Imagine the papers give column-inches to a car company calling for more roads subsidies, or a criminal calling for nicer prisons. Something analogous seems to be happening in a speech to the grandly titled Royal Academy of Engineering.
Steve Holliday, Chief Executive of National Grid plc, is arguing the case for a £200 billion ($320b) investment in the new smart grid. This technology allows power to be rationed at peak times for selected customers (probably those least able to pay). £200b is a large figure – enough to keep Mr Holliday in bonuses for many years to come. And it might be a surprise to learn that the National Grid would be one of the principle beneficiaries of the proposed investment.
A former Exxon executive, Holliday is quite used to prising subsidies (he calls them incentives) from the State (ie the taxpayer) to augment the earnings of already-profitable enterprises. But the latest raid on the national coffers is in danger of going through without much of a debate, never mind a fight.
With breathtaking hypocrisy the talk is titled “Power to the People” and in it Holliday says that the contry mus t urgently follow his lead and adopt the new Smart Grid. There is no alternative. “We urgently need to rejuvenate the UK’s energy infrastructure. We need joined-up government and real commitment,” he told an uncritical audience of journalists the previous day. but there is an alternative – which is to build a network of local micro-grids, not all of them connected, which will just supply power to their own area, using technologies which are appropriate to that area, whether these be hydro, biomass or (in parts of Wales) possibly even coal.
National Grid is known to US readers because the company tried to justify price increases for its 3 million customers in North-Eastern states such as Rhode Island and New Hampshire by submitting costs including Executive refreshments and their children’s school fees.
Tonight’s event is titled The National Grid lecture, which I take to mean that Steve’s company sponsored it in order to give the boss a legitimate-seeming platform to spout off from. but it was disappointing to see the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and The Guardian newspaper both giving his ideas such an uncritical airing.
National Grid owns and operates the high voltage electricity transmission system in England and Wales and operates the network across the UK. It also owns and operates the UK’s gas transmission system, and distributes gas to 11 million offices, schools and homes in the heart of England.
As the company that links everything up, National Grid sits at the heart of the proposed Smart Grid, and it is heavily involved in cheerleading the proposed reform, as well as ensuring that the whole idea slides through without a debate.
but a 200 billion pound investment (and 1.5 trillion dollars in the US) surely deserves a very careful cost-benefit analysis, and a radical examination of all possible alternative, doesn’t it? That’s an awful lot of moolah, and if it was spent wisely it would be possible to totally re-engineer the current grid, and substitute very local energy production, without the need to carry the power all over the country (the service which makes National Grid’s shareholders very rich).
As well as ignoring the possible alternatives, there has been little or no debate as yet about the following four main disadvantages of the proposed smart grid.
Makes electricity unaffordable for the vulnerable at the precise time they need it most;
Civil liberties issues of a new spy in the home;
Cost of smart meters being met by taxpayer;
Wrong kind of technology being rolled out in a hurry – interoperability problems down the line.
More on these issues in future stories.
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