In August 2006, Green campaigners gathered near Heathrow. At the same time, a legal team was drafting a warrant to arrest Britain’s gas monopoly, Centrica. Across Europe, national gas supplies were drying up. Demand was piling up. On 15 August, the lights went out in north-west London. For half an hour, spare capacity on the UK’s gas networks dipped to just three hours’ worth. South East England, like a country besieged by alligators, had no power. It wasn’t a momentary outlier. Gas companies took action in response. They put on the “highest pressure possible” for hours on the price grid in the hope that it would drive down demand. Had the effect happened, Britain would have been able to weather a prolonged demand surge. But it did not. The power stations that are at the heart of our continental energy future were staying shut.
Then, on 8 September, the controversial decision to increase gas prices was handed down by the regulator Ofgem, concluding that this winter would be “the worst in almost two decades”. But with coal power falling by around a third in the past five years, the gas grid was already reaching capacity. Power plants have the ability to switch off almost instantly in an emergency. They do not have to run constantly. But under pressure, they sometimes do.
It is madness that by 2019 we may not even be able to satisfy our domestic needs. In the future, we will most likely have to import vast quantities of gas. This is part of a wider global infrastructure shift. Coal has helped keep us warm over the last 30 years. Today coal is expensive, replacing coal as a source of power almost never makes economic sense. But coal emissions are still highly toxic. Once it is in place, most coal will stay there for many decades. And so a mounting electric car fleet is dragging the dirty fuel off the grid. The fossil age has barely begun.
Even coal will not be the only fossil fuel we trade. Developing and consuming economies already fuel growing demand for wind and solar power. As energy demand rises, we are building batteries and burning hydrogen. Fossil fuel demand may be costly, but renewables are also expensive – but it won’t be long before they too go up in price.
The time to act is now. We need to harness the energy of the sun, the wind and the soil. We need to replace coal and nuclear with cleaner, more plentiful energy – and by the middle of the century we should have electricity coming from anywhere we want.