Monday, March 15, 2004

Lights out

Is the UK vulnerable to electricity shortages?

The BBC speculative documentary, If...the lights go out suggested a possible scenario for widespread power cuts in the UK. With the decline in the share of electricity provided by nuclear power and coal, a bigger proportion will come from stations powered by gas - just as Britain's own supplies start to run low. If imports were disrupted suddenly by, for example, a terrorist attack in Russia, there would be little capacity to respond quickly. If this happened at a time of high demand, such as during a particularly cold spell, then there might not be the slack left in the system to cope.

The scenario put forward by the program is highly unlikely. It is not the case that Britain hasn't got enough energy supplies to meet future demand - even the programme wouldn't suggest that. In fact, electricity is so plentiful that wholesale prices have been falling, resulting in the mothballing of many power stations which are less economic to run when prices are so low. It is only in the event of a catastrophic break in fuel supplies could there be a short-term problem as other sources are brought back online.

However, even in this event, blackouts are unlikely. For one thing, gas is now sourced from a variety of countries including Norway and the Netherlands, and in the future liquefied gas will be brought in from around the world. So even if one source of gas suddenly stopped, others could take up the slack. Another level of security is that large industrial consumers are being encouraged to sign up to contracts where they accept the possibility of short-term power cuts in exchange for reduced prices, so freeing up emergency capacity for wider use.

There is a legitimate discussion to be had about how power supplies should be managed in the future. For example, it seems that government fear of being unpopular is the main reason for the decline in nuclear power. If there really were fears for energy security, then nuclear generation would seem a logical way of resolving the problem. The fact is that there are no such worries. It is also the case that the capacity for politicians to screw things up by imposing an unworkable economic structure should never be underestimated, as illustrated by the power cuts in California in 2001.

But the real purpose of a program like If... is to provide a peculiar brand of scary entertainment, dressed up as factual programming. It plays on misplaced but widespread fears of vulnerability. There is no shortage of power. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of doomsayers, either.