So there I was, half past seven in the morning, shortest day of the year, children off on the bus to school, under pressure from the editor of this estimable publication to deliver my column early – or at least not as late as usual.
Write about Cuba, he said, being aware of a recent visit to my other favourite island – something a bit different for the festive season. So, not so much as a cup of coffee and, soon, what passes in journalism for the muse was upon me. Then disaster. Three paragraphs in and the screen flickered: off … on … off … on … then most definitely off. Outside, there was snow and wind. Inside, there was darkness, relieved only by a few seasonal candles ignited into functional service.
In such circumstances, there are two responses – curse or ponder. In the absence of an audience, the latter seemed more useful. Only the previous evening I had been explaining to my son the immeasurable importance of electricity to our daily lives.
We should never take it for granted, I had intoned with unaccustomed prescience. Now I was experiencing the lesson at first-hand. There I was, technologically stranded, without the means to write, far less deliver. And I hadn’t even saved these three useless paragraphs.
A couple of hours later, the power still off, I headed for Stornoway and met the Hydro Board engineers, still looking for the fault. These guys are largely unsung heroes who work in all conditions, 365 days of the year, to maintain or restore power to our homes. In a place like this, they provide a truly lifeline service. They are also, of course, the people who know most about what is going on. I remember, when I was energy minister, there was a wave of power cuts in the southern half of Britain when storms hit. In some areas, poor souls were without power for up to a week.
Ofgem assured me that the companies were doing all they could and should not be held responsible. The unions representing front-line staff told me something different, and they were right. The places most severely affected were served by companies which had cut back on maintenance and essential activities such as tree trimming.
Falling timber, rather than the wind directly, is what causes most power cuts in stormy conditions (though not, admittedly, in Lewis, so I digress). However, I would like to think that the action taken then ensured that people in these areas would have suffered a lot less since then from power cuts. And to return to the moral of that diversion: if you want to know what is really going on, speak to the workers rather than the bosses, and certainly not to the regulators.
But back to Lewis (and eventually to Cuba). The power cut, since you ask, lasted for nine hours. It affected 340 homes. But therein lies another great truth. Rural communities depend utterly on universal tariffs and a guarantee of service that takes little or no account of population density. Without that principle, these places would be impossible to live in. What are the economics of maintaining security of supply to 340 homes?
Twenty years ago, when the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board was still in business, the principle was challenged. In a fit of early Thatcherite madness, they proposed setting higher tariffs for the islands, which would have been the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. Fortunately, we were able to nip that one in the bud.
In the case of every public service, sparsely populated areas need – and deserve – the principle of cross-subsidy so that consumers in Aberdeen and Inverness pay a few pennies more to ensure that small numbers of people can subsist in the furthest-flung parts of Scotland. Long may that principle on which the Hydro Board was founded survive.
And now, briefly, to Cuba. I was there to chair a seminar about how UK companies could become involved in their energy sector – both hydrocarbons and renewables. The Cubans fielded a top team and it was a very stimulating event, full of ideas and opportunities.
Cuba is, in many ways, a third-world country with a first-world education system and health service. It also provides electricity to 95% of its people, using solar power to reach some of the remotest communities. But it wants to do better and to use distributed generation to strengthen the national network.
That is a great role model for poor countries since electricity is, I firmly believe, the key to every aspect of economic advancement – education, healthcare, industry, agriculture, employment, you name it. For millions of people in the global village, electricity is the passport to better lives – and, properly applied, renewables can open up transformational opportunities.
Whether in Mangersta or Matanzas, Howmore or Havana, we all need electricity. They certainly don’t take it for granted, and neither should we.