Saturday 29 June 2013

Britain's energy crisis

Is Britain by candlelight our energy policy of the future?
For a post-imperial power struggling to accept its place in the world, rationing power is a sobering prospect

28 June, 2013

The Guardian's green room (as was) used to run a little weekly questionnaire in which various celebrities were asked what skills they had for a post-oil world. A personal favourite featured Jo Wood, then wife of Rolling Stone Ronnie, who felt very positive about her chances of prospering, on the basis that "I come from a family of model-makers, artists and sculptors".

And if that didn't impress the militia sacking Richmond in search of food and fighting-age boys to swell their numbers, then what on earth would? I always imagined Jo repelling the marauding hordes with a peg-doll puppet show, her name up in lights – or rather, in candles selected from the scented organic range she happened to be promoting at the time.

Blessed as it must be with vast supplies of candles the Wood compound looks ever more vulnerable to attack, with news that the National Grid has made drastic plans for electricity rationing. Under the proposals, a rise in household bills would be used to subsidise payments to commercial premises for turning off their power between 4pm and 8pm in winter – the period of peak electricity demand in Britain. In a development no one could have possibly foreseen unless they had the most rudimentary grasp of energy provision, it seems we are fresh out of enough power to light our way, and must come up with embarrassing ways of preserving our status as Earth's foremost retro-developing nation.

For those of us born too late for the three-day week – indeed, for those possibly born because of it – the prospect of energy rationing represents an exciting opportunity for buy-in to Britain's last great remaining industry: misplaced nostalgia. The nation's gift for false memory syndrome (which is a bit like having a gift for syphilis) would meet the definitive test of the modern era, and may well see us finally go the whole hog and turn Britain into a giant Blitz theme park.

On the basis that we'd bottle that chance, just as we bottled the chance to rethink energy supplies or build a national water grid, then at the very least everything we thought we knew about the 2015 general election would instantly become wrong. The entire contest would take on a distinct Pakistani feel, with each candidate being forced to ditch late-capitalist indulgences such as having a view on gay marriage and positioning themselves as the one most likely to get the lights back on.

Quite how an increasingly technology-dependent populace would take the blow to their prized connectivity is anyone's guess. I suppose we'd have to hope that removing people's ability to make casual threats of homicide online would not lead to an increase in real-world violence of the sort even one of Jo Wood's peace and ylang ylang-flavoured candles could not suppress.

Whatever happens, we'll struggle for others to blame. Over the last few decades Britain has made such minuscule long-term investment in its own future that a geopolitical psychiatrist would surely class it as pathologically self-destructive. (Even our supposed shale gas bonanza looks only to the medium term.)

Consider last year's forecast drought, which would undoubtedly have led to standpipes had it happened, despite there existing decades of frustrated debate about creating a national water grid. As you may dimly recall, the only thing that saved us in 2012 was a sort of reverse Biblical plague – watery manna, if you like – which rained down for however many sodden months it did and confounded those hosepipe banners who had honked that for Britain to avert parched disaster, it would have to pour for about four thousand hours on the trot. What pessimists they turned out to be.

Of course, like most dystopian visions set 20 minutes into the future, the current proposals for electricity rationing most likely won't come to pass, at least in the form they are being suggested. But with each calamity we manage to avoid by the skin of our teeth, the probability of one of the scenarios coming to pass surely begins to approach.

The question is whether such a reality check would really be so bad – you know, apart from the darkness and the killing and so on. One can't help feeling the eventuality would be what is referred to, in the parlance of our times, as a teachable moment.

For a post-imperial power still somehow declining to accept its place in the world, electricity rationing would surely provide the most sobering of perspectives. After all, if domestic power consumers are paying vast bills to subsidise whatever remains of our manufacturing industry to lie silent just so they can have a cup of tea and watch The One Show when they get in from work, I don't imagine even the maddest of hawks would be fussing about whether we had aircraft carriers or not. No one could possibly even mention the idea of our seat on the UN security council without dissolving into gallows cackles about the lunacy of it all.

And if there were any people genuinely able to insist on our need for nuclear submarines when business is shutting at 4pm, as Tesco holds candlelit trolley dashes, then I would suggest their skills for the new world lie as fabulists and the most unwitting of comedians. On the plus side, that said, they will be virtually guaranteed a call-up to Jo Wood's creative repertory company.

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