Are We Switched on to the Threat of Blackouts?


– Catherine Caine (PhD Student, Newcastle University)

We’re all aware of the recent news pieces that have hit the headlines over the past weeks following labour leader, Ed Miliband’s, claim to freeze energy prices. The average householder has been hit with arguments that such a price freeze is not possible, as well as fears of impending blackouts to their power supply over the next five years and the prospect of large price rises from the major energy suppliers. With this barrage of news, one could be forgiven for regarding this as a fairly murky time for those who require electricity in their day-to-day lives (to quote a certain political parties’ mantra “we’re all in this together”). With every new story that blesses the front pages, we are led to further question the energy “master plan” that our government has put in place, and whether these plans provide for secure energy in the future. After all, how much of the political posturing on energy prices that we hear is realistic? To what extent is a four year government capable of planning for sustainable energy generation in the future? Is our government bound by law to certain energy deals? And can the government change the goalposts on energy projects that have already been agreed?

With an upcoming election in the UK, party conferences are promising a considerable number of changes to energy policies with the assumed aim of winning around the average voter who is discontented by the cost of his energy bills. However in reality, the chances of these glamorous promises becoming practice are slim. The reasons behind this claim are not due to political backtracking, or the realisation of our financial situation (both reasons will, and have, played a major part in politicians reneging) but are due to reasons such as inability to break contractual obligations that have been made, and the need to comply with European and International law. For example, take the recent proposal from the Conservative Party to prevent the growth of wind farms and other forms of renewable energy from blighting the countryside. Recent claims from the Conservative Party have accused wind farms of becoming a “gravy train threatening to career out of control” with an average of seven wind farm applications being made in Scotland on a daily basis.  As a result, the Government has hit back against its own policy, claiming that by removing funding and subsidies from green energy, the bill-payer’s bill will automatically be reduced by £110. However, this claim has been swiftly rejected by a senior member of the Liberal Democrat party who argues that cutting such subsidies would not be legally possible, as the contracts for green energy construction have already been agreed.

In addition to the legal barrier of having to cancel existing construction contracts for green energy sources, the Government must also be mindful of the European and international obligations that it has agreed to adhere to. For example, under the Conservative’s claim that it will curb the construction of green projects, the UK runs the risk of not complying with certain European Directives that it has entered into regarding renewable energy and climate change. A recent report from the European Union indicates that the UK has already failed to meet its 2010 targets for increasing the share of renewable energy in the electricity sector, and shows that the failings in the European Union are most prominent in the wind sector. It is suggested that, given the fact that the UK has already fared poorly with regards to meeting its renewable energy target within the EU, Government proposals to cut green energy further may result in the UK risking non-compliance with the Directive. In addition to the commitments that the UK has made under the European Union, there are also a number of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol (as recently amended by the Doha Amendment) that must be taken into consideration when making allowances for our future energy supply.

It seems, therefore, that lurking behind all of the political posturing that currently lines the newspapers; there remains a set number of obligations and legally binding contracts that the UK has already committed itself to regardless of what is being said in order to win an election. As we have seen, the comments made by politicians leading up to the election have already had a profound effect on the actions of energy companies. Since Ed Miliband’s claim to freeze energy prices, two of the major energy companies have declared large price increases, resulting in thousands of customers deciding to switch suppliers before price rises affect them. Ed Miliband’s claims have been called irresponsible by some for their impact on current energy prices, whilst others criticise the plans for their ability to stunt investment and growth in the energy sector. Whether or not you agree with Mr Miliband’s answer to high energy prices, his suggestion, along with its consequences, serves as a good example of the pitfalls that face an energy sector that is guided by short-term governments. Energy generation and supply requires long term planning. Combine this with evidence of climate change, and a desire to lower carbon emissions, and we are left with a need for this long term planning to be sustainable. With a government in the UK that often works around a 4 year plan, politicians are left with the choice of being a hero today and stunting investment in the energy sector in future, or the unpopular decision of raising consumer bills in order to invest in green energy today.

In summary, the outlook on our future energy generation is unclear. Whilst we are bombarded with policies from politicians who claim to be acting in our best interest, it is important to scrutinise the validity of such claims in light of the legal contracts and obligations that already exist. We are all aware that politicians may well make promises and claims ahead of an election that they will not keep (the chime of “tuition fees” remains a sore subject for many). However, point scoring and election tactics will not prevent the lights from going out if action isn’t taken to secure our energy future.




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