"The future is decentralised"

Posted by bex — 7 July 2006 at 7:00am - Comments

Flowers growing in a greenhouse heated through combined heat and power

Remember 1997? Imagine somebody had predicted then that, within a decade, the Conservatives would be advocating "a revolution in green energy" and New Labour would be the only mainstream party still clinging to nuclear power as a central part of their energy policy. You probably wouldn't have rushed down to Ladbroke's.

But in less then a decade, that's what has happened. Tony Blair has become a die-hard evangelist for a technology that is increasingly seen as irrational and archaic. And the Conservatives, traditionally staunch supporters of nuclear power, have joined the Liberal Democrats and Ken Livingstone in calling for an energy revolution based on renewable technologies and decentralisation of supply.

"We need to move away from the old-fashioned top-down model of energy supply," Cameron has told a Local Government Association conference. "The future of energy is not top-down, it's bottom-up. In a word, the future's not centralised - it's decentralised."

Blair meanwhile is expected to rubber stamp a new generation of nuclear power stations within days, officially taking the UK into a new nuclear age.

You have to wonder what on earth Blair is thinking. In 2003, his own Energy White Paper laid out an ambitious agenda for a decentralised energy system. Now - when reports have revealed that decentralised energy can both tackle climate change and bridge the energy gap, when studies show decentralised energy to be cheaper, cleaner and more secure than nuclear power, when Ken Livingstone, Ming Campbell and David Cameron all stand united in committing to decentralised energy - Tony Blair looks poised to do a U-turn. Nuclear power is, he has said, "back on the agenda with a vengeance".

So why would a man so obsessed with his legacy choose to leave a legacy like this one? There won't be a chance to do a U-turn on climate change. When nuclear power fails to address climate change - as it is certain to do - the 160,000 people who die as a result of climate change every year can't be brought back to life. The radioactive waste created as a consequence of Blair's decision will be kicking around on earth for up to a million years.

The truth is, the nuclear industry is a dying industry. It's based on the same centralised system that came into being in the first half of the 20th century. That system is now known to be inherently - and criminally - wasteful; two-thirds of all energy going into a conventional power station (eg nuclear) is lost as waste heat. But a cleaner, cheaper, more secure system is possible - and it has already been proven in a number of countries around the world.

That the nuclear industry is anachronistic is apparently clear to Cameron. Britain, he said, is "still lumbered with the same backward-looking, central-planning mindset that has dominated thinking on electricity since the first half of the last century". Nuclear power, he added, is a "last resort" - and there should be "no special favours or subsidies for nuclear power".

Charlie Kronick, a Greenpeace campaigner, says: "David Cameron seems to get it. Decentralised energy can deliver huge cuts in carbon emissions and reduce our dependence on foreign energy supplies. The Tories have traditionally been solid supporters of nuclear power, so to see their new leader order nuclear to the back of the queue is very encouraging. It shows just how out of touch Tony Blair is. If the Prime Minister shed his fixation with nuclear power and looked starkly at the evidence he'd agree with David Cameron. Decentralised energy really is the future, while Tony Blair looks increasingly like the past."

So have we slipped down a rabbit hole? Or have we really reached a point where Labour is the last mainstream party to cling to nuclear power?

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