It’s been an interesting few weeks in UK energy – ‘interesting’ in a way that is not good for consumers. First, we had the National Grid saying the risk of blackouts this winter is higher than at any time in the past six years. Then SSE announced an 8.2% hike in domestic rates – potentially triggering a domino effect among the other ‘big six’ energy providers. And now, up in Scotland there is the threat of industrial action at the Grangemouth oil refinery, a 48-hour walkout that the site owners Ineos claim will effectively shut much of Scotland.
None of these things are of course new. My parents love to tell me about how the lights used to go out when Ted Heath was Prime Minister, one of many stories that gets periodically wheeled out to demonstrate their dislike of the Conservative party. Big jumps in prices of things like food and petrol do happen periodically in relation to wider economic and political events, and it’s only been a few years since the last Grangemouth strike had folk panicking (although not enough to stop a car rally I was attending that weekend).
The difference is that now it is imperative we really try to understand as much as we can about such events, given our understanding of the energy and climate challenges that most likely lie ahead. Depending on the course of action society takes to mitigate climate change (or not), there is a possibility that blackouts, price rises and intermittent or erratic supply may become more commonplace. I am neither an economist nor an energy systems analyst, but what I do know is that there is some uncertainty over the effects on consumer energy prices of a rapid introduction of renewable energy infrastructure, and also a concerted effort to better understand the issue of intermittency – a rather more nuanced variation of the ‘what happens when the wind doesn’t blow’ argument.
I am not for a minute suggesting that blackouts, inflated prices or fuel shortages are a good thing, but they really ought to sharpen our minds on some of the big questions that await us as energy and climate crises start to take hold. We can do everything in our power to mitigate warming in fifty years’ time by investing heavily in low-carbon infrastructure, but does this carry a risk of intensifying fuel poverty by making the least economically advantaged people alive today pay for this through their bills? Do we press ahead with nuclear power and sustain a baseload supply, but leave future generations with a legacy of radioactive waste and techno-scientific risk to which they have not consented? And how might blackouts affect those relying on devices powered by electricity – like kidney dialysis machines – to keep them alive?
That is to say nothing about the tension between carbon abatement and sustainability. Scotland’s hills and coastlines have great potential for renewable wind power, but at the same time carry huge social and cultural significance. It is hard to imagine a vision of a sustainable Scotland that doesn’t include this rich natural heritage, but is the climate change situation so grave that our society might be forced to site renewables infrastructure on some parts of this natural landscape? I personally am still agnostic on the climate change versus sustainability argument, but what I do think is that it reinforces the need for a discussion across all sections of society about what we might ultimately hope to achieve and how (if at all) we might be able to get there.
The strength of the relationship between climate change and the news events I outlined at the start of this post varies from case to case. It is very strong in the blackout example, where the closure of old polluting power plants under EU legislation is a key contributing factor. It is moderately strong in the case of price hikes – the need to invest in renewables is I believe part of it, but there’s also economic and political volatility in there too. And in the case of the strike threat at Grangemouth, it has nothing to do with climate change whatsoever and everything to do with disputes between groups and individuals. But what the end results of all three examples – insecure, unreliable and costly energy supplies – suggest is that we are rapidly reaching a point where there will be no ethically ‘easy’ solutions to the energy issues society faces. It would be wise for decision-makers to open this discussion up sooner rather than later.