Switching off the Power to Keep the Lights Switched On

Starting this winter and continuing for the next four years, the National Grid is planning to offer financial rewards to the UK’s heaviest energy users in return for cutting their consumption at peak times. This latest attempt to fight the electricity capacity crunch will see companies paid £10,000 for every megawatt they commit to sacrificing between 4pm and 8pm; a sizeable sum, but one that Energy Secretary Ed Davey MP claims is more viable than constructing new power plants.

Well, there are several problems here, the largest of which is the notion that heavy industry should be made to pay the price for decades of under-investment in Britain’s infrastructure. And what a price! The inevitable consequence of reducing energy consumption is a loss of productivity, eating into the nation’s GDP at a time when we’re just starting to emerge from economic recession. Instead of tempting new business to open and expand in the UK, we’re telling existing operations to slow down!

To add insult to injury, this stop-gap solution has no hope of actually solving the problem; rather, it serves only to shunt it slightly further down the road, lying in wait for someone else to worry about. Not that we should be surprised, however, as short-term fixes are all the UK knows when it comes to energy policy. The history of British infrastructure post-privatisation can essentially be whittled down to one successive quick fix after another, leaving us with a decrepit power system, a woeful lack of spare capacity, and no financial means to create the intelligent, low-carbon grid that we so desperately need to meet demand.

Davey may be right to say these payments are more cost effective than building new power plants in the immediate future, but isn’t investment in a diversified, sustainable and flexible grid precisely what Britain needs in the longer term? Simply putting this off won’t make the problem go away, and indeed it grows exponentially larger as time goes on.

When stacked against Greg Barker MP’s vision of the ‘Big 60,000’, in which distributed energy takes the strain off the Grid through localised generation and provides a stable, low-carbon alternative to traditional power, the National Grid’s method of handing out thousands of pounds to buy more time on their rickety old set-up looks somewhat desperate. We shouldn’t be looking for ways to scrape back capacity from those who need it to power the nation’s economy; we should be investing in an infrastructure capable of supporting a sustainable future for UK energy.

Successive governments have categorically failed to listen to the warning signs vocalised by the very industry whose co-operation they’re now relying on to prevent blackouts, an industry that has watched with increasing anxiety as spare capacity drops ever closer to zero. Now, with a situation so dire that mothballed gas-fired plants may be called back to duty during peak demand, it is surely time to take the scales from our eyes and start looking beyond the next election, beyond the next four years, and towards a future that absolutely has to morph into something markedly different from the one we are currently on track to experience. 

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As Chairman of the Rolton Group, Peter provides high-level strategic advice to a range of governmental, public sector and commercial clients. He is an acknowledged specialist in the renewable energy sector, and there is good reason for this: when it comes to energy, Peter is clear about the issues we face and the need for a cohesive strategy to tackle them. He is a passionate advocate of informed debate, and has consistently brought clarity to this complex situation."If the UK is united on one thing about energy it is that, on an individual basis, the public knows what it’s not in favour of. When it comes to offering up solutions, it’s not that confident. Pointing at single solutions like wind farms and saying that they are too expensive is missing the point. Carbon-based forms of energy like oil and gas are running out. Energy is going to be more expensive and a portfolio of renewable energies will necessarily be part of our solution in the future." Peter holds particular expertise in the areas of site-wide energy planning, zero carbon power generation, low carbon design, carbon offsetting and the application of renewable technology. He has acted as a Government advisor on numerous consultations and white papers, presenting to the Secretary of State on a number of occasions on the subject of renewable planning and public sector engagement. He has worked as a strategic partner with some of the world’s largest and most successful blue-chip companies, and is a Director of Renewables East, the renewable energy agency for the east of England.Peter is both a chartered building services engineer and a chartered member of the Institute of Energy, and has gained accreditation under the Carbon Trust Consultant Accreditation Scheme for solution development, with particular expertise in the establishment of energy strategies. He founded his first business, Rolton Services Consultants Limited, in 1989, and founded Cool Planet Technologies, a specialist renewable energy delivery partner which was sold to British Gas in 2010. He has been the architect of the path through which Rolton Group has addressed the challenges of renewables, carbon and the built environment."We need to see the bigger picture and not become hung up on individual technologies and individual costs. We need a completely different technology mix and not a reliance on one form of energy supply. We need all forms of technology to be applied – and we need it to happen quickly."

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