Friday, August 01, 2008

The sound of silence

"The collapse of the British Energy deal is bad news for UK consumers" says The Daily Telegraph (business section, of course). But it is rather more than that.

The attraction of the deal was that it gave EDF and Centrica both a stake in Britain's nuclear industry, bringing expertise and, most importantly, the prospect of serious investment. Without that investment – whatever the fond hopes of government – the new generation of nuclear power stations will not be built and, without those, we will be looking to serious gaps in our future generating capacity.

Since it is estimated that, from scratch, it can take upwards of 16 years to commission a nuclear plant, a replacement programme has already been dangerously delayed. The collapse of this deal may add more years to this timescale, meaning that we are perhaps looking to beyond 2024 before we start seeing the vitally necessary additions to our generation capacity.

In the interim, the only "quick fix" is to resort to gas-fired plants – which can be commissioned in as little a six years. But even further reliance on gas, in the context of increasing world demand and reducing supply, simply sets the scene for a "perfect storm" of monumental price rises. The 35 percent price hike by British Gas will, in retrospect, become a fond memory, as utility bills double and double again.

What is particularly worrying though is the absence of any sense of urgency from the government. While a national energy strategy was due earlier this year, there is still no sign of it and no indications as to when it will appear.

Something of the growing irritation at this inertia even leaks into the The Telegraph piece, with the throwaway line, "While the Government is paralysed by its own childish in-fighting this summer, British consumers are being hit by wave after wave of energy price hikes…."

But it is not only the government. As we remarked yesterday, the entire political class seems to have called "time out" while it indulges itself in an orgy of introspection and trivia, avoiding any serious discussion of the energy issue.

In two years time, however – at the very latest – we expect a general election, whence it is also widely expected that the Conservatives will sweep into office. Yet, for a potential government, we hear absolutely nothing that gives us any clue that the shadow cabinet, or even the broader party, has even begun to realise the depth of the crisis that will overwhelm any new administration.

To the contrary, if the Conservative Home site is any guide – along with the prattlers at the Spectator blog, the party at large is in la la land. One of Cameron's first appointments, it is suggested, should be the creation of a secretary of state for climate change, with talk of the first priorities of the new government being "centrepiece reforms on schools and welfare".

Yet, over on Global Warming Politics, we find Philip Stott declaring: "… no political party should be considered electable until it commits itself to new coal stations, to new nuclear plant, and to the improved import and storage of gas. Above all, we want, and need, to hear on this from the currently-empty vessel that is David Cameron and the Conservative Party."

At the moment, though, all we are hearing is silence. That is seriously disturbing.