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Durham Energy Institute

Will the lights really go out?

Dong Energy: Will The Lights Go Out Panel Discussion

Dong Energy: Will The Lights Go Out Panel Discussion

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A public debate on one of the UK’s big challenges.

In Collaboration with DONG Energy UK, DEI hosted a panel debate discussing whether the UK can keep the Lights on over the next decade or whether media fears - that we will be facing widespread blackouts – are true.

The panel consisted of:

  • Jenny Saunders OBE, Chief Executive of National Energy Action;
  • Benj Sykes, DONG Energy’s UK Country Manager for Wind Power l;
  • Janusz Bialek, DONG Energy Professor of Renewable Energy at Durham Energy Institute; and
  • BBC’s Chris Jackson ("Inside-out North East" programme) skilfully chaired the event 

The possibility of an increased risk of blackouts in the UK began hitting the news headlines last year with various studies and energy experts indicating an uncomfortable squeeze in energy reserves. Industry warnings centre around a projected shortfall in supply following the retirement of power plants which cannot meet EU carbon emissions targets and a lack of investment in new plants. This lack of investment from energy companies is said to result from regulatory uncertainty, the high prices of gas currently reducing the viability of gas-fired power plants, continued political reluctance to embrace Nuclear energy as an option and the lack of Carbon Capture and Sequestration development to enable investment in coal powered plants.

The topic generated a lively debate, with insightful questions from the audience of over 120 researchers, students, business people and campaigners from the region. A lively contribution was also generated through the twitter feed #Durhamenergydebate.

The panellists themselves were broadly in agreement that the risk of blackouts was low, however the costs of energy would continue to rise for the consumer. As Prof Bialek pointed out, an electrical blackout would only occur in a harsh winter where there were additional problems with power plants and government would do everything in their power to avoid blackouts. One particular tool that energy suppliers could use to avoid blackouts would
be to pay companies to reduce their demands at peak times in order to enable other demands to be met.
He argued that this might in fact be the best approach, as it is a more responsive, immediate and short term solution, cheaper than building new power plants for the sake of a few hours of demand.

Jenny argued that with 4 million people currently in fuel poverty, and with these figures set to increase, it is essential that we stop relying on market mechanisms. Instead, we should ensure the public sector undertakes massive investment in retrofit and upgrading our old housing stock, including introducing renewable technologies. We have seen a shift from publicly supported investment to consumers meeting the costs and with initiatives such as paying large companies to reduce their demands at peak times it is customers would be paying. Although the middle classes can afford and should expect to pay more for energy and secure our low carbon future, it is unfair to expect poorer customers with shrinking incomes to foot the bill.

These distributional aspects are unfair and need to be addressed.

"The lights might stay on but at such a high costs that many people will have no choice but to turn theirs off."

Benj Sykes, provided an industry perspective, and agreed that companies do need to take responsibility and invest. He said the argument of regulatory uncertainty discouraging investors no-longer holds true with the new Energy Bill and Electricity Market Reform in place. Despite visions of political discord in media, there is in fact a great political consensus on the need for investment in low-carbon technologies. Now is the time for companies to invest in the energy system and in research and development to make technology cheaper and more effective. That is exactly what DONG energy are doing in off-shore wind with expected investments of £1million every year in research and development, as well as investing in support to help their customers to cut their electricity use.

On the issue of the energy mix, the panellists agreed there is a place for a broad mix of energy generation technologies in our system, including nuclear, but that more investment is needed in low-carbon technologies. The view from Benj was that we can ensure sufficient capacity is available by investing in and transforming the energy system through low carbon technologies. An essential part of the mix being offshore wind, the area of DONG Energy’s focus.

“I would love to see the amount of money invested in nuclear R&D going into renewables”


The twitter contribution

Follow the panelists on twitter on @DEI_Durham@DONGEnergyUK, @SykesBenj, @NEA_UKCharity,

  • Will the lights go out in Scotland (or in UK) if the vote's yes? Is this a question for another day?
  • Remembering the 1970s 3-day week
  • Might a military application for wind turbines bring investment on the scale enjoyed by nuclear?
  • Is decentralised energy generation answer for rural and fuel poor?
  • On average 80% of a domestic energy bill is for heating. Will heating go off before the lights for the domestic sector?
  • Denmark currently generates at times way more than 50% of their power supply from renewable flexible generation so it is possible.
  • B.Sykes says wind producing 9% electricity in UK but has bigger role to play
  • With our poor progress on reducing CO2 emissions, does the panel think the 2050 targets are achievable, and how?
  • Jenny Saunders asks about distribution relating to the specter of the lights going out - what about affordability?