Right and wrong in the power conundrum

I'D just put the bread in the oven, the laundry in the washing-machine and was applying the vacuum-cleaner to the stairs when it struck me. Without a reliable supply of affordable electricity we'd be in deep do-do.

Aidan Semmens

I'D just put the bread in the oven, the laundry in the washing-machine and was applying the vacuum-cleaner to the stairs when it struck me. Without a reliable supply of affordable electricity we'd be in deep do-do.

It's not just that life would be less convenient. We have become so dependent on electric power that we'd have to make massive adjustments to cope without it.

At work, and for quite a bit of my leisure time too, I sit tapping at a computer terminal.


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In fact, this column almost failed to appear last week due to a computer crash. And though that was virus trouble, not a power failure, it brought home a similar point.

I rely on my connection to the national grid for heat, light, cooking, cleaning and mowing the lawn,

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By powering the internet it helps me keep in touch with friends and maintain links with the world (including you).

And when I'm not engaged in any of the above activities (and sometimes when I am), I often have music playing, either via CD, internet or radio. All powered by domestic mains supply.

Even at this time of the year solar panels do most of the job of providing our hot water. But that system is reliant on a small electric pump to bring the warmth in from the roof.

Our recent ancestors - even our younger selves - would find all these mod cons mind-blowing. But our reliance on them leaves us very vulnerable.

A series of power cuts such as we had in the 1970s would hit us harder now than it did then.

And there are those in the know who think our near-ish future could well feature “load-shedding” on a much bigger scale than that. Official government estimates predict widespread cuts from 2017.

In the century or so since an electricity supply was connected to most of our homes we have become reliant on it to a staggering extent.

We are power junkies. If it were taken away we would face withdrawal symptoms so severe they might in many cases quite quickly become fatal.

It is, I suppose, for this reason that the government this week committed to a new generation of nuclear power stations.

A decision that could in the long term be the worst among all the bad decisions taken by this government. Or any British government.

And not just for those of us who live in the wind shadow of Sizewell.

Nuclear power may seem like a quick fix. It's not. It's a catastrophe waiting to happen.

By claiming that it's “clean” and “relatively safe”, energy secretary Ed Miliband has blown his credibility right out of the water.

Safe for now, perhaps.

The terrorist attack scenario is a giant red herring. The reactors at Sizewell, Bradwell and elsewhere should be safe enough against that prospect.

But what of a few decades down the line? A century or two? A millennium or two?

Can we build anything that will reliably keep lethal waste safe for that long?

How safe will Sizewell be when the sea erodes away the cliff it's built on - as it surely will?

How safe is “relatively safe”? Relative to what? Global warming? All-out nuclear war?

Miliband also said the government would support new coal-fired power stations, as long as they are fitted with a new “green” technology.

Sounds good. Trouble is, the technology for carbon capture and storage is unproven and prohibitively expensive. And there are serious doubts anyway about how “green” it really is.

So is it time to panic? To start preparing for a life of power cuts without end in a post-oil world?

Not necessarily.

There is a growing scientific consensus that suggests we could have all the power we could possibly want without burning anything - coal, gas, corn-oil or rainforest.

And it doesn't even rely on developing technologies to harness the power of waves or the heat of the earth's core.

Certainly not on the scientifically sexy but probably dead-end idea of nuclear fusion.

Both solar and wind power have the potential to deliver more power than even gas-guzzling America would know what to do with. And we already have the safe, clean, green technology to exploit them.

All we have to do to make it happen is tweak the world's economy to reflect what is really worth doing and what isn't. Rather than the advertising industry's idea of what will make some rich people richer.

That, admittedly, is some tweak.

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