I recently watched the first episode of the new BBC Four documentary “Power to the People“, which in my view highlights really well the issues and problems facing the UK’s electricity supply.
The show concentrates on one of SSE’s coal stations and one of its wind farms, emphasising the differences in pressures between the two. On the one hand, the wind farm’s chief concerns are paying back the large capital expenditure (which it no doubt will over time), and what to do when the wind isn’t blowing. Meanwhile, the coal station is (rightly!) under pressure to be clean through measures like Carbon Capture and Storage, or to shut down completely if it can’t do that.
Now of course these dirty, polluting plants need to be closed if we want to have a hope of combating climate change and pollutant-related illness, but there is a huge question of where we get our electricity from when these stations shut down. As it stands (whilst I’m writing this on a Saturday evening in November), coal stations are contributing 26% of our nation’s electricity, and natural gas meanwhile is contributing 36% (click here to see what’s happening right now for yourself). A notable amount of our coal stations will be closed in the near future, and whilst natural gas isn’t quite as bad for the environment as coal, it is still a fossil fuel that we must stop using as soon as possible.
What can we do instead though? Currently (again, whilst I’m writing this), wind is contributing a paltry 6% to the country’s electricity supply, and biomass 5% (solar is 0% as it’s night time!). On a national level we clearly need more wind, biomass and solar electricity sources to help make up the shortfall when the fossil plants are shut down, but the gap to fill is massive. Nuclear is the other option but, regardless of whether you are for or against nuclear power, its contribution to the national supply will also reduce in coming years as the older plants are closed.
So how can we help to keep the lights on and do so in a sustainable way? Jeremy Corbyn and Lisa Nandy (shadow energy secretary) have laid out one way; that of democratising energy and encouraging local communities to own their own clean energy generation, plus of course encouraging domestic generation like solar panels on roofs. This is a great idea that we already have some excellent examples of in Bristol, but we can have even more of it by encouraging growth through loans, grants and tax exemption/cuts.
It’s a real shame therefore that the government is attempting to kill off these small scale renewable energy projects. George Osborne has halted tax breaks, slashed subsidies, and put red tape in the way of these projects getting off the ground. I encourage everyone to get involved in the campaign by the Co-Operative Party to combat this assault on clean, local energy: http://act.party.coop/energy
On which note it’s great to see that the Bristol Energy project is nearly at fruition, which will prioritise social equality and renewable sources to meet the demands of both the consumers in our city and of the environment.
Another way in which we can help to combat the energy crisis, and to save money in the process, is by saving electricity. Better insulation, more efficient boilers, energy efficient lightbulbs and many more can all save pounds and stop pollutants at the same time. I was dismayed therefore when the Warm Up Bristol scheme nearly collapsed, and am very happy to see it back up and running under the council’s stewardship. We need more of these schemes with government, EU and council support.
A key downside to the ever-decreasing margin between electricity supply and demand in our country is the increasing prevalence of dirty Short Term Operating Reserve (STOR) sites, which are run when the national grid is really pushed for generation sources. These are usually diesel generators or gas turbines and are often close to local communities. There are currently five plans for such sites within Bristol or nearby and all of these, if they go ahead, will not only contribute to climate change but will pump pollutants into the local area and adversely affect people’s health. Residents Against Dirty Energy (RADE) has been set up to combat these STOR sites, and is doing a great job so far. Find out more at their website http://radebristol.com/ and Facebook group.
Overall, my prevailing impression of the documentary was that it showed to me the ludicracy of the country’s energy market, where private companies seek to make massive profits whilst damaging the environment, cutting much needed maintenance, and hitting consumers’ wallets hard. We should unite to combat this situation in the name of sustainability, economy and social justice.