A stark warning was issued this week: if considerable action is not taken, the UK faces blackouts in the next decade. On Tuesday, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) released a report entitled ‘Engineering the UK’s Electricity Gap’. The group estimated that within 10 years, supply could outstrip demand by as much as 40-55%. The government has so far managed to sweep the extent of this issue under the carpet, but if it doesn’t step up to take responsibility soon, we will find ourselves in a crisis.
What has caused the energy gap?
There are several reasons for the shortfall. Basically, we are using more energy than ever, with no existing clear strategy for increasing generation. One is the winding down of coal power to hit CO2 reduction targets. All coal plants will be closed by 2025 – currently with nothing viable to replace them with. Nuclear reactors currently provide 22% of electricity in the UK but our nuclear plants are nearing the end of their lives. Whilst new plants were given the go-ahead in early 2008, eight years later, their building has been repeatedly delayed due to public opposition and EDF stalling on finances.
What means of production are there in the UK?
Gas fired power stations currently provide 23% of all energy in the UK. However, a huge amount of the natural gas we use in electricity generation is imported. The government has been outspoken in promoting fracking as another option. This is gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing of shale. The technology is hugely controversial, because of reported effects on health and environment. It’s unlikely to be adopted on a large scale any time soon because public opposition is so high.
More environmentally friendly – but still controversial – is renewable energy. More renewable energy than ever is now being generated than ever in the UK, but it would be unrealistic to hope that it alone can fill the energy gap. The government has repeatedly slashed subsidies for wind and solar power, thus slowing the growth of the renewable energy economy. IMechE says tidal power could be successful, and a recent survey of MPs has shown it to be more popular with Conservatives than renewable energy. Several sites have already been chosen.
On a slightly different note, IMechE suggests ‘energy demand reduction’ is just as important as energy generation. The government should be raising awareness of the importance of saving energy and how it can be done. It has recently been doing the opposite, cancelling incentives and savings from initiatives such as the Green Deal.
The UK is becoming increasingly reliant on importing electricity from other parts of Europe and Scandinavia. This dependency on others is dangerous because it risks us being cut off if/when these countries do not have a surplus. Plus they can charge what they want. Surely it would be better to generate our own!
The IMechE study also points out that the government is acting single-mindely in its push to reduce CO2 emissions. At the moment, they are mainly focused on decommissioning coal stations, ignoring the fact that energy generation produces significantly less carbon emissions than transport, for example. There are other areas that need to be explored to lower the country’s CO2 output – and we need an energy contingency plan to combat the threat of a considerable energy gap.