ON-LINE DEBATE

8 March 1998

Sir Bernard Ingham, Former Press Secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher


I believe that gas is far too precious a fuel to burn in our power stations in order to create electricity. In more sensible days, the whole idea of burning gas to create electricity was in fact banned. The European Community, like the British government, took a very dim view of it because of its nature. I think it’s strategically stupid. Gas is a very price sensitive fuel. You only need a desperate blow-up in the Middle East, or for example in Russia – much gas is found in pretty politically unstable zones – and what would happen to its price? We would then, as we are now, be locked into a very substantial generation of electricity by gas. I just think strategically it is extremely dangerous.

We used to have under the Conservatives, and we probably still have, an energy policy which is broadly dictated by the market. Previously, before 1979 technically, although I think it was a little later before Mrs Thatcher intervened towards the market, we had a policy which said we would seek security of supply at least cost. That was probably necessary because of the need to make political overtures, or at least to pay danegeld to the miners. Ironically, paradoxically, Arthur Scargill’s antics – anti-democratic antics – did for the miners. Nobody will admit that but its the truth, and the consequence was I think Scargill did a great deal of damage for the concept of an energy policy which took some strategic view.

If you take a strategic view of energy supplies, and try to seek long-term security of supply, that does mean that you have to use all kinds of price levers which are not necessarily compatible with a free market, although we do it, and the Chancellor will do it next week with petrol prices, for example. He will load them for environmental reasons. Now I think that we need, very seriously to sort out our energy priorities, and indeed to decide whether we need an insurance policy on an energy strategy, just as we have an insurance policy in maintaining very expensive armed forces to ensure our protection. Those, I think, are serious issues, never debated these days at all. And I think it’s about time we did debate them.

In an ideal situation, would be to have a mix a fuels which give us flexibility, insofar as there is any in energy supply. I personally think that we would – if we didn’t have the problem of Scargill or his successors – probably have a larger coal component but with clean coal technology increasingly important. And it would cost us more, I don’t think there is any doubt about that. But you can’t have it both ways. I think we would not burn on emulsion, the dirtiest of oil and we would have cleaning there. Reluctantly, I think that there may be a place for some gas, but I think it’s reaching very dangerous proportions now. I think that we would have a much larger component of nuclear for one very simple reason, nuclear is the only known means of supplying industrial societies which need very large amounts of reliable and continuous supplies of energy, without damaging or without potentially damaging the climate. But of course the Greens – again paradoxically – have done their best to destroy nuclear electricity by seeking to price it out of the market and to hamper it with every conceivable restriction, not, incidentally, piled upon other forms of energy production.

I’m incredibly skeptical about the contribution so called benign and renewable sources of energy will make. We have only to see the appalling damage that wind farms are doing to our hills and landscapes to realise that these are not benign – they may be renewable, but they’re not benign sources of energy. They are extremely damaging sources of energy to the landscape and what is more, we don’t need supplies of energy which, in the case of wind, are unreliable. You don’t get energy out of wind nor wind turbines if the wind doesn’t blow, or if it blows too hard and they have to be shut down. Now, whether indeed, there is a back-up contribution to be had, for example solar, what the future of wave power and estuary power in the form of barrages – bearing in mind that we don’t know what the effect would be on the ecology and environment of estuaries if we got barrages across them – I simply do not know, but I do not believe that the contribution of renewables is anything but marginal; but I do believe there is a much larger role to be played by energy conservation, and by increasing the efficiency with which we use energy, both in terms of technology, and in terms of the way in which we approach the use of energy in a more economical way. But that of course does imply higher costs of energy. Energy is now almost literally dirt cheap, compared with what it used to be.

I don’t necessarily believe in global warming yet. I believe it is a suspicion that which not yet been confirmed. I think even the most sanguine scientists would say that he could prove that its occurring. But I think common sense tells us that we should not recklessly further pollute the globe. If we accept that then, there are going to be some appalling questions to be asked, as to how indeed, China, India and Africa are going to develop economically.

Geo-thermal is not widely available. I think that there is a romantic notion about benign and renewable sources. If renewable resources were so brilliant a solution they would have been exploited by now. The fact is that they are not a wonderful solution. They’re not even economic. Not even wind power is economic. They’re not going to be economic so far as one can see, unless, of course, the price of oil and gas soars through the roof.

On the hydrogen economy

We’ve heard all about hydrogen. There’s nothing new about hydrogen at all. It is a highly explosive commodity and needs very careful controlling. All these are for the future. What I am saying is that we have to live in the here and now and on the basis of what you know.

I’m all in favour of this country leading technology and making a mint out of it, but why aren’t we doing it? Bearing in mind that we have more Nobel Prize winners than most other countries, the short answer is, probably, that viable "benign" energy isn’t there at the moment. We have heard all about high technology and super technologies before, with things like nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, as a form of free energy. But of course nothing ever happens.

"We have only to see the appalling damage that wind farms are doing to our hills and landscapes to realise that these are not benign…."

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