Monday, 30 December 2013

Keeping the lights on

In a recent post, I took issue with Friends of the Earth's "bullshit bingo" fracking cards. It seems I'm getting noticed, because Tony Bosworth promised me a response when I met him at a recent IMechE event on shale development, although I've yet to hear back from him.

I know that I shouldn't take these things too seriously, but there was one particular square on the bingo card - Keeping the lights on - that has really nagged away at me, such that I've felt the need for a whole new blog post just to get my feelings off my chest. The nagging has only got stronger since I spent the last couple of weeks travelling around the Yucatan, Mexico, where many communities, away from the flesh-pots of Cancun, really do only have electricity for a few hours a day.

The implication from FoE, as far as I can tell, is that people who talk about "keeping the lights on" are somehow worthy of mockery, or shouldn't be taken seriously (and I would dearly love Tony B to confirm this for me, but that's the only conclusion I can see from the bingo cards). The more I think about it, the more flabbergasted I am that a supposedly reputable organisation could see things this way.

In our modern world, I think we take energy and electricity for granted (among many other things). If we need light or heat, we just flick a switch. If we need to drive somewhere, we pull in to a petrol station and fill up. Power cuts and fuel shortages are very rare disruptions to us these days - although the recent storms provide a timely reminder of how disrupting it can be when the power does go off.

However, keeping the lights on is no easy task, and it appears that in the coming years this task is set to get yet harder still, as ageing power stations are mothballed without adequate replacements. Recent OFGEM figures suggest that the spare margin - the difference between generating capacity and peak demand - could fall to as low as 2%

To deal with potential shortfalls, OFGEM have outlined a new scheme where businesses will receive payment in return for switching off their power during peak times 4 - 8pm on weekdays. While it is good that businesses will be compensated for lost power, of course it adds an extra cost to the consumer to cover these fees. 

Either way, these measures show that "keeping the lights on" is not some laughing matter to go on a Bullsh!t Bingo card, as the good folks at FOE seem to think.

Moreover, I'm not sure what message this sends out to businesses considering investing in Britain? We're all agreed that we want to build up our manufacturing base, to reduce our economic reliance on London's financial services industry. However, given that manufacturing operations generally require a stable and reliable electricity supply, being told that you might be expected to take a power cut for 4 hours a day can't be the most attractive incentive for investment in the UK.

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