I've been writing about the need for a reconfiguration of British energy for a long time. On the infrastructural side things are a mess, and they don't look any better from the spare capacity perspective, nor from the fuel poverty angle. We're on shaky ground relying on imports from countries halfway round the world that may decide to interrupt or divert our supplies if we hit turbulent political times, and the waste disposal issue is looking bleak as landfills across the country reach capacity, forcing us to pay other countries to take it off our hands. This leaves a particularly sour taste in the mouth as many of these countries use the very same refuse to generate power and sell it back to us, hitting the UK with a double fee and securing them a lucrative double payment. Talk about money for old rope...
If we could wipe the slate clean and build a power network across the UK from scratch today I highly doubt that it would look anything like the system we've got in place at the moment, with overstretched distribution lines groaning across far reaches of land and losing power as they travel great distances from the point of generation to end-users, patched together in a rather ad hoc fashion and totally unfit for 21st century demands. There's no conversation between supply and demand, and a total absence of the grid intelligence seen in the networks of some of our European and Scandinavian neighbours. In terms of efficiency, carbon reduction, affordability, and security of supply, the current system just isn't delivering.
So what would it look like in an ideal world? It probably depends on who you ask, but if we're looking at addressing the four issues above, it seems to me that we could go a long way towards improving the situation if we simply took the power back into our own hands. It's easy to feel jaded about these problems because of their scale, but in truth there are things we can do to slowly sort them out, one community at a time. Local energy centres fuelled by local waste and offering power and heat to local communities provide a suite of benefits: security of supply, cheaper power through the omission of various charges and levies associated with connection to the National Grid, lower emissions than traditional power plants, and a huge reduction in wastage between generation and end-users. Add to that the reduction of cost to councils who reduce their landfill waste, and indeed the potential for an income stream through the implementation of a community interest energy company that acts as power supplier to the region and ploughs profits back into the area, and you have a compelling upwards cycle.
Communities could be reinvigorated by these schemes, with individuals able to make the choice between the monopoly of the Big Six and their rocketing prices or a locally-based energy tariff that directly benefits them and their town. Joining up energy and waste strategies within an area is a challenge, as it requires collaboration between separate parts of local authorities, but I strongly believe in the value of exploring this opportunity to turn the burden of rubbish into a compelling solution to several very daunting problems. The way we live now is unsustainable. Alongside reducing our net consumption, we have to look to non-traditional means to harness energy from our environment. We have nailed our colours to the mast on this topic and are currently investigating the potential for an exemplar scheme in Northampton; you can read full details here.