Why I'm stockpiling candles

The government's energy strategy - or lack of it - pretty much guarantees power cuts in the not too distant future, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

There was a power cut in my neighbourhood on Tuesday night. At around 7pm the lights dimmed, then went out. We looked out of the window. Nothing. No street lights and, apart from a few candles in the homes of the well prepared, no light from any of the other houses.

For a few minutes it was mildly entertaining (for the children, at least). Then it got a bit irritating. I had work to do, but the computer was out of action. The children wouldn't go to bed ("it's too dark"). We couldn't cook anything for supper.

Worst of all, it was a nasty night and the house started to get cold rather faster than we'd have liked. It didn't last long the lights were back on by 8pm. But the whole episode gave me nasty flashbacks to my childhood in 1970s Ireland. Think lukewarm shared baths, no central heating, permanently damp bedding and intermittent electricity. It isn't a time I want to re-live.

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That's a shame, given that the government's energy strategy, or lack of it, pretty much guarantees I'll have to. Last month Ofgem's chief executive Alistair Buchanan suggested that, due to the UK's failure to address its rising electricity needs and soon-to-be-falling electricity supply (eight of our major oil and coal-fired stations are to shut by 2015, as are four of our older nuclear stations), we're likely to see proper blackouts from 2013.

Large energy users in particular will see "involuntary curtailment of demand". In September the government itself was predicting that by 2017 we'll see power shortages (or, as it calls them, "energy gaps") of around 3,000 megawatts a year "the equivalent of the whole of Nottingham being without electricity for a day", says the Daily Mail. Just what our ailing economy needs.

It's a real indictment of modern government in general. Why? Because none of this is news. As energy consultant John Westwood tells The Times, "successive governments have had 30 years' notice of the present serious decline of UK oil and gas supplies and full knowledge of generation plant lifetimes". So there's no excuse for the inaction that could mean our children have the same grim experiences we did in the 1970s.

I suppose we should be mildly grateful the government has finally decided, if not actually to act, then at least to say it will.This week Westminster confirmed it plans to build ten new nuclear power stations in the UK. This may or may not happen (the Tories say they'll make stations go through proper planning processes).

But even if it does, it won't save us from blackouts. The first isn't scheduled to be up and running until 2017 (so assume 2020, given our history of success with big infrastructure projects), two years after the coal-fired stations shut down.

On Wednesday morning I went to the supermarket. I've started stockpiling candles just like my mother used to.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.