Richard North, 15/10/2021  

It was in 1972, nearly 50 years (49 to be precise), when this nation first experienced the phenomenon rolling blackouts. They were brought about by the 1972 miners' strike, when electricity was switched off on a rota basis between 7am and midnight each day from the middle of February. Consumers suffered power cuts from six to nine hours.

The experience was repeated at the end of 1973, after the oil shock following the Yom Kippur War, when the miners again decided to flex their muscles, this time with an overtime ban. And in 1974, even with Ted Heath's three-day week, launched to manage the dwindling coal stocks, as many of 10-15 percent of the population was disconnected at any one time.

Since then, we have had nothing like it on the same scale. Given that the median age of the UK population is just over 40, that means that more than half the population has never experienced prolonged power cuts. Furthermore, there can hardly be any working journalists under the age of 60 who reported on the events of the time.

For the majority of the British population, therefore, blackouts are a vague folk memory, recalled in history books and nostalgic retrospectives in popular newspapers. For most, prolonged blackouts are not events tempered by personal experience.

It is understandable, therefore, that while lip service is currently being paid to the possibility of blackouts during this coming winter, there isn't the same presentiment of doom that we experienced in the 70s. Then, as each winter approached, the prospect was a near certainty, to be taken very seriously indeed.

And yet, if were are to pull together all the factors which might give rise to major power outages, the possibility should be considered very real – real enough for some basic precautions to be taken (by those who can), such as procuring emergency light sources, and stocks of basic foods in case supplies in the shops are further depleted.

On a national scale, key service providers, such as hospitals, should be checking that they have sufficient backup generation capabilities, adequate fuel reserves and contingency plans to keep essential operations running. And, if there are no widespread power cuts this winter, efforts won't have been wasted. Risks of disruption are likely to increase with every year for the next decade and beyond.

With that, there should probably be far more media activity than there is at present, especially after Jim Ratcliffe's warning yesterday that Britain could run out of gas in a cold winter. Given our reliance on gas for electricity generation, that would almost certainly mean extensive power cuts.

But, apart from the fact that the government is in denial on blackout risks – thus damping down speculation – there are several reasons why it is easier for the media to raise a hue and cry after an event, rather than taking upon itself the responsibility for warning of ills to come.

One of those reasons undoubtedly reflects modern media practice, where most news is conveyed to us in visual form - either in television broadcasts, in photographs published in newspapers or, increasingly, online.

As such, it is much easier to illustrate something which has already happened or is in the process of happening. Visuals can then be used as a backdrop for the much-favoured "secret squirrel" style of reporting, where self-regarding journalists can "reveal" that someone, somewhere, deep in the recesses of government or some important body, predicted what has just come to pass.

Before events occur, there are usually only talking heads and dry, often complex documents that no-one can be bothered to read, and fewer can understand. And for every event correctly forecast, there might be dozens of potential catastrophes which attract premonitions of doom, but which never happen.

Thus, unless there is official sanction for a nation-wide alarm or credible evidence that there is a problem already in the making (such as the recent fuel supply crisis), the media will tend to play it safe.

So it is with the prospect of widespread electricity outages where even Jim Ratcliffe's warning – repeated in yesterday's Independent is restricted to the risk of closing down British industry. He doesn't draw the obvious conclusions about the security of the electricity supply.

But then, Ratcliffe is not alone in failing to blow the whistle. It does seems as if the caucus of energy "experts" are just as reluctant to talk of potential blackouts. A good example might be an article by Michael Bradshaw in today's Guardian, exploring the current gas crisis.

Bradshaw is professor of global energy at Warwick Business School and a co-director at the UK Energy Research Centre, so might lay claim to some expertise in the field. Yet, he choses for his theme not the question of security of supply but, as per the heading of his piece: "The UK's reliance on gas imports leaves us open to unpredictable prices".

One cannot avoid being a little worried though, when the "expert" Bradshaw parrots the official line that the UK benefits from "a diverse range of supply sources and sufficient delivery capacity to more than meet demand", effectively ensuring "physical security of supply".

Around half the gas we consume, writes Bradshaw, comes from the North Sea "and we get the rest directly via pipeline from Norway – via two interconnectors from continental Europe – and as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the global market". It is the case, he adds, "that the UK has enough pipes and terminals to deliver all the gas that we may need and more".

With security thus settled, for Bradshaw the crisis is all about "price security" - the price UK consumers need to pay in order to attract sufficient gas to meet national demand. Here, he is echoing Kwasi Kwarteng's line that the UK will have enough gas this winter, as long as we are prepared to pay for it.

Looking at the figures, Bradshaw's assertion about the proportion of home-produced and imported gas, looks about right. According to government sources, for 2020 we produced 48 percent of our gas and imported the remainder. However, that was for 2020 when demand was suppressed by the Covid-19 pandemic and we consumed less gas than normal. Now, as the economy picks up, demand is increasing. Against declining UK production, therefore, the amount of imported gas we need is increasing, as a proportion of our supply, as well as in absolute terms.

The bulk of those imports has most recently come from Norway – and not "via two interconnectors from continental Europe" as Bradshaw would seem to imply, but from three separate pipelines, direct from the Norwegian fields.

In 2019 though, that source accounted only for 57 percent of our imports, while LNG accounted for around 39 percent. Qatar was the primary supplier, at nearly half of all volume. Russia and the US collectively accounted for 33 percent.

Most of the balance came from the continental interconnectors, sourced from Dutch fields, topped up with Russian pipeline gas which also supplies the European grid.

And there lies the rub. As UK demand is increasing, so too is European demand. On the other hand, Dutch and Norwegian supplies are declining and the Russian pipeline gas flow has been reduced. This leaves the UK chasing scarce LNG supplies which, with massively increased demand from China and other Asian states, are not available at any price. Even if it was, there isn't the shipping to carry it.

Thus, while there exists more than enough physical capacity to import the gas we need through pipelines and interconnectors, there simply isn't enough pipeline gas on the international market to meet our import requirements. LNG is in critically short supply, as is the means to deliver it.

The price signals we are getting, therefore, are a reflection of the demand-supply imbalance and, as supply tightens, prices will increase further beyond even the current inflated levels. But price does not directly equate to volume available. What little there is will be eye-wateringly expensive, but there may still not be enough.

On that basis, the UK could be facing a "perfect storm", where we are not confronting either physical security or price security, but both problems at the same time. Now is a good time, I think, to panic.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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