According to her daughter, Ève Curie, when the young Maria Skłodowska was a student in Paris in the 1890s she was often so cold in her garret room that she’d put her wooden chair on top of her blanket as she tried to sleep to give herself ‘some sort of illusion of weight and heat’. Reading of Marie Curie’s austere beginnings made me feel better about growing up in a house that was always cold.
Seven years ago, earthquakes in Blackpool led the coalition government to place a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in UK rock formations. Drilling resumed late last year. Opposition has always been resolute and well organised, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In a court hearing last autumn, the fracking company Cuadrilla announced that each day of delay at its Preston New Road operation saw it incur losses of £94,000. The figure was meant to cajole the courts, but may have had the unintended consequence of motivating protesters. By barricading roads, climbing aboard delivery trucks and taking legal action, campaigners have harried Cuadrilla and other firms every step of the way, shutting down fracking sites for days at a time.
‘It's by invitation only,’ a guard at the entrance to the House of Commons told me on Wednesday morning. I was trying to join the people from Fuel Poverty Action (FPA) who had just gone in, uninvited, for a 'warm-up'. The activists had chosen the day of the chancellor’s autumn statement to ask MPs about measures being taken to ensure people can afford to heat their homes. When I got to the lobby, I saw the group surrounded by police. Five minutes later, they were on their way out, chanting: 'No more deaths from fuel poverty.' 'Cold homes kill,' one of their banners said. Winter excess deaths in England and Wales in 2014-15 – the number of people who died between December and March minus the average over the rest of the year – have been estimated by the Office for National Statistics at 43,900, the highest for 15 years. According to the World Health Organisation, at least one third of those deaths are likely to have been caused by fuel poverty.
‘If it rains could you pop into ours to switch that thing on?’ my neighbour said before going away for the weekend. ‘And while you're at it, make yourself a cup of tea; you can also do your washing.’ Their flat was recently flooded, and the company responsible for the leaking roof gave them a dehumidifier and offered to pay their electricity bills until the problem is resolved. On Monday I went to the launch of the Energy Bill of Rights at the House of Commons.
Ed Miliband's promise to freeze household energy prices, even if it doesn't happen, is a meaningful step towards a better understanding of what has truly happened to democracy in Britain in the last thirty years. The Labour initiative exposes a weakness in the hitherto unchallenged power of the mainly overseas investment agents who have taken over – or, in the case of the Royal Mail, are about to take over – formerly not-for-profit British providers of essential services.
Three-quarters of the energy sold by Scottish and Southern Energy comes from burning fossil fuels, but its portfolio also incorporates the dams and reservoirs of the former North of Scotland Hydro Board, not to mention the shiny plate-glass greenwash of the Scottish Hydro Centre for Renewable Excellence in Hope Street, Glasgow, just across the road from Glasgow Central station, where we were going to catch our train. We didn’t get to test-drive the electric car, unfortunately, because it was a Sunday and the centre was closed. But we did admire the bit on the window about Scotland being in the vanguard of ‘a new renewable industrial revolution’ – as romantic, almost, as the Neart nan Gleann motto of the old Hydro Electric. They should put it in an ad for Tennent’s lager, or for the SNP.
It’s an ill wind that blows no jobs. The recent storms in north Britain have spotlighted Scotland’s plans to grow into a wind economy in the years to come. Alex Salmond, as head of the SNP government, has pledged to meet all of Scotland’s electricity needs from ‘renewables’ by 2020, and that plan rests squarely on wind. Salmond enthuses about Scotland’s ‘unrivalled green energy resources’. One thing that everyone agrees on, even ignoring the first minister’s own contribution, is that Scotland has a lot of wind.