Wednesday , February 21 2024
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In Brief: Fracking back, new weather warnings, lockdown by any other name

Fracking back

Anti-fracking campaigners like to flatter themselves by claiming that it was their protests which finally brought UK fracking to an end.  The reality though, is that the price at which UK shale gas might be recovered was far higher than the prevailing price of gas from the North Sea.  The UK’s tortured geology and its lack of unpopulated open space meant that UK fracking could never match the relatively low prices of its US counterpart.  And a few years ago, when government had to decide whether to give UK fracking the green light, there was enough surplus gas on the wholesale market to justify a moratorium.

Several gigawatts of intermittent wind farms and an insane German decision to phase out nuclear, later, and Western Europe finds itself desperately short of the gas supplies required to keep the lights and heaters running this winter.  The UK – which failed to model the future strength of the Gulf Stream correctly – is particularly vulnerable as it depends upon gas power stations to iron out the intermittency from its over-deployment of wind turbines.  One result – which the establishment media is being surprisingly quiet about – is that the wholesale price of gas has rocketed past October’s record price of £2.93 per therm.  As of this afternoon, the price is £3.49, and may well reach new highs later this week (see below).

The issue here is whether the current price increases are here to stay.  Some commentators suggest that the shortage is due to Russia cutting its supply to Europe in order to pressure Germany to finalise the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  Others though, point out that Russia has yet to guarantee its own supply for the coming winter, and is under no obligation to bailout Western Europe.  In any case, we will find out if high prices are here to stay soon enough.  And if they are, don’t be too surprised if the recent trickle of stories in favour of UK fracking turns into a flood.

Time for a Met Office power warning

The further the UK goes along the non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technology road to meet its “net zero” commitments, the more we will come to fear periods like the next week.  Why?  Because the Jet Stream has curved up to the Arctic north of the British Isles, with the result that a strong, slow-moving high pressure weather system has begun to settle over us.  And this type of weather brings both still air and colder temperatures.

Wind generation has already slumped to less than six percent of our – as yet relatively low as temperatures are still in double digits – demand.  Gas – which is currently eye-wateringly expensive (see above) – is supplying 53.5 percent, and nuclear 12.5:

It is a measure of how expensive gas-fired electricity has become, that imports from Belgium, France, Holland and Norway are meeting 11.2 percent of UK demand.  Even burning coal and American forests is providing us with 7.6 percent.  Solar is, understandably, providing nothing because it is dark.  But during the overcast winter months it seldom provides much more even at midday.

The remaining two coal plants – West Burton, and Uniper’s Ratcliffe-on-Soar – will be gone by 2024, and may go sooner if any high-cost maintenance becomes necessary.  Meanwhile, a large part of the UK nuclear fleet is due to close in the next few years, while Hinkley Point C is the only one of the proposed replacements actually being built.  Worse still, with much of Western Europe decommissioning coal and nuclear plants, those interconnectors may only offer theoretical electricity in the near future.

What this all adds up to is that the UK is going to be far more exposed to intermittent wind than it is today.  And while, for now, electricity supply can be maintained by shutting down large industrial users, gas shortages and higher prices mean that domestic power cuts will become the new normal.

With this in mind, it is easy to imagine the Meteorological Office putting out low-power warning forecasts for weeks like the coming one, during which we will all have to get used to electricity rationing.  By then though, the threat will not come from predictable weather systems like this one, but from those which hit us out of the blue and result in unexpected power outages.

Worse than lockdown

With the Omicron variant sweeping through the UK like shit through a goose, tighter restrictions are already being introduced.  But following the Tory backbench rebellion over vaccine passports on Tuesday night, the government seems determined to stop short of a full-blown lockdown… at least this side of the Christmas holidays.  Nevertheless, with the Chief Medical Officer warning people off Christmas parties, the damage may have already been done.

No sooner had Omicron emerged, than people began cancelling Christmas events.  And with memories of last Christmas still fresh in people’s minds, many took to working from home weeks before the state officially told them to.  Meanwhile, hospitality and entertainment businesses are being crushed as people cancel bookings at the last minute.  And with just eight more shopping days until Christmas, retailers are also suffering a big drop in footfall at a time when they would have expected to reap their biggest profits.

Nor is the pain going to end anytime soon.  Instead of a formal lockdown, the state is engineering a second pingdemic, by ordering anyone who comes into contact with someone who tests positive with Covid to stay at home for 10 days unless they are fully vaccinated (i.e., they have had three jabs) and test negative.  With daily cases at 90,000 today, and with the infection doubling every two to three days, we could well be up to 1.5 million per day by Christmas Eve, and 23 million per day by New Year’s Eve.  Although in practice, the spread is likely to slow a little as more of us avoid unnecessary contact with potential spreaders.  Nevertheless, come the New Year, we can expect millions of workers being pinged daily, causing massive disruption to the organisations which employ them – including critical infrastructure like fuel refineries, electricity generators, hospitals, food suppliers and transport operators.

The state benefits, of course, by not having to provide the multi-billion-pound support schemes which prevented a complete economic collapse during the first and second lockdowns.  Government can claim that people are free to go about their work (so long as they’ve had their three jabs and they test negative) even though the reality will see hundreds of thousands of key workers randomly having to take at least one day off (while they wait for a test) and many up to ten days off.  Without the state safety net, the impact on businesses and employment in an already weakened economy may prove catastrophic.

As you made it to the end…

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