Britain’s biggest defence contractor, BAE Systems, lavished David Cameron with praise on Thursday for all the work he has done supporting the military industry at home and abroad.
What a pity the UK energy companies would not say the same thing. Only on Wednesday, one of the Big Six power companies, RWE npower, unleashed the latest salvo of criticism about muddled thinking by Number 10.
There is some irony that Britain spends £40bn a year of taxpayers’ money on keeping the military on active service abroad and yet risks the lights going out at home because cash will not be spent on energy security.
Around £120bn is needed in the medium term to modernise UK power infrastructure so that it is suitably equipped for a low-carbon world where demand can be met in an era of climate change and rising global temperatures.
Much of that cash can be expected to come from the energy suppliers and the bulk of that will ultimately be taken from the consumer in the way of higher energy bills. But given the rising scale of fuel poverty in Britain, why can’t the Treasury play a more active role?
Even the government’s much-vaunted Green Investment Bank – meant to kickstart wind and other renewable energy projects – will have pitiful amounts of money available. Its ability to borrow has been drastically delayed till at least 2016/17.
All those depressed coastal cities such as Barrow-in-Furness – centre of BAE’s submarine business – that have become desperately dependent on public defence spending could play a role in energy security. They could build gas and wind turbines rather than just submarines.
Not so many people would mind subsidies being available for the nuclear industry if the playing field was flattened to ensure that renewables and other technologies were given equal help.
Alistair Buchanan, the energy regulator, warned this week that Britain was on a “rollercoaster”. A combination of old coal and atomic power plants closing, and foreign gas supplies shrinking, had left future domestic energy reserves “uncomfortably tight”.
The energy companies – unlovable though they are with their doorstep misselling, deliberately complex tariffs and executive pay excess – need encouragement to invest in new plants by long-term government policies. The UK consumer – householders and businesses – can benefit most from a massive drive for energy efficiency. That drive is way beyond the limited scope of the Green Deal or just switching energy suppliers. Cameron should realise a true UK defence policy begins at home. In energy terms it would be built around less, not more, power.
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