“Put that light out!” Wartime conditions are returning to parts of Europe, as they transition from lockdown to blackout, after Vladimir Putin cut the flow of gas from the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20 per cent of capacity. The city of Hanover, an icon of European prosperity and lifestyle, which was in a political union with Britain from 1714 to 1837, is reducing energy output by turning off the lighting on public buildings and cutting hot water supplies, limiting room temperatures to a maximum of 20C and reducing the times that heating will be on in municipal buildings from October to March.
Other German cities, including Munich, Leipzig, Cologne and Nuremberg, are making similar provisions, while Berlin’s darkened public buildings recall wartime restrictions. Officially, the aim is to meet the EU demand for a 15 per cent cut in gas use among member states, but in fact, Germany is a special case – in energy terms, a basket case – and author of its own misfortunes.
Over the past decade there was much chatter about the “legacy” of Angela Merkel. Well, here it is: the blacked-out cities and businesses contending with the worst energy crisis in Europe are the legacy of Merkel’s insane reliance on Russian gas supplies to light and power Germany. This is what happens when a highly developed industrial society puts its energy supplies at the mercy of a ruthless, war-mongering dictator. There is no excuse for Merkel: she was not crept up upon by the psychotic successor of a reasonable statesman, Putin was already in power when she subjected her country’s energy provision to his whim.
France is in no better shape. Unlike Merkel, France eagerly adopted nuclear power; Fukushima held no terrors for the entitled Énarques. Unfortunately, the largely state-owned French energy authority, Électricité de France (EDF), appears to have maintained its nuclear power stations to Chernobyl standards, so that only 26 of its 57 nuclear reactors are running, with the majority out of action and undergoing emergency maintenance after cracked pipes were discovered.
So, at this crisis point, France is relying largely on gas-fired plants, hydro and unpredictable wind power, as well as imports. No wonder Emmanuel Macron spends much of his waking hours on the telephone to Vladimir Putin. This month the French grid made an emergency request to Britain for extra power – at the height of summer. The French energy crisis is aggravating soaring prices in the European market and, by extension, the eurozone crisis: it seems probable that inflation has embedded itself to become endemic in the eurozone economy.
The whole European Heath Robinson contraption is endangered, long-term, by the perfect storm now assailing it. Soon, anyone who claims Britain’s woes are due to Brexit will simply be told to look across the Channel. If we had remained in the EU, our problems would have been compounded by a compulsory 15 per cent reduction in gas, i.e. energy, use – for the altruistic purpose of bailing out improvident, incompetent Germany.
That does not mean we are immune to the pressures on energy prices being generated on mainland Europe. The UK is fortunate in relying on Russia for only 4-6 per cent of gas supply, but UK wholesale prices, e.g. for next-month delivery, are up to 12 per cent higher as a result of Putin’s Nord Stream 1 game-playing. Britain has made itself vulnerable to rising prices by closing the gas storage facility at Rough on the Yorkshire coast. So, we are making a fast buck by exporting record volumes of gas to Europe that should be stored for the winter in the UK.
The prospects for next winter are rapidly becoming apocalyptic. The energy price cap is forecast to hit an average £3,500 by October, the autumn increase amounting to 74 per cent; inflation is already headed for 11 per cent, but gas price rises will boost it higher. By January, the monthly household energy bill is predicted to reach £500. That is entering life-or-death territory for some of our citizens, while energy costs could put an end to businesses that survived the pandemic lockdown, but can take no more punishment.
Whoever becomes prime minister in September will face a crisis as demanding as war – partly derived from war, in the Ukraine. The first task should be to appoint a dedicated Secretary of State for Energy, exclusively focused on the crisis and reporting to the prime minister and cabinet (of which membership would be a necessary attribute of the post) weekly.
This Secretary of State for Energy should be separate from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and focused exclusively on the state of energy supplies, with a remit to accelerate licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and any other promising regions. We should also try to secure further supplies from reliable sources such as Norway. Lord Frost would seem a likely candidate for a post that would require its holder to do for energy today what Lord Beaverbrook did for aircraft production during the War.
A Secretary of State for Energy would need to review the promotion of nuclear power. Planning has been granted for Sizewell C, now investors are needed. But our greatest asset should be British skills and inventiveness. Our universities should be encouraged to prioritise hydrogen research and every other potential energy technology; even if only some of them work or are cost-effective, every avenue should be explored.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Although broad-based reduction in public spending is an essential reform of the incoming ministry, as in the first days of the pandemic an increase in support of households faced with unaffordable energy bills may be unavoidable. Liz Truss, our likeliest prime minister-in-waiting, seems to smell the coffee, with her pledge to suspend green levies on household bills for two years, though more relief than that will be needed.
Britain should not be facing an energy crisis. We are an island of coal set in a sea of oil. Every North Sea well that can practically be exploited should be brought on-stream, pace Nicola Sturgeon; oil licences are a reserved power. The whole smug, blinkered mentality that, in the interests of virtue-signalling, seeks prematurely to cut off our fossil fuel energy supplies, must be rejected. Both Tory leadership candidates are committed to permitting fracking, where the local community does not object. Does such a community exist? Are we neglecting an important energy asset due to lack of education among a public relentlessly propagandised by green zealots?
Priorities need to be radically reviewed. Every element of energy bills related to green levies must be stripped out, regardless of the protests of lobby groups. In the current reality, hypothermia is a more immediate danger than global warming. All government and local authority extravagances must be pruned. We could even take a few lessons from European cities: why, in an unprecedented energy crisis, are our towns disfigured by acres of garish neon lighting?
There is nothing like a war to bring people face to face with reality. One of the consequences of this crisis is that it ends all controversy over net zero, certainly the ambitious timing of the target, since the resources no longer exist for implementing it.
We need to discover from neutral scientists the probable climate changes of the next three decades, as peculiar to Britain, and devise a bespoke response, rather than galloping ahead of the world in unaffordable gestures, beggaring ourselves and shredding our energy infrastructure while China opens ever more coal-fired power stations. Since the immediate cause of the current energy crisis is Vladimir Putin’s aggression, we should also invest heavily in his defeat by Ukraine.