Page last updated at 03:05 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

UK experts give blackouts warning

By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

Energy analysts say forecasts of an imminent power crisis are far-fetched

Some energy experts asked by BBC News warn the UK could face an unacceptable risk of major blackouts in less than 10 years unless policy is improved.

They said the government has dithered for too long over policies vital to energy security and climate security.

But they added that forecasts of an imminent power crisis were far-fetched.

The possible energy gap is being created because of the impending closure before 2015 of nine of our major coal and oil-powered plants.


This is due to an EU directive on acid rain. The issue is compounded by the closure of four ageing nuclear plants during the same period.

We do not claim our questionnaire of 30 experts is definitive. But its findings do help to map out the scale of the huge challenge facing the new secretary of energy and climate change.

Policy elements

Experts were, for example, asked: "Under current policies there is an unacceptable risk of major blackouts in the next 10 years?" A total of 13 agreed, nine disagreed, six were undecided and three gave no answer.

Coal & oil plants set to close (pink)

Nuclear plants still operating (green)

Some of the experts surveyed in our questionnaire said any short-term energy gap would be filled by burning gas, which undermines our ambitions on climate change.

Another option would be to lobby the EU to keep the coal stations open, which is also harmful to the climate and, experts say, is a case of throwing good money after bad.

But others said there was an unacceptable risk of blackouts as key elements of policy appeared paralysed or compromised.

Of the 31 experts who took part in our questionnaire, there was a feeling that the government's long-term ambitions on nuclear won't be achieved due to a lack of industrial capacity.

And many warn that government renewables targets are unlikely to be hit thanks to a combination of a lack of political will and engineering challenges for offshore wind.

The experts demanded much more urgent action on carbon capture and storage from coal, on which the government is due to make a decision soon.

They also said the UK had to move much more quickly to improve storage of gas in depleted gas fields, such as Centrica's Rough gas storage site in Humberside, which stores 75% of the UK's gas.

Simon Wills from Centrica said there were problems with planning and regulation in bringing on new capacity.


How do we store gas?

Mike O'Brien, minister of state for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), said: "There are a whole range of options that the government has available to make sure we have secure supplies of energy - not just for the next few years but also from 2015."

He added: "And we will ensure that we exercise these options to make sure we keep the lights on."

However, sources say it is inconceivable that the government would allow the lights to go off, even if this means suspending climate change targets.

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