Richard North, 24/09/2021  

Despite the growing energy crisis continuing to dominate the news agenda, with serious implications for our health, wealth and happiness, to say nothing of exposing serious weaknesses in our system of government, I really do appreciate how tedious this must all seem to some of our commenters, who would much rather address other issues.

For those who are still with me, though, I have spent nearly a week reading (and writing) myself into this subject and am beginning to get its measure. If it is possible to summarise my "take", it is that there is no instant cure to this crisis. Primarily, we are experiencing the results of political rather than technical failures. To sort the problem, we have to sort our politics and, in many ways, that is a lot more challenging than addressing the technical issues.

As it stands, from the prime minister downwards in this administration, the view seems to be that this crisis confirms that the UK was "right to be moving to renewable energy". When the same view is reiterated by the CEO of the suppliers' trade body Energy UK, and intoned by a senior EU official, we are beyond the reach of any technical solutions.

One just has to recall the furore triggered by the fracking controversy and the air of finality when development was abandoned. Even in a climate of crisis, it is inconceivable that shale gas exploitation could be restarted, especially as it could impact on some "red wall" areas.

Still, though, we have some of the usual culprits, such as Matt Ridley offering such technical fixes as if they were easy or politically viable options.

He even suggests that the UK take a leaf out of Canada's book and reform the regulation of nuclear power "so that it favours newer, cheaper and even safer designs built in modular form on production lines rather than huge behemoths built like Egyptian pyramids by Chinese investors".

Yet, it turns out that Canada's SMR programme is hardly more advanced than our own, with only a single plant in the planning stage, the tentative in-service date set for 2028.

The British project, by contrast takes in a rolling programme of 16 plants, with the first in operation by 2030. Even then, that is too little, too late, when it is appreciated that six of the UK's seven nuclear reactor sites are due to go offline by 2030 and the remaining one, Sizewell B, is due for decommissioning in 2035.

My own personal favourite is the nuclear barge, which has the advantage of a unit already in service with a Danish company claiming that it could have a model operating by 2025.

Based on existing technology, their use would break away from the idea that "big is beautiful", back to the days when, at one time or another, from Tilbury to Kingston there were eighteen power stations on the banks of the Thames serving London.

Arguably, although it takes seven years or more to build something as complex as a 65,000 ton aircraft carrier, construction of a 20,000 ton nuclear barge to a standard design could be completed substantially faster, especially if organised on a production-line basis akin to the WWII Liberty ships.

Arguably, a floating nuclear power plant overcomes one of the main objections of a land-based unit: once it has completed its working life, it can be towed away to a remote "nuclear graveyard", releasing its site for further uses. With barges stationed at major ports throughout the UK, they would also be able to offer a combined heat and power facility, maximising the efficiency of their reactors.

For this to work, we would need the government to put production, more or less, on a war-time footing, financing the building of the barges and leasing them to operators. No doubt, Britain's shipbuilding industry would appreciate the work, and a slew of orders directed north of the border might help to keep Scotland in the Union.

However, the idea is pie in the sky. Within seconds of such an ambitious scheme being considered, the greens would be crawling all over it, and the chances of it getting off the ground would be close to zero. And if there isn't the political will to implement such a project, it isn't going to happen anyway.

One would like to think that a change of government – or, at the very least, a change of leadership – might bring better news. But experience warns us that both major parties and the Lib-Dems have bought into the same "green" agenda. We are unlikely to get anything different from our political class, whatever changes there are.

All of this, therefore, paints a rather dismal picture, with energy bills and the prospect of power outages adding to the general gloom.

Perhaps, though, this is where possible salvation lies. As the Telegraph indicates (and it is by no means the only media source to do so), we are experiencing "chill winds" that signal a second Winter of Discontent is coming.

The point, of course, is that the energy crisis is only one of many which have beset this nation, leading the Telegraph to predict that life is about to get ugly "as Britain faces perfect storm of rising fuel bills, food shortages and tax increases". Add to that, the warnings of petrol shortages, inflation, and the ongoing unease about the Channel "invasion", and we are indeed looking at the perfect storm.

As ministers prepare for the worst, it is at times such as these, when discontent is rising, that there is the opportunity – and the appetite – for great political change. However, such times are also dangerous, opening the way to the rise of the demagogue, street violence, riots, and even revolution. At that point, one would not expect a calm reappraisal of energy policy.

Here, history tells us that situations can very quickly spiral out of control, leading to unexpected – and undesirable – outcomes. But, since was does not get the impression that Johnson's administration is actually in control, or that Johnson himself has a grip of events, we might already be beyond the point of no return. In that case, all it needs is a trigger, or spark, to set off something akin to collapse, marking a surrender to the forces of darkness.

Presumably, the situation must feel similar to 1926, with the looming general strike, although there are marked differences between then and now. And one great uncertainty is how a "softer", more pampered society will react to real adversity.

Most of all, one wonders how people will react if the lights go out. In the three day week of the 70s, we were far more self-reliant. These days, we lose our televisions, the internet and the central heating goes down as well, leaving us in the cold and the dark. Shops will shut because there are no electronic tills or payment systems, and many people, without their computers, will be unable to work.

The precise outcome is something we really don't want to discover, but with a degenerate, incompetent liar at the helm, the possibility of our finding out looks all too real.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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