Since before their conference in October the Conservative party have been raising fears of energy blackouts in Britain. Greg Clark, Shadow energy minister, even claimed in his party conference speech that 'there must be immediate action to keep the lights on' - a speech which, for dramatic effect, began in a darkened room. The same language was trotted out at a debate about gas security in Westminster we helped organise, when Charles Hendry, Conservative Shadow Minister for Energy, raised the spectre of energy blackouts. He claimed that during the recent cold spell Britain had been ‘down to three days of gas storage' and had ‘reached the situation where we were at risk.'
What's going on here? Well, the thinly veiled subtext behind the Tory line goes like this: Britain is at the mercy of foreign powers - in particular the Russians - who supply us with our gas. It's a pretty strong challenge. But is it right?
At the event, the experts who actually run our energy systems were pretty dismissive of the ‘energy blackout' rhetoric. Chris Train, Network Operations Director at the National Grid, said that gas had not been in short supply during the cold spell, despite seven of the twenty coldest days on record in the UK. Where gas had cut out, it was a result of the ‘Grid balancing supply and demand - reducing supply to some industrial customers on cheaper tariffs, who get lower bills in return for less predictability. Sussex University energy expert Dr Jim Watson outlined new research showing that most challenges to energy security come from ropy domestic infrastructure (I'm paraphrasing) or limited gas storage capacity, but not from uncertainties in foreign supplies.
Undaunted, in the ensuing debate Mr Hendry stuck to his story of global gas shortages and a growing British dependency on foreign gas. But hang on. We only get about 2% of our gas from Russia and that's not going to change any time soon. In fact, assuming we meet our energy efficiency and renewables commitments, gas imports are actually set to fall, not rise. The whole ‘at the mercy of Russia' meme, however catchy, is basically wrong. Indeed BP's chief executive Tony Hayward, who ought to know about these things, has dismissed such speculation as 'unreasonable paranoia', pointing out that "there's a lot of gas in the world available from many diverse sources" and that gas is a 'sensible bridge' to a low-carbon future.
Rather than worrying about Russia, Chris Train and Dr Watson both emphasised that it was demand management and reducing overall gas demand through energy efficiency that were the affordable ways to maintain a steady supply of gas. But apparently that's exactly what Mr Hendry doesn't want to talk about. During the discussion he distanced his party from Britain's energy efficiency and renewables commitments, claiming that there are ‘very few people in the real world that think [these are] likely to happen' and emphasising that reaching renewable targets would be ‘an enormous challenge'.
Is that true? Well, the independent advisory body the Committee on Climate Change reckon meeting our renewables targets means building clean energy infrastructure at the same speed as Germany over the last ten years, or slower than Spain have managed - in other words: we can do it if we choose to. Meanwhile, big energy companies like EDF, NPower or Scottish and Southern are busy competing to build enough offshore wind to supply a quarter of Britain's electricity. I'm not sure what Mr Hendry's version of the real world is, but again it doesn't seem to agree with expert opinion.
There's an energy 'green' paper forthcoming from the Tories, and we've just had a package of front bench ‘green speeches' from the Conservative shadow cabinet. I've blogged before about the conflicted feelings Conservatives seem to have about the environment - this confusion just seems to be the latest example.
We will, of course, be seeking public assurances that Mr Hendry's trashing of renewables targets does not reflect the views of the Conservative front bench, but grumblings about the green agenda, whether from the tory grassroots or the shadow energy minister, doesn't inspire confidence - not in this office, not in the energy industry, and not in an investment community that needs strong signals that Conservative policies could deliver the scale of change needed.
Indeed, prior to the 'green' paper there are already a few red flags going up - the recent Tory National Security Green Paper talked about tasking the Armed Forces with securing ‘fuel imports from volatile regions like the Middle East, where political instability, terrorism and piracy pose real risks'.
It would be pretty weird if the Tories were preparing to commit Britain's armed forces to "securing energy supplies abroad", but not willing to commit to achieving energy security by making our homes warmer and cheaper to run, and investing in new British jobs and British industries that will make our economy more competitive.
Perplexing. So will the Tories sort it out? We'll reserve further judgment until the policy paper.