As temperatures drop, Britain’s blackout plans are put to the test

The first snowfall of winter is here, and the mercury drops below zero this week. Britain’s energy supply faces its greatest test since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

“Both next week and this week will give us a good indicator of how safe the UK supply looks, and we had a taste already last Monday and Tuesday,” Fabian Ronningen analyst at Rystad Energies.

He said that a sudden rise in energy prices per hour in the wake of the temperature drop was “an indicator of a power system under a lot of pressure and close to its limit”.

The “Troll from Trondheim”, a cold blast from the Arctic, is sending chills down Britain. Temperatures are expected to plummet to minus 8, forcing people to turn on their thermostats. National Grid was able to avoid its blackout plan being implemented last month. A cold winter will pose a greater risk of blackouts.

The Met Office issued an amber alert for severe weather after a mild November gave many people a false sense of security.

Experts warn that the UK’s power system will be severely stretched if there is a prolonged period of low winds and nuclear problems in France.

National Grid stated that it believes the UK will not experience power outages. However, they warned that blackouts could occur in an environment where both electricity imports and gas supplies are limited.

John Pettigrew, the boss of the company, has acknowledged that there may be rolling blackouts during “those darkest nights in January and February”.

“It is still unlikely that we would suffer any temporary power cuts or even fewer gas shortages,” states Jeremy Nicholson of Alfa Energy.

“But this winter, the risk is much higher than it has been in many, many years.”

Many households will be worried about tightening supplies this winter. However, he said it would likely be industrial users who will power down if prices soar without any protection for consumers.

Nicholson states that while it will help to keep the system safe for all, it could also have a devastating economic impact.

You can put the oven on for Christmas dinner. There will be steel, chemical, and glass producers who will reduce their production. They may even close down plants for a time.

The UK and Europe are beginning the cold snap in a better place than most people imagined. However, they still face the possibility of being punished for past mistakes as well as failings to diversify supplies.

Three factors are crucial for the UK this winter: temperature here and abroad, wind speeds, and how much it can import.

Wind power is capable of producing more power than half the UK’s electricity on stormy days but it produces very little power on calm days. Gas is left to fill the gap in electricity generation. Solar power produces less during winter and has a smaller share of the total capacity.

Ronningen says that wind power is expected to be back at relatively low levels in the coming days. However, it remains above what we saw Monday/Tuesday.

“However it is expected that it will get colder and stay cold for most of the week and into next week.”

He stated that most price predictions “indicate that the supply situation is very tight by this week”, which could lead to extreme prices returning at certain points.

When the entire region is hit by a cold snap, help from the Channel might be limited.

France’s nuclear fleet, which is now half its age, was shut down for maintenance in 2015. It remains at half capacity, even though EDF is trying to get reactors online again. On Sunday, British gas exports through the undersea pipes to Belgium reached their highest level since 2016

French nuclear availability has risen to 60pc, the highest level in several months. Five new reactors will be online this week, possibly providing some much-needed breathing room.

The UK is dependent on French imports during winter to meet its demand, particularly in peak hours of the evening.

It could limit the number of goods that the UK can import during peak hours if there are delays in bringing reactors online.

Jess Ralston is an analyst with the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. She says, “In winter, we usually get energy from France.”

“We import it because they have nuclear. We’ll see if that has any impact on us in the coming winter, especially in January/February. It hasn’t so far – they’ve been able to give us power.”

Many people lament the UK’s inaction to increase its energy security, especially with regard to gas storage.

Britain produces a large amount of its own natural gas and has LNG terminals that can import from Qatar. It has only a small amount of storage compared to countries like Germany and Italy.

Although the North Sea Rough gas storage facility has been reopened by Robert Gross, director at the UK Energy Research Centre says that it can hold only a few days to weeks’ worth of gas.

After its invasion of Ukraine, Russia cut off gas supplies through its network of pipelines that run into Europe. However, storage in Europe has been full since the start of summer. It remained at 90% after a mild November and October.

Gross says that most of Europe have done a good job refilling their gas storages over the summer so that we have a buffer.

“But it takes a very small number of things for things to go in the wrong direction before they start getting more scarce in terms of supply.”

He said that a big mistake made by past governments was to advocate for the end of contracts that lock in supply and price over the long term.

He says, “We really pushed to move to a Liberalized Market, which is completely dominated by spot markets’ short-term prices.”

“We now suffer the consequences for that.”

This means that the UK now competes in global LNG markets. If cold weather strikes multiple heavy users, such as those in Asia, it can cause chaos.

The UK has LNG terminals that allow it to import gas from overseas, which is a major advantage over most of Europe.

Ralston says that “we do have the LNG infrastructure” which could allow us to help Europe fill its gas storage.

“But it does not mean that we are more dependent on that trust than if we had lots of energy storage.

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