Opinion

Britain needs a proper solution to the energy crisis before it's too late

The idea that people will have to shelter in libraries to keep warm next winter should shame the government. Yet planned energy projects like the planned Sizewell C nuclear plant will barely scratch the surface, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

Can Sizewell C, which will take 10 years to build, really meet the UK's future energy needs?

It’s that time of the year when things are exposed. Not just torsos that don’t need to be, turning touch-sore red as the season demands. From down beneath the waterlines, as reservoirs run dry, ancient signs and stones talk to us of the past.

There is a Sunday night ITV drama to be created centred on a formerly submerged old village as it emerges out of the shallowing waters, exposing what came before, drawing lines to contemporary protagonists. Last week, it was cup-marked rocks that rose out of an emptying Cornish reservoir. From 4,000 years ago these notes from prehistory tell us, well, nobody is quite sure what. Except that climate change is taking us somewhere we don’t want to go. It’s not exactly a spicy drama narrative. We could try and get Martin Clunes or Suranne Jones involved. 

Even as these ancient signs seek to speak some warning, we don’t have to look too far for more clear dangers being exposed. Martin Lewis, the most listened-to man in Britain, delivered some brutal truths. Domestic fuel bills are set to leap up another 65 per cent in October. That will take typical bills to around £3,240 per year. They already soared 54 per cent in April. In an open letter to the new PM, whoever that may be, Lewis has warned that the rises will invariably hammer the poorest hardest. “This winter,” he said, “we’re going to need warm spaces. Public buildings, local councils, universities and libraries will need to open their doors and invite people in to keep warm because they can’t afford to put their own heating on.” 

While feeling cold is something many people would have welcomed in recent days, the idea of thousands and thousands in Britain having to gather in municipal spaces to seek warmth in winter should shame us.  

In a bid to get to grips with their energy crisis, the French government recently fully nationalised energy supplier EDF. The state already owned over 80 per cent and they’re now spending £8.5 billion to take on the rest. It may not keep a lid on rising bills, but the government had previously made EDF, which generates much of the nation’s power, cap wholesale energy price rises at four per cent for a year. They are shielding their people from the worst, and now looking to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to be more self-contained in the future. We could argue about the cost versus benefit versus potential environmental harm of nuclear power. But its moot as so much energy in France comes from nuclear power. And we import electricity from them. 

The new Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk, given the green light by Westminster last week, will take 10 to 12 years to build. When fully operational it will meet around 7 per cent of Britain’s energy needs and run for 60 years. The project is being mainly funded by EDF. This does not feel like part of any linked-up energy policy, or a concerted way of meeting growing energy needs, or indeed of illustrating how the state can serve the people, but rather a piecemeal approach with costs met by a foreign power. 

Come September 5, when the new PM is set to take the reins, it will be getting darker earlier, it will be colder and we know how our energy bills will wallop. This will have a massive impact on all aspects of society at every stage. The calls that are increasing to debt-help charities will spike. There will be an inability for some people to meet bills, problems will spiral and homelessness will inevitably increase. The next PM must see this as the crisis of our times, have a plan to help those in need and make sure we don’t have to switch out the lights and go back to making cup marks in rocks. 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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