Lights out as risk of blackouts doubles

Energy watchdog Ofgem says we don't have enough capacity to produce energy - and has suggested rationing might be the only solution.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 10 Jul 2013

Admittedly, given the prevalence of platform shoes in the shops at the moment, you might be forgiven for thinking we’re in the middle of a 70s revival. But no-one ever meant it to extend to this: energy watchdog Ofgem reckons the risk of 70s-style mass power cuts has ‘doubled’ in less than a year because we don’t have enough capacity to produce energy.

Apparently the UK’s spare production capacity could drop to 2% by 2015, meaning the National Grid won’t have much wiggle room if demand suddenly rises.

According to Ofgem, the closures of dozens of ageing coal-fired power stations has combined with the financial crisis, tough emissions targets and our ‘increasing’ dependency on gas imports to create the conditions for a perfect (electrical) storm.

What’s the solution? Today’s report by Ofgem suggests paying large consumers – factories and big retailers – to reduce the amount of energy they’re using between 4pm and 8pm during the winter to ease pressure on the National Grid as people arrive home from work.

Under the plans, a large shop that halves its electricity consumption could receive up to £4,500.

The government, though, is not impressed: energy minister Michael Fallon said on last night’s Newsnight that there was no truth in the report.

‘I can assure you the lights are not going to go out,’ he said.

‘The [report] has shown that the position is slightly worse than the previous assessment year. The regulator Ofgem has got to make sure, with all the tools at its disposal – bringing some mothball plants back into action and back online – that the lights stay on – and they will.’

Fighting talk, there – although Ofgem doesn’t seem as convinced. The report does, however, provide a convenient case for allowing fracking, a process of extracting gas through rock. On Thursday, a report by the British Geological Survey suggested that there could be as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas at one site alone.

It’s controversial, though: not only is it not really in-keeping with the UK’s green energy ambitions, but the process of extracting it is thought to have caused several  earthquakes (albeit minor ones).

But if it’s getting to the point where the lights are about to go off, any way of reducing the UK’s dependency on gas imports – however controversial – might have to do. A fracking tough choice, though, however you look at it.

- Image: Flickr/super-c

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