Socialist Worker

Gordon Brown won’t solve the energy crisis

Britain may face energy shortages this winter. Martin Empson argues that the current panic is part of a bigger crisis in New Labour’s energy policy

Issue No. 2076

There is a serious chance of power shortages in Britain this winter.

The National Grid, the body that runs the power infrastructure for Britain, has warned of “a shortfall in electricity generating capacity”. This means they don’t think that enough electricity can be produced to match the demands of users.

There have been a number of “insufficient system margin” warnings recently.

These warnings are not uncommon and rarely cause power cuts. But if there are higher energy demands in a cold winter, the system will not be able to provide enough to cover the fluctuations in demand – meaning the lights might go out.

But there is a wider crisis in Britain’s energy policy.

In March Tony Blair signed a much-hyped commitment to generating 20 percent of Britain’s energy supply from renewable energy sources by the year 2020.

Yet almost immediately officials were trying to wriggle out of it.

Government papers leaked to the Guardian newspaper made it clear that Gordon Brown’s ministers no longer think the 20 percent target is important.

It would cost an estimated £4 billion to increase energy from wind, wave and solar sources from the current 2 percent to 9 percent. It is likely the prime minister considers renewables far too expensive and thinks Britain should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions with trading schemes and nuclear power.

But the nuclear aspect of Britain’s energy policy is also in crisis. Almost half of Britain’s nuclear power stations are currently switched off – seven out of 16 – due to safety and maintenance reasons.

Britain’s nuclear plants generate almost a fifth of the country’s electricity and are an integral, but dangerous, part of keeping the lights on.

With Britain ever more reliant on these ageing, increasingly unsafe nuclear plants, serious questions must be asked about both long and short term energy strategies.

Energy gap

Most nuclear plants are reaching the end of their planned lifetimes, and although the government is committed to replacing them, it is likely to be a decade before any new reactors come online.

In the government’s eyes, this energy gap can only be plugged by extending the lifetimes of existing reactors. For instance, the Torness nuclear plant, which produces a quarter of Scotland’s electricity, is likely to have its operational lifetime extended by over 20 years.

Given the national shortage of nuclear inspectors this is particularly worrying.

However, no serious energy policy should rely on a technology that creates so much waste and is responsible for numerous accidents, leaks and safety problems.

The second plank of the government policy, reliance on emissions trading schemes, is also deeply flawed. The existing European Trading Scheme (ETS) has had a minimal impact in reducing emissions – its only definite success has been to give huge profits to some of the companies involved.

The ETS, which works by allocating the right to emit certain amounts of greenhouse gases and then allowing these permits to be traded on the stock market, has been heavily criticised.

This is firstly for over-allocating the permits in the first place, making any reduction in emissions unlikely, and secondly for reducing investment in technologies and strategies that might have a bigger impact.

It would seem that Brown’s long term plans to reduce emissions from energy generation are deeply flawed.

Given that energy is responsible for almost a third of carbon dioxide emitted from these shores, any failure to reduce emissions brings into question how serious the government’s climate change plans are.

The problems with energy supply stem from the introduction of privatisation into the energy industry.

Since the National Grid was privatised, half its highly skilled workers have either been sacked or have left. Britain used to have more energy capacity than was on average needed – meaning that it could cope with surges in demand.

But with privatisation, this extra capacity has been cut, meaning that blackouts are more likely.

Britain has an extremely old power generation network, but privatisation means that profit is put before maintenance and proper planning and investment.

While it was a previous Tory administration that privatised the energy industry, Brown has never attempted to challenge this. In 2001, he made it clear that he wanted to see more deregulation of the power industry across Europe.

According to Help the Aged, 25,000 pensioners died as a result of cold-related illnesses last year.

Blackouts will mean that thousands more risk death, accident and illness as they are unable to heat their homes or light their way.

In the face of this we should demand urgent action from the government.


To avoid a shortage of energy, the government should put in place strategies that reduce energy use in the depths of winter. Emergency legislation should be introduced giving the government powers to force companies to turn off non-essential systems.

It would be madness if people freeze while advertising hoardings continue to be illuminated.

These demands should link together with a housing policy aimed at improving the millions of homes with little or no energy saving insulation.

In the face of the threat from climate change, Brown must be forced to commit his government to meeting the 20 percent renewables target at the very least. Doing this requires rapid and large investment in new wind farms and marine based energy generation.

Strategies like these would mean it is entirely possible to reduce energy related emissions by up to 70 percent without resorting to building new nuclear power stations.

The alternative is both short term and long term disaster.

Martin Empson is the author of Climate Change – Why Nuclear Power is not the Answer. It is available from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848. »

A global day of action against climate change takes place on Saturday 8 December. The London march assembles at 12 noon at Millbank to march to the US embassy. »

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Tue 6 Nov 2007, 18:49 GMT
Issue No. 2076
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