Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the BIS Select Committee, the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Stratford on Avon.
Energy policy is one of the toughest tasks of government. The long time horizons involved do not match up with electoral cycles. Like being in goal, people only notice when you get it wrong – though usually you’ll be long gone by then.
This explains why Labour, a party only interested in the short-term, ducked so many of the big decisions on energy when they were in office. We were left with a legacy of underinvestment, an uncompetitive energy market and not a single deal on new nuclear in thirteen years.
As much as tackling the deficit, energy security should be seen as a Conservative issue. It’s about looking out for future generations, putting their interests ahead of short-term political fixes.
In Government we’ve already done great work on securing future supplies. We’ve doubled energy investment per year and are set to invest £100 billion in electricity by 2020. In Hinkley Point C we’ve just signed the first deal for a new nuclear power plant in a generation. Getting shale up and running is a top priority, which is why we’ve brought in a package of community benefits and strong environmental protections so we take people with us on this.
Of course energy security also has to be delivered in the context of a legally binding framework on carbon emissions, which requires us to add more renewables to the mix. I fully accept the science on climate change, but there are also sound non-environmental reasons for diversifying our energy portfolio.
First, the cost of renewable technology is coming down all the time, dramatically in the case of solar. When renewable energy becomes commercially competitive I want the technical expertise and the business capability to be already here in Britain so we can take full advantage of this growing market.
Second, events in the Middle East and Russia have shown why we need to reduce our energy dependence on politically volatile parts of the world. In 2003 we became a net importer of gas, by 2025 we expect to import 70 per cent of our gas. If Iran were ever to close the Straits of Hormuz in response to nuclear tensions this would cut off our access to Qatari LNG. Nor does a future British Government want to become enmeshed in Kremlin energy politics. This is also a strong argument for the development of UK shale, but we can’t bet the farm on one industry which is still in its infancy.
Since 2010, our renewable capacity has nearly doubled. It will increase still more in the years ahead and we need think very carefully about the long-term implications of this trend.
As renewables come to occupy a greater share of the energy mix, we will become more reliant on an intermittent source of power. Electricity supply always has be balanced with demand, so when we all switch our kettles on in the evening the lights don’t go out. Yet global weather systems do not have our electricity needs in mind when they converge over Britain. When the wind isn’t blowing the turbines stop, irrespective of whether we need the power. There’s less solar energy in the winter, even though demand for electricity is higher.
The Green Party argue that the solution to intermittence is “electricity storage”, using industrial scale batteries to ensure that a good hurricane doesn’t go to waste. In fact you can’t store electricity, it has to be converted to something else. This creates a lot of inefficiency into the system, as it costs power to convert electricity and then transport it at a later date. In addition, current technology makes the costs of using and maintaining these batteries prohibitively expensive. I recently asked an expert on power generation, Dr Jacob Klimstra, what the prospects were for a technical breakthrough on storage in the next ten years. He was not optimistic.
The European Commission have argued that these problems could be mitigated through the use of super-connectors, massive power conductors ferrying power from one end of the continent to the other in response to changing weather conditions. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to transport solar energy from North Africa to Europe, but in the short-term super-connectors do not help, as weather systems tend to cover the whole continent all at once. If it’s windy in Germany, the chances are it’s also windy in Britain.
The more realistic option than either batteries or super-connectors is the use of small-scale back-up generators – probably gas or nuclear – to fill the gap when renewable electricity isn’t available. These have the advantage of flexibility, they can be switched on or off at short notice, and crucially the technology already exists. Combined with the smart meters, which we’re about to roll out across the country, these can help us move to a world of more efficient demand management.
There’s an argument that the breakneck growth of China and India mean that any attempts on Britain’s part to decarbonise are irrelevant. I don’t accept this. What we can do is show those countries that it’s possible to move to a low carbon economy in a way which is cost effective and ensures the lights stay on. Renewable energy, backed up with gas and nuclear, is the way to get there, so that we can secure Britain’s and the world’s future.