real, scary problem. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has worked out that, as coal-fired stations close over the next 10 years we are going to be left facing a 55% electricity supply gap – because we have neither the time, resources nor enough people with the right skills to build sufficient gas-fired or nuclear power stations to plug that gap.
The scale of the problem is huge – that gap represents building about 30 new gas-fired power stations in less than 10 years. It’s not going to happen. It’s already too late for nuclear to play any role. Only Hinkley is far enough progressed in planning, and that is quite evidently going nowhere fast.
Renewables could and should be plugging the gap – but government policies are misaligned and developers are floundering. Urgent action is needed.
Then take water, the theme for this month. The situation here – for the UK at least – is not so immediately acute, but highly concerning nonetheless.
Concerning because at least two-thirds of the global population, that’s over 4bn people, now live with severe water scarcity for at least one month every year, according to major new analysis by the University of Twente in the Netherlands.
The results imply that the global water situation is much worse than suggested by previous studies, which estimated such scarcity impacts between 1.7bn and 3.1bn people.
And it also brings it closer to home. Unsurprisingly, many of those living with fragile water resources are in Africa, India and China, but other regions highlighted are the central and western United States, Australia and even the city of London.
Australia, the Middle East and the western US – California in particular – are well aware of the scale of the problem and are investing heavily in solutions: desalination is playing a big role; plans are being developed for major water transfer infrastructure; and talk is turning to water reuse – for industrial use at any rate.
The UK has – surprise, surprise – been slower to wake up to the growing problem.
It is many, many years now since we built new storage capacity in the UK. But it is now something being seriously looked at by UK water companies as they prepare their next set of Water Resource Management Plans – documents produced every five years as part of the regulatory Asset Management Plan negotiations. This time the regulator has asked them to look 50 years hence and to propose strategic solutions that are not necessarily the cheapest in the short term.
So Thames Water, for one, has gone back to looking at sites for a major new reservoir. Last time it seriously tried to build momentum for such an undertaking – at Abingdon in Oxfordshire – local and environmental opposition smashed it down: time and money would be better spent fixing leaks, so the argument went. Well, to large extent the leaks are now fixed – and demand is still growing. London and the South East is still growing.
London alone is looking at a potential 40% increase in its population by 2050 and demand is expected to exceed supply by 21% in 2040.
You can’t see how major new infrastructure – whether it is a major new reservoir or a major water transfer scheme – is not going to be needed.
You’ll read this month how the ICE-led National Needs Assessment work is progressing with its studies to devise a cross-sector assessment of infrastructure requirements to 2050. The study could really be very simple: more power; more water. Oh, and Crossrail 2. The rest is an optional extra.