“At that time, the West Cumberland Coalfield produced over 2 million tons of coal a year from forty-three collieries: almost nine thousand men worked in the pits. Tell anyone that the pits would be closed by the second half of the century and he would not have listened, let alone believed. West Cumberland sat on coal; if you dug too deep in you allotment you would break into a seam.”
The Hired Man by Melvyn Bragg
My great grandfather was one of those miners whose commute to work involved a four mile walk underground. A First World War Cavalry veteran, he spent his whole working life in life-threatening occupations. My grandfather worked in both the mines (where he lost a big toe) and at Sellafield and was there at the time of the Windscale fire of 1957. He developed a strange form of eczema during his years there – or so we were led to believe.
Gone are the days – in the UK at least – when millions of men put their lives on the line in the cause of industrial progress, but the demands of Energy Supply, Energy Security and Climate Change are no less onerous. Do we, as a nation, have what it takes to meet these challenges? The signs aren’t good.
Villages that still remember the sons they gave in two World Wars, refuse to host wind farms in their back yard. People who consider themselves to be ethical, decent, uptight citizens, refuse to make this insignificant contribution to tackling Climate Change, and in so doing, put in jeopardy the UK’s obligations under EU Directive 2009/28/EC to produce 20% of it’s energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The signs are no better for Nuclear New Build. The UK has obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008 to meet its Kyoto commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of the 1990 baseline – and it is widely recognised that meeting this target would be impossible without building new nuclear power stations. Currently the UK has 17 nuclear reactors on nine sites contributing 18% of the country’s electricity. Sixteen of these reactors are due to retire by 2023 so it is crucial that they are replaced.
A great deal of progress has been made since the last Labour Government gave the go-ahead to Nuclear New Build in 2008 but in recent months we have seen consortia collapsing around us. In recent days, the French-Chinese consortia led by Areva pulled out of the bid to take over sites owned by Horizon Nuclear Power Group at Oldbury and Wylfa – sites earmarked for two 6GW nuclear power station. In March 2012, German partners E.On and RWE pulled out of the same site. Last year, SSE pulled out of the NuGen consortium at Sellafield.
What these developments highlight is the limits of markets in delivering on perhaps the greatest – and gravest – challenges of our age. Challenges that will determine the future of not merely our economy but our planet cannot simply be reduced to the size of shareholder dividends. In today’s globalized world, our destiny seems to be as much in the hands of multinationals as it is in the hands of governments but we cannot allow Energy companies to dictate the success or otherwise of the UK meeting its Climate Change objectives.
Our current Government certainly isn’t acting to encourage business to contribute to the success of Climate Change policy. As a Coalition, the Government is made up of two parties who went into the last General Election with fundamentally different energy policies and with Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State in post, the people charged with steering the Government’s energy policy are on record as not believing in the policy they have responsibility for implementing.
What is worse, the Conservatives ran on a platform of “vote blue, go green” but, as with so many policy areas, they have ditched the husky when given the reins of power. So they have ended up in court over cuts to Feed-In Tariffs and have bowed to pressure from backbenchers representing rural constituencies over Onshore Windfarms.
In September, the Climate Change Committee Energy Bill Committee openly criticized the Government over its plans to continue to use unabated gas past 2030, saying that it would jeopardise Climate Change objectives. All of this uncertainty over Energy policy creates commercial uncertainty making the UK a less reliable place to invest in new nuclear and renewable energy installations.
Put simply Nuclear New Build must go ahead on the sites already earmarked – and if Central Government needs to intervene to ensure it does, then so be it. If the Electricity Market Reform proposals need to be tightened to make new generation more profitable to investors – then fine.
Feed-in tariffs with Contracts for Difference (CfDs) are intended to protect companies from energy price volatility but the level at which the CfD is set will determine how attractive invesment is. A Capacity Market will be established to prevent blackouts and to make high CO2 technologies less economic but, again, its impact will entirely depend on the level set. These are decisions that the Government has the power to make – for good or ill.
And if the Government need to increase public spending in the short term to make funds available to ensure the successful delivery of nuclear and other energy new build projects, then we should consider this an appropriate investment in future generations. The cost of failure is too awful to contemplate.
Rachel Stalker is a specialist in energy policy and law.