EU Referendum

Energy: the doomsday scenario


"Unless we're willing to avert our attentions from [the legacy media] output and set our own agendas", writes Pete, "they'll continue to spit on us and rub our faces in it". This is his comment on the venality of contemporary media coverage, and a view with which I heartily agree.

Certainly, I don't think any of the issues which fill the front pages of today's papers would have made it there, had I been involved, with the exception of the Financial Times lead, which tells us: "US [is] to demand halt to Nord Stream 2 if Russia invades Ukraine", a story partially replicated on The Times front page.

We don't, of course, know if the Russians do intend to invade – the recent troop movements could be sabre-rattling, or a not-so-devious ploy to put pressure on Germany (and the EU) to speed up the Nord Stream approval process. But my guess is that, if they do, they will move on Christmas Eve, as they did when they invaded Afghanistan.

However, if Russia does go into Ukraine and Germany reacts as Biden wants, the likely outcome will be the closure of the Ukraine natural gas pipelines serving the "western corridor".

If this happens, there is no doubt that it will precipitate a Europe-wide energy crisis, the like of which we have never experienced before – especially as Russia has already been withholding supplies, limiting deliveries to the spot market.

As different states struggle to make up their energy shortfalls, the UK will not escape the fallout. Norway, in the first instance, will be under huge pressure to divert gas supplies to mainland Europe, cutting down on UK pipeline flows. We can expect the Netherlands gas interconnector to be shut down and, as France diverts electricity to the European grid, we will be lucky to get anything through their electricity interconnectors.

There will be some LNG available, but there will be strong competition for supplies, and prices will be astronomical. And no amount would be sufficient to keep the UK grid going, simply because of flow constraints.

With the UK unable to meet more than half of its gas consumption from its own resources – less during winter peaks – and with only six days storage, there will have to be implemented a programme of severe gas rationing.

First to go will be the major energy users – of both gas and electricity. The latter will be necessary to cut the demand for electricity generation and thus eke out gas supplies.

The domestic distribution system was be protected at all costs: a drop in pressure might allow air into the system leading to multiple and possible fatal gas explosions. Thus, the next to go will be gas generation, which will almost certainly lead to widespread brownouts.

On the upside, if the gas shortage is predicted, at least the electricity cuts can be managed, with warnings given and, with sufficient rotation, the durations limited. People (those who can afford to) will be able to prepare, and most of the damage contained.

Without plentiful supplies of gas, though, the [electricity] grid will be extremely vulnerable to any perturbations because, as we have seen, gas generation performs the dual role of producing electricity and balancing the system.

Given that we will be heavily dependent on renewables, a sudden a collapse in wind generation – could force widespread, unplanned power cuts. Worse still, a sudden, unexpected drop in output could trigger what is known as a cascade failure, where local overloads cause others power stations to drop out, until the whole system shuts down.

In such an event, restoring power to the grid is not a simple matter. Sections of the grid must be isolated and a single unit reconnected to one part, and stabilised. The next plant must then be synchronised with the first before it too can be reconnected, and then the next, and the next, and so on. Restoring full functionality, even without glitches, can takes days if not weeks.

As the victims of storm Arwen have been finding, there is an enormous difference between coping with a short power outage, and being without power for several days. And even in rural Scotland and Northumberland, where power supplies are never truly dependable, what was remarkable was how ill-prepared many people were.

Translate this to a London power cut and it takes little to imagine what the effect might be on community life and law and order. Probably within hours, there will be looting and then rioting in our more "diverse" districts.

The police may well have serious communication problems, and many staff might find it difficult to get to work, as the transport infrastructure fails in the absence of power. Large areas will be unpoliceable, and unpoliced, as available resources are directed to protecting vulnerable and priority areas.

If this sounds too much like a doomsday scenario, we need to be conscious of just how fragile UK generation already is, even without the Ukraine situation blowing up.

For instance, on 3 December this year, the National Grid ESO issued its first Electricity Capacity Market Notice (CMN) of the winter for the same evening, posted because the capacity margin had fallen below the threshold set out in the Capacity Market Rules.

For the period, there had been an expected transmission demand and therefore operating margin of 42,518MW. However, there had been only 42,472MW of aggregate capacity of Balancing Mechanism (BM) units expected at that time.

Although the notice was cancelled later the same day, it does indicate quite how tight margins actually are, when the system is supposed to be fully mobilised to meet winter demands. The previous notice had been on 8 January of this year, with an expected demand of 45,081MW.

On the mainland, other countries even now are struggling, with Spain struggling as Algeria has failed to meet its gas export target. Supplies are down and costs have spiralled, with the price of electricity four times more than what it was this time last year.

Elsewhere, Poland is having to rely on a Swedish oil-fired power plant, to help ease an electricity shortage. The country was facing difficulties in balancing its system due to low wind generation and outages of several units.

Nor is this a one-off, with the system operator admitting that the situation is far from under control. If there are severe frosts this winter and not too many winds, experts do not rule out the possibility of blackouts.

But, while Poland can blame legacy problems going as far back as Soviet times, the UK has no excuse. That system is so fragile speaks to the utter stupidity and short-sightedness of allowing our fossil fuel generation system to deteriorate, while relying excessively on renewables.

The potential consequences have even been pointed out by the boss of Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company. He warns that attempting to switch to renewable energy "virtually overnight" would lead to soaring prices and erode public support for the changes, while unleashing social unrest.

This is hardly rocket science, but evidently way above the comprehension level of our politicians. At the end of last month, we even had Liz Truss urging Nato allies to block Nord Stream 2, even without waiting for Russia to invade Ukraine.

The stupid woman is worried that Moscow would exploit its position if European nations became reliant on it for energy, apparently unaware that the new pipeline simply replaces part of the decaying Ukrainian system and brings no additional capacity to the table. Europe is already reliant on Russia for energy, and especially Germany.

Yet, if it is real stupidity you want, you just have to look at the media front pages (with the honourable exceptions), to realise how badly we are served when there are potentially life-changing events on the horizon.

Also published on Turbulent Times.