Sunday, March 07, 2010

Real politics

The statement last week from the Met Office that they were no longer going to rely on their seasonal forecasts provoked obvious responses, but one wonders whether the implications have fully sunk in.

While the headline "barbeque summer" predictions have provided endless entertainment, these forecasts have a strategic purpose. They are used by local authorities, power generators and others for planning purposes. And it was last year's optimistic forecast that contributed to the lack of preparedness for the hard winter, leaving many highway authorities short of grit and salt.

Thus, if the Met Office is no longer going to offer forecasts to public utilities and other commercial users, these will be "flying blind", and will either have to plan on a worst case scenario or risk not being able to deliver if we experience next winter anything like we have just suffered – or even worse.

No more so it this the case than with electricity generation. During the intense cold last month, reserve capacity was briefly down to seven percent. An outage by a major power station would have precipitated power cuts, leaving vast areas of the country in the dark and cold.

Delays and incompetence by successive administrations, and the slavish adherence to the "green" agenda means that we are already operating with inadequate margins. And, to that extent, we are already living on borrowed time. Our lights stay on in the winter entirely by luck, rather than judgement.

For sure, the utilities are responding to an expected shortfall by building new CCGT plants, which means that price rather than power cuts may be the future issue. But that does not rule out the possibility of major breakdown, or a deterioration in the political situation elsewhere in the world, that leaves us short of power.

Thus, the Booker column today is particularly apposite, with him pointing out that, in order of political priorities, the security of our energy supplies probably comes second only to dealing with the mounting deficit.

The specific issues that Booker raises have been rehearsed so frequently on this blog that they need no repetition, other than to point out that Mr Cameron seems to be on the brink of achieving what many might have thought impossible – delivering an energy policy which is even worse than Labour's.

What is particularly damning though is that the Tory response, as is so often the case, is simply to ignore the issue. One assumes that they hope that by not talking about it, it will not become a debating point during the election campaign.

However, that may be a forlorn hope. Last week, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband – possibly sensing that there is political advantage to be gained - challenged Cameron to spell out his "renewable energy strategy", claiming that conflicting signals from Conservatives were "creating uncertainty for industry".

Miliband homed in on the inconsistencies in the Tory approach to wind power, where they are opposing onshore turbines, allowing free rein to Conservative controlled councils which have turned down 60 percent of applications for new wind farms.

This challenge, if repeated, may force Cameron out into the open, fronting a repost with his commitment (so far unpublished) to ramp up micro-generation. This stance could propel energy policy into the mainstream as the likes of Monbiot pitch in and tear the Tory plans to shreds. That will sour both the greens and the hard-headed realists, leaving the Boy with another political wreck on his hands.

One can see the Boy's problems though. The only short-term answers to this mess are to commit to lifting the closure threat to the coal-fired powers stations, imposed by the EU's large combustion plant directive, supporting the rapid development of new coal-fired plants, expanding the coal industry and ditching the renewable policy altogether.

In the longer term, he needs to put the nuclear energy programme on an emergency footing, with the sort of priority afforded to it that is usually only given in wartime.

Not only would that be personally impossible for Cameron to do – he is, after all, a sincere believer in the warmist cult – it would destroy his party's carefully nurtured, if fading, green credentials. Tellingly, it would also put him on a collision course with the EU. None of those things the Boy could even contemplate. The fact that a robust, no-nonsense approach might win him the election is neither here nor there.

Thus, it seems, the Tories will continue to attempt a fudge, skirting round the edges, trying to avoid a real debate. Labour will continue cherry-picking inconsistencies while studiously avoiding mention of their own, aided and abetted by the political claque and the media lobby correspondents who are completely out of their depths.

Yet, despite their self-important prattling, this time they may not have it all their own way. There is now the growing influence of the internet. Legend has it that president Obama's online presence and e-mail campaigning made a significant contribution to his electoral victory last year, and this is provoking discussion on this side of the Atlantic on the role the "new media" will play in the election.

Some pundits appear to be believe it will be quite limited, not least as the overtly political blogs have degenerated into poor replicas of MSM political diaries, concentrating on low-grade party political tat and personality politics.

But that is to ignore the wide range of "technical" blogs such as Watts up with that, which have readership levels which outstrip even the biggest of the British political blogs. They are dealing with highly political issues – real politics instead of Westminster bubble gum. And it is real politics, such as whether the lights are going out, which may increasingly call the shots and decide where votes are cast.

Unless Mr Cameron can answer satisfactorily the deceptively simple question, "how are you going to keep the lights on?", he may be riding for a fall.