There could be no better symbol of the madness of Britain’s energy policy than what is happening at the giant Drax power station in Yorkshire, easily the largest in Britain.
Indeed, it is one of the biggest and most efficiently run coal-fired power stations in the world. Its almost 1,000ft-tall flue chimney is the highest in the country, and its 12 monster cooling towers (each taller than St Paul’s Cathedral) dominate the flat countryside of eastern Yorkshire for miles around.
Every day, Drax burns 36,000 tons of coal, brought to its vast site by 140 coal trains every week — and it supplies seven per cent of all the electricity used in Britain. That’s enough to light up a good many of our major cities.
But as a result of a change in Government policy, triggered by EU rules, Drax is about to undergo a major change that would have astonished those who built it in the Seventies and Eighties right next to Selby coalfield, which was then highly productive but has since closed.
Readers of this column might have been astonished by the media response last week to that warning by Alistair Buchanan, retiring head of the energy regulator Ofgem, that next month we will see the closure of five major coal-fired power stations that between them contribute nearly a sixth of the UK’s average electricity needs.
Over the next few years, Mr Buchanan feared, we will be dangerously close to not having enough power in the grid to keep Britain’s lights on.
I have been trying to explain this here for so long that my readers may be weary of it. It was back in 2006 that I first reported on why, within a decade or so, we might see Britain’s lights going out. In fact, as I set out in my book, The Real Global Warming Disaster, in 2009, the writing was already on the wall in the government’s energy White Paper of 2003. Tony Blair signed us up to an energy policy centred on building thousands of windmills, already fully aware that we would be losing many of our coal-fired power stations due to an EU anti-pollution directive, and that we were unlikely to build any new nuclear power stations to replace those that by now would be nearing the end of their life.
Talk about bees clustering round a honeypot… When are we going to wake up to the extraordinary goings-on at the heart of Britain’s energy policy?
Last week, it was announced that Charles Hendry — who was, until September, the minister at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in charge of wind farms — is to become chairman of Forewind, a consortium planning to build the world’s biggest and most lucrative wind farm in the North Sea. His predecessor, Lord Deben (formerly John Gummer), had to step down when he was made chairman of the Climate Change Committee, the hugely influential body set up under the Climate Change Act to advise DECC on Britain’s energy policy. Deben’s appointment was approved by the Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, chaired by his friend Tim Yeo, who makes more than £200,000 a year advising firms in the “low-carbon” energy sector.
It was also announced last week that a new company, Greencoat, is to be floated on the Stock Exchange and given £50 million of taxpayers’ money to buy stakes in six wind farm companies, and that one of its directors is William Rickett, formerly head of the Energy Group at DECC.
Mr Hendry has also been hired by a cross-party lobby group, CarbonConnect, to co-chair a review of energy policy with Baroness Worthington. She is the former Friends of the Earth campaigner who was hired by the Department for Environment to mastermind the drafting of the 2008 Climate Change Act. This put at the centre of our energy policy a plan to spend £100 billion on up to 30,000 wind turbines, so hopelessly inefficient that they have to be given absurdly lavish subsidies. For offshore windfarms like the one planned by Mr Hendry’s firm, the subsidies amount to 200 per cent of the value of the electricity they produce.
Never has an undercover video sting delighted its victims more. A Greenpeace investigation has caught some Tory MPs scheming to save the countryside from wind farms and cut ordinary people's energy bills while Lib Dems, Guardian writers and Greenpeace activists defend subsidies for fat-cat capitalists and rich landowners with their snouts in the wind-farm trough. Said Tories will be inundated with fan mail.
David Cameron's promise to control energy bills runs counter to the Government's own 'green' policies
Last week, I returned from a visit to India – which last July suffered the most extensive power cut in history, affecting 600 million people – to find our own energy policy in a worse shambles than ever. Provoked by soaring energy bills, which have recently risen by a further 13 per cent, David Cameron again displayed his astonishing naivety in such matters by promising to force energy companies to charge only the lowest prices for their gas and electricity – just when even Ofgem has been warning us that we too face the prospect of massive power cuts, thanks to the imminent closure of so many of our power stations.
It is more than five years since I began warning here that Britain’s lights were in danger of going out, thanks to the lunacy of successive governments in shutting their eyes to this crisis. Yet Mr Cameron’s only response is to indulge in a political gimmick prompting almost universal howls of derision, and serving only to show that he knows even less about the real world of energy than his technically illiterate Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey.
What Mr Cameron clearly hasn’t realised is that the main reason why our energy companies need to charge us ever more for electricity lies in his own Government’s deluded policies. He and his colleagues prattle on about how, over the next eight years, we need to spend £100 billion on building 30,000 useless, unreliable and grotesquely subsidised wind turbines. They want to see billions more spent on giant pylons and interconnectors, to carry power from the remote onshore and offshore wind farms where it is generated to the places where it is needed. Then, as even Mr Davey has finally admitted, further billions will need to be spent on new gas-fired power stations – not only to fill the gap left by all the coal-fired and nuclear plants that are due to close, but also to provide ever more expensive, “carbon”-emitting back-up for the times when the wind drops and our turbines are scarcely functioning.
It was the year when many long-dominant belief systems began to collapse
There could be few more apt epitaphs for the year now ending than a recollection of the headlines in April that greeted a stark warning from the Environment Agency. Fuelled by the predictions of the climate-change-obsessed Met Office (and the the official policy, since 2007, of the similarly fixated EU) that we will have “hotter, drier summers” for decades to come, the agency foretold that the drought conditions of the early spring were likely to last “until Christmas and perhaps beyond”. The prophecy was swiftly followed by the wettest late spring, the wettest summer, the wettest autumn and the wettest Christmas we have ever known – eight months of near-continuous rain and floods amounting to England’s wettest year since records began.
For many of the major stories which have long been followed by this column, 2012 has been the year when long-dominant belief systems and fondly held illusions have been conspicuously falling apart, portending a time of agonising reappraisal when familiar certainties give way to greater realism and painful rethinking.
Once you're at the top, it seems your very incompetence will be rewarded
One of the more conspicuous features of British life nowadays is how many people who are, in one way or another, found seriously at fault, such as by failing to do their job properly, are nevertheless allowed to get away with it without having to pay any penalty. We see almost daily examples, as when the head of a major news organisation, forced to resign in what should be disgrace, walks away with £11 million; or a senior council executive fired for incompetence is then given a grotesquely inflated pay-off, such as the former head of Haringey social services compensated with £1 million for her wrongful dismissal after the Baby P scandal.
Even more familiar are the cases of people who make every kind of mess of a job they are overpaid for and never get sacked at all, such as those “quango queens”, who move effortlessly from one post to another, hopelessly out of their depth in every one. “What does it take to get sacked,” we may ask, “if you are at the top of an organisation in modern Britain?”