Amidst the fine talk about “taking back control”, it was ironic that the most significant announcement for the British economy emerged this week from a Tokyo boardroom.
The decision by Hitachi to pull out of the planned Wylfa nuclear power station is not only devastating for the north Wales economy, it also leaves the UK without an energy policy worthy of the name.
To some, this will be a cause for rejoicing. They hate nuclear power so much they do not care where the alternatives come from – Russia in the long run – or what they consist of – fossil fuels, mainly.
Check out Germany where the anti-nuclear policy driven by the Greens resulted last year in 44 per cent of electricity being generated from coal, compared to seven per cent in the UK. The more nuclear they close, the more coal is burnt.
To all intents, the key decisions on future UK energy policy will now be taken by state-owned companies in Paris and Beijing. If they decide against further nuclear investment, we are back to a wing, prayer and imported gas. Even then, it will be a tight squeeze for decades to come – and very expensive when gas prices rise.
But what, I hear you say, about renewables? Well, I would claim to have done as much as any past Energy Minister to promote renewables of all types but it was always in the knowledge that they must be backed up by reliable baseload.
Logically, if one’s primary concern is carbon reduction (hence renewables), the corollary should be to generate baseload with minimum harmful emissions. But when it came to nuclear, logic was abandoned in the 1980s and the time-frame has now passed.
Anti-nuclear prejudice and privatisation have deprived government of the ability to take decisions that are in the long-term interest of the country yet we are still living off the benefits of political courage in the 1960s and 70s.
Scotland, naturally, has been in the frontline of 21st century virtue-signalling. Hunterston and Torness are spoken of as if they were regrettable plagues upon our landscape, rather than essential engines of the Scottish economy for half a century.
Soon they will be gone. Hunterston B has been providing baseload for 46 years and Torness for over 30. They are monuments to great Scottish engineering and well-paid jobs in communities that depended upon them. What, any more than in North Wales, are they to be replaced with?
Alex Salmond’s promise of “a second industrial revolution” from renewables proved to be a mirage, not least because his Basque buddies at Iberdrola – the chief beneficiaries of renewables subsidies – took a strategic decision not to manufacture here (as EU rules made feasible). That is one piece of control I would strongly support taking back.
Technology has made offshore wind cheaper than nuclear sooner than anticipated and the UK Government had to take account of that in limiting its offer to Hitachi. The question is whether such decisions can be left to private companies on purely commercial grounds.
I have been hearing for 20 years that all will be well because “the market” will always provide the means of generating power – a fancy way of saying “build more interconnectors and we will bring in gas from wherever we can get it”.
Gas is plentiful and relatively cheap but it won’t always be like that. The EU imports 70 per cent of its natural gas with over a third coming from Russia. Again, the irony of becoming ever more dependent on Russian gas, albeit at second hand, should not be lost on government.
Scotland cannot opt out by talking only about renewables. Both for supply of baseload and demand for renewables, we are inextricably linked to the rest of the UK. Once our nuclear plants close, we will be huge net importers if there is any industry left to fuel.
There are some areas in which the state should never have surrendered control – and the ability to keep the lights on is one of them. Thank goodness for a past history of courageous politicians, long-term state planning and balanced energy policy.