Energy has a price ““ as consumers we are painfully aware of it when the gas bill surges or the cost of a litre of petrol catches us by surprise.
When it bites our wallets we tend to blame oil companies, Middle Eastern sheikhs or Russian oligarchs, depending on prejudice or the last news headline.
Less understood is the political price of energy, but it was the hidden message in the reams of paper published yesterday by Alastair Darling, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
For years the Government ignored the warnings about crumbling nuclear plants and the need to scrap dirty coal power stations.
Finally someone has grasped the uranium fuel rod.
Mr Darling wants the private sector to build a new generation of carbon-free power stations, including nukes. He is offering greater subsidies for offshore windfarms and he wants smart electricity meters in every home.
Consumers will have to pay a high price for all this good energy and so will politicians. For all these green things to happen without government diktat, one market mechanism must be made to function properly.
Currently, the European emissions trading system (ETS) doesn’t work and that is because of political fear.
Mr Darling says the Government will do its best to reform ETS. So he should, because without a functioning ETS (which we don’t have) there is no commercial incentive for a power company to do anything except burn dirty coal.
Every utility in the land has told the Government that nukes and futuristic coal and gas plants that capture carbon dioxide can work only with a high carbon price.
Currently, the ETS, which enables power generators to buy and sell “permits” to emit CO2 , prices a tonne of carbon at some â‚¬20 (£14). Utilities reckon the price needs to rise to about â‚¬40 (£27) per tonne to justify investing in new technology.
Twenty-five European governments must agree to create a shortfall of CO2 permits, make polluting expensive and add an extra burden to industry.
Even if the 25 could collectively agree to don hairshirts, the corollary is expensive electricity, for homes, businesses, employers.
It’s about competition and jobs. It’s about businesses that are already under the cosh from globalisation taking another dose of nasty medicine.
It’s about you paying a lot more in the full knowledge that in Asia more carbon is spewing into the air at a frantic pace and no Asian government is planning to take the European medicine.
This is the biggest challenge facing any government today and it is hardly surprising that the cost was not spelt out in Mr Darling’s White Paper.
With the nuclear consultation taking up 200 pages, there is only so much scary stuff the public can take.
By Carl Mortished
International Business Editor
24 May 2007
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