News analysis: Winter fuel crisis

A big freeze is forecast. Sir Digby Jones fears a return to the three-day week. Could energy shortages paralyse Britain?
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The Independent Online

Turn off the lights. Go on. Turn off the reading lamp. Turn off the kettle, the oven, the microwave, the washing machine and the dishwasher. Turn off the refrigerator, the freezer, the shower, the central heating. Turn off the stereo and the television, the computer and the mobile phone. Very quiet, isn't it? And dark. And cold.

The temperature is dropping. The days are getting shorter. How would you manage if the lights went off and there was suddenly no power? If it happened during a cold snap, when the water pipes were freezing and there was ice on the windows, could you survive?

You may have to, if the very worst predictions come true. The Meteorological Office warns that we may be about to experience the severest winter for more than a decade, and it has put the emergency services on amber alert (red comes only with the snowdrifts). Worse, Britain is approaching this big freeze with fuel reserves far lower than most countries in Europe. We are facing an energy crisis that could see factories and offices having to shut down for all but three days a week, says Sir Digby Jones, head of the Confederation of British Industry.

Power companies admit this is true - and that they may even have to cut off electricity to our homes for short periods, a postcode at a time. But only as an absolutely last resort, they say. Only if there was "a 1:50", a winter so extreme that it happens only, on average, every 50 years. But hang on, the last one was in 1963, when the temperature hovered around freezing from Boxing Day to April. That was 42 years ago. Aren't we almost due a 1:50?

Today is the start of the season when Britain burns energy like a raver at a Christmas party. This is the date chosen in dozens of town and city centres across the country for minor celebrities to depress their plungers to make giant Santas and glowing reindeers flare into life. Oohs and aahs will follow - and even screams, like the ones heard in Covent Garden on Thursday night, when the operatic boy band G4, together with a town crier in full crimson regalia and an actor from Emmerdale, switched on the illuminations hung round a huge Scottish pine tree. The screech of the crowd suggested all those gaggles (or giggles) of teenage girls in reindeer antlers had never seen a lightbulb before. "Wow, look! It's so bright!"

But what if it weren't? What if the switch were flicked ... and nothing? What if all the lights went out because there was no more power left? What if we had used it up fighting a 1:50?

If it comes, disaster will be blown here on icy winds from Russia. Blizzards will strike and transport chaos will follow. Hypothermia will affect the weakest very quickly. An estimated 32,000 people die every winter as a result of cold weather, and the number increases by 8,000 for every degree the temperature falls below the seasonal average. Domestic energy bills have risen by a fifth over the past 18 months, and campaigners estimate that three million people - pensioners and the poor - may have to choose between buying food and heating their homes. For some, the lights will have go out even if there isn't a crisis. But if there is, we could see "quite severe loss of life", says the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

If the super-cold weather continues for more than a couple of days, then demand for energy will soar. Britain only has enough gas to last 11 days at full pelt (the European average is 55 days). We can't just switch off all the gas cookers and go electric, because the power stations that produce Britain's electricity get 40 per cent of their energy from gas. That was not a problem when North Sea gas was cheap and plentiful, but now it is starting to run out.

At the same time, Britain is using more gas than ever - two-thirds more than a decade ago. So the country needs to import more gas in order to keep going. Unfortunately, there is not enough coming in, and not enough places to store it when it does get here. We have a problem. Experts say that within a decade Britain will be producing only 80 per cent of the energy it needs. They call it "the energy gap". It means that in a winter crisis, gas-fired power stations will ease off, and those that work on coal and nuclear fuel will be told to step up a gear.

All electricity generated goes on to a network of high-voltage cables that criss-cross the nation on pylons. This is managed by National Grid plc. Electricity is taken off the network and its voltage lowered in a series of sub-stations by 14 distribution companies, each of which covers a particular area of the country. But they don't normally sell the electricity to customers, or bill them. That is done by another layer of companies, the suppliers, such as npower, Powergen and, confusingly, British Gas.

The electricity on the grid comes from a variety of sources. About 2 per cent is imported directly from France, via a cable under the Channel from Calais to Folkestone. Another 6 per cent is provided by renewable sources such as wind and waves. The nuclear industry supplies 19 per cent from its ageing reactors. The Government will decide soon whether it wants to replace or augment these, but new ones will take at least 10 years to build. Despite Margaret Thatcher's best efforts, 33 per cent of our electricity still comes from power stations that burn coal. Some of it comes from open-cast mines in Scotland, the rest is imported from Russia and other countries.

The next step in crisis management is for National Grid to ask major energy users such as car-manufacturers and chemical factories to use less power, or even shut down for a short while, so that it can be diverted to homes. This has happened in France and Spain over the past few winters. Some firms have contracts that give them cheaper bills in return for an obligation to suspend production when needed.

If the cold snap continues into a third week, then the Government may be forced to demand that industry works three days out of five. This will be hugely unpopular. But not as unpopular as the rationing of electricity to homes. In extreme circumstances, the power companies say they will turn off a postcode at a time, for an hour. Then three hours, if necessary. They may also lower the voltage slightly so that supplies go further (but some appliances won't work).

By the time a thaw comes, the transport network will have been thrown into chaos and industry ravaged. Some firms, already struggling to meet high gas and electricity bills, will be put out of business. National life will be in suspension, with many halls, clubs and cinemas shut down or restricted. Hospitals will be under extreme pressure, too, as more people succumb to the cold. Many will die. Everyone else will be chilled, miserable and angry. Some may riot. Burning cars will keep them warm, at least.

The Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, would call this scenario "scaremongering". That was the word he used when Sir Digby Jones warned: "If we have a harsh winter - and all the long-range weather forecasts are saying that we will - this economy, the fourth-biggest in the world and the most successful in Europe, will see the switch thrown on business."

The minister admits the gas supply is tighter than in recent years, but says the system can handle it. New storage and supply facilities for gas are being built, he says. That is true. A pipeline from Zeebrugge in Belgium is being upgraded this month to double its capacity. A new tanker terminal on the Isle of Grain in Kent has taken its first consignments of gas from Algeria, liquefied to take up one-600th of its usual space.

A new storage facility is being built in Hampshire, as well as new pipelines to bring gas from the Orman Lange gas field in Norway and from Holland. Two new terminals at Milford Haven will take seaborne supplies from Qatar. But neither of these will be online for at least two years. "The squeeze should be short-lived," a government spokesman has said.

Let's hope so. In the meantime, save energy, keep an eye on the weather forecast, wrap up warm - and get some candles in.

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