Britain’s reliance on foreign energy is a national tragedy

national grid
national grid

Excited by reports of a late June heatwave to make up for the achingly familiar blustery showers that are expected to dominate the first couple of weeks of summer? Don’t be.

For one, the party-poopers at the Met Office were brutally quick to dismiss the likelihood of a prolonged hot spell later this month – so you can put away the Bermuda shorts and pack up the beach towels for the time being.

Still, as if the scepticism of the country’s best forecasters wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits, with near-comedic timing the doomsters at National Grid have weighed in to warn of the bleakest of winters.

The Grid’s “winter readiness” report, which every year evaluates how prepared the country is for the coming colder months, must be among its grimmest yet. In simple terms, the experts at its Electricity System Operator arm are warning that we are going to be more reliant than ever on imported power to keep the lights on during cold snaps.

In any civilised country this should be regarded as something of a national tragedy. The idea that Britain requires foreign imports to keep the lights on ought to be a source of great shame, although it seems nothing embarrasses our incompetent political masters anymore.

The North Sea might be in a state of terminal decline but it still contains abundant oil and gas resources. We have perfectly functioning coal power plants too, and Britain’s coastline and deep waters makes it one of the best places in the entire world for wind power.

By the same token, it seems remiss that we have yet to foster the astonishing strength of our tides in any meaningful way. Meanwhile, there have been significant inroads in solar, and there are five operational nuclear plants dotted around the country.

Yet we remain more reliant on the kindness of strangers than ever. It’s a genuine puzzler for the ages that every year the UK finds itself in the same position: at risk of blackouts if it wasn’t for costly imports from France, Norway, and increasingly Denmark via a giant network of high-voltage cables and interconnectors on the sea bed. The cables prevented 12 potential blackouts in the winter months of 2023 alone.

That our reliance on imports has become more acute, not less – despite the devastating energy crunch that swept across Europe after Putin declared war on Ukraine – is unforgivable.

The Kremlin’s aggression and subsequent weaponisation of oil and gas exports was supposed to be the Continent’s wake-up call to become more self-sufficient. As voters watched with horror at their energy bills entering previously unimaginable levels, they were promised that energy security was now the number one priority.

It was either a terrible lie or the incapability of those in charge is even greater than all our worst nightmares put together. In 2022, the European Union imported 62.5pc of the energy it consumed – the highest level of dependency since at least 1990 – and although Russian imports have fallen dramatically, Europe has merely swapped the Kremlin’s tainted energy for supplies from other places such as the US and Norway.

Though there is reassurance to be found in relying on firm allies rather than sworn enemies, energy independence remains a delusion for the West.

Though the UK is less dependent on imports than countries such as Germany, it still bought 37pc of its energy abroad in 2022 – a drop from nearly 50pc in the early 2010s, but higher than in the late 1990s, when the UK was a net exporter. Yet because of soaring prices, our energy bill has never been higher – topping more than £100bn for the first time ever in 2022.

Much of this is accounted for by oil and gas imports. The situation is less serious when it comes to electricity but is being made worse by the Government’s failed energy policy.

Britain’s ability to generate electricity has been severely strained by the closure of coal-fired power stations such as West Burton A in Nottinghamshire last year and Hinkley Point B nuclear plant. The imminent shutdown of the giant Ratcliffe on Soar power station means we will go into winter without any backup coal-fired generation for the first time ever.

The closure of coal-fired power stations such as Hinkley Point B has strained Britain's ability to generate electricity
The closure of coal-fired power stations such as Hinkley Point B has strained Britain's ability to generate electricity - Bridgwater Photographic Society

At the same time, the National Grid transmission network is incapable of carrying the power generated by Scottish wind farms or offshore to English cities – failures that push up the price of UK power, making it more expensive than foreign imports.

In 2023, a record 13pc of our net electricity supply came from countries such as France, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. At one point in April the figure was as high as 15pc.

The idea that this is somehow a good thing because much of it is derived from renewable sources such as French nuclear-power stations or Norwegian hydroelectric plants is absurd. Lower greenhouse gas emissions are to be welcomed but in this instance they come at a heavy price.

Britain spent £3.5bn last year alone on electricity imports. That is money straight out of the pockets of hard-working families into the coffers of foreign energy giants like EDF – best known in Britain for its risible attempts to build new nuclear plants on time and within budget.

They are a nice little money-spinner for the National Grid too. As the owner of many of the interconnectors, they take a cut, meaning they have every incentive to build more.

A general election is unlikely to bring more certainty. Labour says it has the solution but its grand plan has more holes in it than the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Not only does Great British Energy sound underfunded, much of the money it expects to raise will be spent on unproven technologies such as such green hydrogen and tidal power.

Shutting down the North Sea prematurely would be a mistake – but nor is it the basis for a long-term energy strategy, as the Tories seem to think. However, it’s not unthinkable that a Reform-backed Conservative Party seizes power next time around and reverses Labour’s green embrace, catapulting us back to square one.

Having failed to put any proper thought into it, the truth is neither side has the answers.