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John's blog: When the lights go out

It's that time of year again. As Christmas lights are switched on across Britain's high streets, so too begins the fear mongering over the possibility of the lights going out this winter.

At these times Britons are reminded that the country has lower fuel reserves for electricity and heating generation than the majority of our European counterparts, and a particularly cold winter would see power generators being forced to cut off electricity supplies for short periods.

Fortunately, in this era of global warming, Christmas is characterised by drizzle and snow generally turns up around March or April. The cold winter of doom seems as likely as a dry summer.

Nevertheless, the BBC was so concerned that those good people at the Today programme yesterday published results of a survey of 31 experts, in which it attempted to ascertain just when exactly we will all be plunged into darkness.

The results were probably a little disappointing for John Humphrys et al. Just one of the 31 experts (among whom there was a healthy representation of civil engineers, including ICE vice president Scott Steedman, Mott MacDonald energy director Simon Harrison and Pell Frischmann sustainability director Tim Jervis) believed there was an "unacceptable risk of power blackouts" in the next year.

However, when the timescale was expanded, there was a more fearful consensus. Thirteen of the experts believed there was likely to be an unacceptable risk of blackouts within the next ten years, with another six undecided.

In response to the BBC report, the Association of Electricity Producers did its best to reassure the public that generators were doing all they could to ensure blackouts never occurred. It ultimately failed in this attempt by admitting that things could get a little tricky around 2015.

This is the time when a large proportion of our gas and coal-fired plants will be forced to close due to EU legislation and nuclear plants shut due to their age.

The potential for an energy gap is one that has long been predicted and could have been avoided. Indeed, only last year engineers queued up to tell NCE that the Prime Minister’s acclaimed speech to the CBI on Britain’s energy needs was little more than hot air.

It is the Government that gets it in the neck from the Today programme’s "experts", accusing them of dithering over policy decisions.

Guilty of dithering or not, it is time to look forward as to ensure there is enough capacity within the next decade. While new nuclear will undoubtedly be part of Britain’s future energy mix, it will not meet our needs within this critical time frame.

If the Government is also serious about cutting carbon emissions, then coal would only make a minor contribution, given the controversy surrounding the Kingsnorth plant and the lack of progress on developing Carbon Capture and Storage.

Gas is certain to play a major part – as it has since the dash for gas in the 1990s – but given the dwindling North Sea reserves and our increasing reliance on foreign supplies, gas as the main energy fuel is a political no go.

That leaves renewables. If we are to see the kind of investment needed to plug the energy gap and meet the EU target of 15% of total energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, the Government must act now on carbon pricing.

The EU emissions trading scheme clearly isn’t making carbon dioxide-spewing coal and gas as prohibitively expensive as they need to be to force the energy companies to plough investment into renewables.

Let’s ramp the price of carbon up now!

John McKenna is NCE's news editor and energy & waste correspondent

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