Sue Ferns, senior director general secretary, Prospect Distributed energy, Electricity transmission/distribution, Energy networks, Energy storage, Opinion, Brexit, politics, security of supply, supply chain

The question is particularly important because the UK is heading for an electricity supply crunch in the next ten years, which could lead to serious electrical shortages.

An anticipated increase in demand from new technologies such as electric cars combined with the aging coal-fired power station being phased out, and planned switch-off of our existing nuclear plants pose challenges for the government.

However, to date, the response has not been encouraging. The government official line is that renewables and new nuclear plants will be the bedrock of our future electricity fuel mix, with natural gas playing a diminishing role.

This strategy would work if actions to support it were being taken to put it into place. Instead, investment in UK renewables halved last year and progress on building new nuclear power stations has stalled, with no decisions yet on any new plants beyond Hinkley Point C. The Chancellor also announced that there will be no further support for low carbon power until at least 2025.

For the last decade, UK energy policy has been based on balancing three imperatives – ensuring security of supply, keeping power affordable, and reducing carbon emissions.

However, we are jeopardising these key rules as we increasingly go down the route of ‘offshoring’ our sources of electric power. The government seems to think imports will keep the lights on until new low carbon power plants are ready. In January, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published new projections suggesting that by the mid-2020s, close to a quarter of our electricity will be imported, up from around 5 per cent currently.

Interconnectors undoubtedly have a role to play in our energy mix, but there are big risks in over-relying on them.

In fact, if prices rise more quickly in neighbouring markets than in the UK, interconnectors can actually make a domestic supply shortfall even worse.

On numerous occasions in the past, interconnectors have exported power just when the UK needed it most. As interconnector capacity is currently limited, so too are the risks of unexpected power exports. But, with interconnector capacity set to quadruple over the next five years, a future bad weather event that hits both the UK and its neighbours simultaneously could see UK plants supplying large amounts of urgently needed power to French or Irish consumers instead.

There are also obvious risks attached to relying heavily on energy infrastructure, which  experience has shown is particularly vulnerable to accidental or deliberate damage.

The government must recognise that security of supply must always ultimately rest on solid domestic foundations. We urgently need to start work on the next generation of low-carbon power plants and the fact is that the private sector has a poor record on delivering big ticket infrastructure projects like this; the government must accept that it has a central role in planning, financing, and managing new energy projects if they are to be delivered in a cost-effective and timely manner.

Nuclear power is largely carbon-free, and can provide a stable source of power to balance variable renewables.

There have been positive signs that an agreement for funding the Wylfa nuclear power plant will be struck imminently. This is a welcome start as the nuclear new-build programme has been stuck in limbo for far too long.

But, we also need to see progress on other major infrastructure projects such as tidal lagoons and carbon capture, usage and storage. Any further dithering on these key energy policies risks leaving us all in the dark.

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