Britain’s Impending Energy Crisis
In case you missed the story yesterday in the Economist:
North Sea gas has served Britain well, but supply peaked in 1999. Since then the flow has fallen by half; by 2015 it will have dropped by two-thirds. By 2015 four of Britain’s ten nuclear stations will have shut and no new ones could be ready for years after that. As for coal, it is fiendishly dirty: Britain will be breaking just about every green promise it has ever made if it is using anything like as much as it does today. Renewable energy sources will help, but even if the wind and waves can be harnessed (and Britain has plenty of both), these on-off forces cannot easily replace more predictable gas, nuclear and coal power. There will be a shortfall—perhaps of as much as 20GW—which, if nothing radical is done, will have to be met from imported gas. A large chunk of it may come from Vladimir Putin’s deeply unreliable and corrupt Russia.
Many of Britain’s neighbours may find this rather amusing. Britain, the only big west European country that could have joined the oil producers’ club OPEC, the country that used to lecture the world about energy liberalisation, is heading towards South African-style power cuts, with homes and factories plunged intermittently into third-world darkness.
For more background on Britain’s situation, see also The looming electricity crunch.
I thought about these issues a lot when I lived in Scotland. Britain is clearly facing a crisis, and how they address it will be instructive to those of us who are concerned about energy shortages. I always said that Britain will ultimately conclude that they have to have a lot of new nuclear power, but it looks like that recognition won’t come in time to help them. So what’s the answer? They start ramping coal back up – breaking those green promises – or they start to suffer power outages. What do you think they will do? As I have said before, when the power starts to go out, environmental concerns will fly out the window. Sure, people like the idea of not burning coal. But will they give up power 6 hours a day to achieve that? I don’t think too many of them will.
Of course there is still natural gas from Russia, and I think they are going to have to roll the dice in the short term and hope Russia doesn’t hold them hostage. Longer term, LNG terminals would seem to make sense to me, but they don’t seem to be a part of the discussion here.
Ultimately, I think Britain will behave as the rest of the world will behave when faced with energy crunches. They will find that renewables can’t step up and fill the gap, and so they will roll out conservation measures and make do with whatever it takes to avoid crippling power outages: No matter if it takes coal, natural gas, or the blubber from baby seals. This is how I expect the world to respond when renewable dreams meet the reality of power shortages.