The establishment media are suspiciously silent about the energy crunch facing Europe in general and the UK in particular. In October, when the wholesale gas price spiked at 400 percent above its January 2021 level, energy prices were headline news. So too was the sight of energy supply companies falling like dominoes. But then, perhaps because energy supply problems couldn’t be blamed on Brexit, the news moved on to MPs sleaze and the Prime Minister’s Christmas parties. Most Brits today are entirely unaware that our energy situation has become far more precarious.
It falls to the business pages of the American press to spell out what UK outlets refuse to consider. For example, Anna Shiryaevskaya, Jesper Starn, and Elena Mazneva at Bloomberg explain that:
“Temperatures are forecast to fall below zero degrees Celsius in several European capitals this week, straining electricity grids already coping with low wind speeds and severe nuclear outages in France. To make matters worse, Russia is limiting natural gas flows through a major transit route to Germany…
“Energy prices have spiraled this year, with European gas surging more than 600%. The region’s benchmark gas contract climbed as much as 8.8% Monday and closed record-high, while German year-ahead power, a benchmark in Europe, rose as much as 5.7% to a record 256.25 euros ($289) a megawatt-hour. The French contract jumped 9% to an all-time high.”
The energy crunch has been exacerbated by the political games being played out by the new German government and Russia – the former refusing to finalise the Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal, and the latter choosing to store gas reserves for its own population rather than pump it over to Western Europe. One consequence for the UK – which is now at the end of the pipelines from Russia – is that the price of gas spiked above £3.70 per therm this afternoon (20.12.2021):
To add to European woes, many of the nuclear power plants which are increasingly essential in providing baseload, are coming to the end of their lives and are regularly down for maintenance. Nor will this situation improve in the coming months and years. The incoming government in Germany is committed to doubling down on Merkel’s insane policy of closing down, and not replacing Germany’s nuclear plants while simultaneously closing down the coal power stations. Both Britain and France are building replacement nuclear plants and have given the go-ahead for so-called fourth-generation nuclear, including the small modular reactors developed from the power systems used in nuclear submarines. But none of these replacements are going to put in an appearance anytime soon. And the old nuclear plants may well have to close on safety grounds, leaving a baseload gap in the mid-2020s.
The UK has gone further in deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies, including large-scale offshore wind farms and the highly polluting forest-consuming Drax biomass plant. Unlike other states which only mouth platitudes about green energy, successive British governments have swallowed green energy bullshit hook, line and sinker, with the result that the UK is now dangerously dependent upon gas – and what remains of its coal plants – to iron out the intermittency from wind.
Again, the establishment media are all too keen to put out stories on breezy days, when wind can meet most of our electricity demand. But they have proved far more reticent on days like today, when high pressure air means that the wind is barely blowing at all. At 9.00pm this evening, wind was generating just 2.8 percent of our electricity; with nuclear and wood burning close to flat out, and imports from Europe providing nine percent of our power. But gas – which is increasingly hard to come by, and is now more than 700 percent more expensive than it was at the start of the year – remains the backbone of our electricity generation (58.4%) as well as providing the energy for most of the British population’s cooking and heating:
The three saving graces for the UK this week are first, that many workplaces have already shut for the Christmas holidays. Second, that the temperature has yet to dip below freezing. And third, the arrival of the omicron variant has prompted government to order us to work from home. This means that demand is significantly lower than it would have been during an ordinary working week. But that won’t always be the case. And a combination of higher demand and lower temperatures would likely lead to power outages.
This is particularly true if we continue to experience gas shortages, because the very last thing the gas grid operators will allow is the disconnection of household gas supplies. This is because to restart the system after a shutdown would require gas engineers to visit every property to ensure no gas appliances have been left in the switched-on position. To do otherwise would be to risk widespread gas explosions.
The situation will get worse in coming years. Britain’s last two coal plants – West Burton, and Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire – will be gone by the end of 2024. And there is no guarantee that the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C nuclear plant will be ready in time to replace them. But even if it is up and running, nuclear is notoriously poor for ironing out intermittency – only gas can ramp up output moment by moment to prevent the sudden losses of grid frequency which are increasingly common as we become over-reliant on wind.
We are, then, in the process of making a qualitative shift from an energy-abundant to an energy-constrained economy. And, with the exception of the miners’ strikes of the 1970s, we have to go back to the 1960s for the last time Britain experienced regular power cuts.
Now consider this, houses in the 1950s and 1960s were not wired to have a plug socket in every room. Indeed, some of my older readers may remember electrical appliances like hair dryers, which plugged into the light socket rather than a separate wall socket. Now look around a modern house, and you will find that most rooms have two or more plug sockets. Even the bathroom is likely to have a shaver socket. The reason is simply that since the 1960s, we have become increasingly dependent upon electrical appliances and gadgets, so that most of us would struggle in the event that the power was cut today, where our parents and grandparents would barely have noticed.
It seems doubtful that the UK government have given much thought to the kind of energy crunch building ahead of us. They did revise their energy emergency plans in February this year. However, the revision seems more concerned with pandemic-related staff shortages together with the usual plans for strikes and terror attacks. The general tone of the document remains upbeat:
“Over recent years the UK has had a strong, secure and resilient energy system, but this is no reason for complacency. The government accepts it can’t completely remove the possibility of disruption to energy supplies caused by, for example, weather-related hazards, accidents, malicious events or industrial action…
“The government maintains capabilities to lead a national response to emergencies of all kinds, including those that affect energy. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates across government, and as appropriate with the devolved administrations, plans and responds to emergencies.”
As with the pandemic, the main purpose of the government plans is to allow the state to continue operating. Insofar as this is consistent with preserving our lives, safety and comfort, then steps will be taken to benefit us. But where our needs conflict with those of the state, we will always be at the back of the queue. This is why the Electricity Supply Emergency Code includes a “protected sites” provision to ensure that critical infrastructure continues to operate.
For the rest of us, a rota system will be used to ration electricity in the event of a prolonged shortage:
“A shortfall in available generation could initially be handled via Grid Code arrangements. If the shortfall were to worsen or be prolonged, this may make it necessary for the Secretary of State to invoke ESEC. Alternatively, the electricity supply emergency could dictate an orderly and planned move to rota disconnections without utilising the Grid Code arrangements if, for example, the situation developed over the weekend and it is clear that there is likely to be a substantial difference between demand and available generation on the Monday…
“The VRDP [Variable Rota Disconnection Plan] divides non-protected sites in a Network Operator’s licence area into 18 groups of near equal demand. For the purposes of ESEC, these groups are referred to as Load Blocks. Supply to these Load Blocks is sequenced for rota disconnections in the VRDP. It sets out the nominal three-hour disconnection periods, i.e. eight periods in any 24-hour day, and respects the need for equality of treatment between non-protected sites as far as reasonably practicable. The rota level and level of disconnection will be based on the shortage of supply. During an emergency, if available supplies diminish, higher levels of disconnection will mean that an increasing number of Load Blocks are disconnected in any one period.”
The idea here is that each of us – households and non-protected sites – will fall within a single load block. Each load block would then receive its ration of electricity for a set period on specified days. Thus, while we would have to come to terms with periods without power, we would be in a position to plan our lives around those periods when the electricity supply was on.
One suspects that this plan was developed to respond to external contingencies such as a strike or a cyber attack rather than for the growing instability within the energy system itself. But as fossil fuel supplies dwindle, and at least until nuclear replacements come online, supply shortages are likely to be much harder to predict. As I wrote last week, we may have to rely on weather forecasting to predict the amount of electricity we can generate from wind when high pressure weather systems block the usual south-westerly airflow from the Atlantic – weather systems which can linger over the British Isles for weeks on end.
It will be interesting to see whether the UK government is any better prepared for energy shortages than it proved to be in tackling a pandemic. In the meantime, making the most of what little daylight we have in winter, and learning how to keep ourselves warm rather than attempting to warm and light our buildings, may be the best we can do for now.
As you made it to the end…
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