Power Power

It was back in the 70’s that we first argued for the revenues from Wessex mineral resources (including Dorset oil) to be re-invested in the development of alternative energy sources, and in long-term regional employment opportunities, with the ultimate aim of achieving basic regional self-sufficiency.

Today the oil is running out but the long-term perspective remains lacking. Government at every level is still talking about building roads to end congestion and expanding airports to underpin the mad project of economic globalisation. (Just why do we burn irreplaceable fuel to fly in food we could produce for ourselves?)

In place of a long-term perspective we have the politics of panic. For some in the debate, nothing else matters. The South West Green Party greatly prefers wind farms to local democracy. Yet there are so many huge questions going unanswered.

Supply-side policy rules. We tackle the drug dealers; we don’t ask why they have so many customers. We talk about a housing crisis because we won’t talk about rocketing and unsustainable population growth. And we look to renewable energy sources to avoid discussing where and why the demand for energy exists.

The Government’s own Energy White Paper in 2003 concluded that the cheapest, cleanest and safest way of addressing energy policy objectives is to use less energy. Yet reckless economic and population growth continues to outstrip the potential of technology to ameliorate the crisis. We think we’re awfully clever if we build three million new homes on ‘surplus’ farmland and ensure that each one has a solar panel on the roof. But you can’t eat solar panels. Nor is nuclear power the answer. Uranium is finite, just like coal, oil and gas.

This is not sustainable development. This is just another competition to re-arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. Unfortunately, those who are deaf to the facts are those who are running the country.

Radio 4 this morning, in a programme entitled ‘Energising the West’, gushed for half an hour on the renewables revolution now underway in our region. It’s great, of course, that we have such resources of wind, wave, water, wood and waste. But from the metropolitan viewpoint, these are resources to be plundered for the common good, in other words, for their good. So we end up sacrificing Wessex beauty spots to wind farms just to keep the neon blazing in Piccadilly Circus. We shall not receive anything like the value extracted from our resources. And in the end our tarnished heritage will be cast aside, just like the steam age coalfields and land now blighted by radiation.

The Severn Barrage illustrates the thinking. There are ways to harness tidal power that don’t require destruction of a vast wetland area of international importance for wildlife. Friends of the Earth have the details. Yet in September Labour announced a feasibility study of a Severn Barrage – and nothing else. They are determined to suck out the very last watt of power, regardless of the environmental consequences. Because London demands it (and Labour loves prestige projects). Our view is that tidal lagoon and other alternative technologies are serious options with significant environmental and operational advantages. Additionally, because they wouldn’t turn the Bristol Channel into a lake, they would maintain the separation of Wales and Wessex. A barrage would promote social coalescence to the mutual disbenefit of our respective cultures. Nor would these options require either the closure of all ports upstream of a barrage or the fitting of a lock limiting the size of ship acceptable.

If the aim of national energy policy is the exploitation of Wessex for London’s benefit, a regional energy policy has the equally clear objective of self-sufficiency at the regional level. So how do we secure this?

We begin by auditing the resources we are neglecting. We have an east-west motorway, the M4. Should we not be installing photo-voltaics on the south-facing embankments? We produce around 25 kilogrammes of waste per household per week. Why do we landfill so much and not recover the maximum energy from it? Southampton City Council has made a name for itself in energy best practice. So why are all Wessex cities not performing at the same level?

These are questions that a regional government would be well placed to answer with enthusiasm. National government won’t get involved in the detail. Local government is often too limited by its horizons to do the vision thing. Regional government – a Wessex Parliament – would do the necessary marshalling. Is it better to have a few large energy-from-waste plants that can maximise thermal efficiency? Or more local ones, that minimise fuel transport distances and allow heat and power to be distributed through local networks?

The region is the level at which energy issues come together. That’s why we have regional electricity companies, even though, thanks to Thatcher, they’re now owned by the French and the Scots. It’s been sixty years since they were owned by Wessex folk.

Maybe it’s time to bring back the Wessex Electricity Company? Wouldn’t we rather be paying our bills to that than to a company 70% owned by the French State, whose nuclear power stations are arranged along the Normandy coast so that we’re the first victims of any fallout?

As for the Scots, they’re best known for laying claim to Shetland’s oil, which won’t do them much good in the longer term. But the corresponding issue for the 21st century is who owns the energy of the future. You read it here first. They’re Wessex’s renewables!