Unseasonal temperatures this March have had us running to our thermostats to turn up the heating, and we do so without a second thought, although worrying about the cost is always a factor.
But have you ever considered what you would do if the government announced a ration on our gas and electricity, or worse still, that we had run out? Think it couldn’t happen? With rumours of reports that the UK has less than 36 hours of gas reserves left, the unimaginable could be a real possibility.
This time last year we were experiencing the warmest March on record for the past 20 years, with temperatures hitting the low twenties. Fast forward 12 months and the picture is completely different, with the weather in the UK continuing to worsen over the weekend, and freezing conditions expected to remain for several more days.
The weather has been the catalyst for the fuel shortage, but a series of other problems have shown how the UK is particularly vulnerable when it comes to gas supplies. The UK can store enough gas for up to 20 days, compared to 100 days in France, 92 days in Germany, 70 days in Italy and 6 months in the U.S. In the winter, instead of storing the gas, it is immediately put into the National Grid, where it is used straight away. In the summer, demand falls and less is stored. As such, our importation of gas fluctuates more than other countries in the EU. Therefore we have never built large storage facilities.
The UK receives gas from the continent, the North Sea and from the Gulf State of Qatar. However, yesterday morning a water pump failed at one of the four underwater pipelines that connect the UK and the Continent. This pipeline from Belgium usually supplies around a fifth of the UK’s gas demands, but had to be shut down. Later in the morning it was reopened and began pumping gas at a reduced rate, but was completely closed in the afternoon.
Gas from the state of Qatar takes two and a half weeks to reach our shores, and it is thought that another delivery is not expected for another two days.
Ann Robinson, analyst for uSwitch, said: ‘If this dreadful weather continues for the next two or three weeks we should be very worried, because if we get into a position where we do run out of gas there is not a lot that can be done in the short term. Rationing would be inevitable, for businesses and domestic users and maybe for gas-powered electricity producers as well, so we might be looking at electricity rationing too.’ She said the Government’s response to the crisis had been ‘very complacent’.
Angelos Anastasiou, from investment bank Liberum Capital, added: ‘There’s a bit from the pipes and there’s LNG but that’s it. There isn’t any more. I would say rationing is a distinct possibility. We’re not there just yet, but it’s a distinct possibility.’
Energy Minister John Hayes said the issue was ‘a priority’ and confirmed he has held ‘discussions with industry and others about gas security’.
Energy analyst Peter Atherton said: ‘When you run out of storage, National Grid will need to start reining demand back in. You get cases where ships are told to turn around and go back because Japan is willing to pay more. We can get LNG here, but we will be bidding against the rest of the world. We can get it, but we will have to pay the price.’
The first to be affected are likely to be the power stations that run on gas. They will most likely be rationed as we have still coal and oil-run power stations which can be utilised to meet demand. However, the UK will not be able to use them for long, as an EU directive to meet new green regulations means that many of these coal and oil plants will be closed down. Once power stations have been rationed it is imagined that big business and factories will see gas use sanctioned. Householders should be the last people to be asked to ration their usage.
Mr Atherton thinks that we should get control now and seek to build more storage for our gas. ‘We need to have enough to get through a winter if something happens to the interconnector pipes. Can we get through the winter on our own supplies? Other European countries can, but we certainly can’t.’
A Department of Energy spokesman said: ‘In the unlikely event of a gas supply emergency, Government and industry have in place well-rehearsed plans to ensure that gas supplies can continue, so that gas consumers would not be cut off.’
Mr Hayes said: ‘Protracted cold weather increases demand, but the UK gas market is functioning well and our gas needs are continuing to be met. Gas storage could never be the whole answer, so to think purely in terms of how many days’ supply is in storage, is unwise. We have relied on a diverse range of sources for many years.’
But Joe Conlan, of the Inenco energy consultancy, said: ‘There is a very real prospect of running out, especially given the colder weather forecast for next week, the long, cold winter and disruptions to supply as a result of a very intensive period of maintenance in Norway.’ Britain is expected to use 337m cubic metres of gas tomorrow, while the country has just 466m in reserve, Mr Conlan said.
And with the cold weather predicted for the next few days at least, he is worried:
‘The next week is critical.’