This month Energy watchdog chief, Alistair Buchanan did a brilliant job at highlighting the current government energy strategy; 'we are going to lean heavily on gas’ and gas prices will unavoidably go up.
But Alistair proposes little to avoid us going down this road. In fact, he explains, it is unavoidable because there is ‘no new nuclear, no new clean coal'. But are there other options?
The answer on the tip of many tongues is fracking. The US has done it, a country 40 times the size of the UK with population density 1/8th of ours, so why can’t we?
The experience of onshore wind suggests otherwise. Getting planning permission can be nightmare thanks to well organised anti-wind farm groups opposed to new turbines.
… now add the questionable environmental credentials of shale gas (real or perceived) and the potential of shale seems limited.
An alternative would be to focus on diversification – superficially government policy. First and foremost, this requires a greater emphasis on reducing our energy demand. Reduction is at the top of the hierarchy of environmental priorities but today our demand is not likely to change much between now and 2020.The government must aggressively pursue multiple demand reduction strategies and scale up the successful ones.
Secondly, we have to look at diverse technological solutions for our electricity supply and generation. Coal is no longer an option, nuclear will take too long to build, so what does that leave us with? We are pursuing wind energy but intermittency reduces its contribution to the reserve capacity, so it needs balancing technologies; gas, storage or interconnectors.
Gas is arguably the worst balancing technology because it can only produce and not absorb energy.
Storage is currently limited in its deployment but increasing prices of electricity may prompt further development of mature technologies such as pumped hydroelectric and foster innovation in newer technologies such a hydrogen or grid scale batteries.
Interconnectors currently provide us with the most efficient alternative that helps increase system efficiency by increasing the access to other energy generators.
They also provide additional benefits such as export opportunities for our wind industry, which is good for our balance of payments, as well as access to a wide diversity of generation technologies abroad.
Iceland has geothermal and hydroelectric energy and the first proposal for an interconnector to the UK was made in the 1980s. Norway has hydroelectric power and is widely considered to be a partial solution to the intermittency of the North Sea wind. Spain and North Africa have abundant sources of solar energy that the Germans are currently pursuing.
Finally, our current interconnector capacity to mainland Europe provides us with access to nuclear power and potentially solar power from the south. The national grid has suggested we will be depending on this for our energy security sooner rather than later - further emphasising the need for us to diversify our connections to other markets.
As a first step, the government needs to define what conditions need to be met for interconnectors to contribute to our security of supply. Access to a wide range of markets and technologies appears to be an obvious solution. This will inform interconnection priorities.
The complexities associated with a cross-border planning process are a major barrier to development. The government should be laying the foundations for priority interconnector projects by actively pursuing strategic environmental assessments whilst working with partner nations to do the same.
The European Commission is keen on greater interconnection between member states and neighbouring states. The UK should engage properly with this process, taking advantage of EC funding to promote our priority projects. The Norway-UK interconnector is a perfect example of a common priority project.
Other options exist but need active, committed government policy, if not we may be forced to rely on ever more expensive gas.