It may be a week old, but last Monday’s episode of Panorama really is worth putting
half-an-hour aside for, if you haven’t seen it already. Its subject was energy prices, and it raised some very urgent concerns about the government’s policies in that area. You can watch it
on the BBC site, but here’s a brief summary in the meantime.
All in all, switching our dependence away from coal and oil is going to be enormously expensive. Some £200 billion of taxpayers’ money is to be spent on increasing renewable energy
output from seven to thirty percent by 2020. And, because sources like offshore wind costs almost £100 an hour more than traditional generators, this policy’s most immediate effect will
be to raise energy bills sky high. The repercussions of Britain’s growing dependence on wind power, in particular, will be wide reaching. It will cost £17 billion alone to adapt
Britain’s electricity network to wind energy, and new power stations will have to be built along coastlines to accommodate offshore wind, along with another 214 miles of new pylons to carry
electricity inland through areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Panorama blames much of this on Tony Blair’s ‘multi-billion pound gaffe’ at the EU energy summit in Brussels, 2007. According to them, Blair was advised before the summit that
Britain could not manage more than 15 percent of renewable electricity by 2020. Instead, he pledged to apply this percentage to all British energy by the same date — a decision that has since
been called either an ecological masterstroke or a ludicrously naïve and expensive blunder. Citigroup estimates that putting our money where Blair’s mouth was is costing the taxpayer
about £25 billion a year — the equivalent of ‘two-and-a-half Olympic games a year, or two-and-a-half times the budget of NASA’.
‘One challenge,’ Chris Huhne tells the programme, ‘is to get us into a position where we’re less vulnerable to the sort of big price increases for oil and gas that
we’ve see over the last year.’ Fair enough. But fossil fuel prices might easily fall, and a new report by the accountancy firm KPMG claims it would be possible for the UK to achieve its
carbon target by moving from coal to gas, and developing wind energy more slowly. This would apparently save the taxpayer £34 billion.
Over six million British households spend upwards of 10 per cent of their income on energy. The government forecasts that, in the long term, this statistic will fall. As Huhne hedgingly puts it:
‘at any given point the total effect of government policies, including the energy saving reduction, is going to be to make sure bills are lower than they would otherwise be.’ But
investigations by Citigroup and uSwitch.com predict that that our average gas and electricity bill could double, or even triple by 2020. Little wonder why David Cameron is worried.
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