UK power sector to ‘wargame’ energy rationing amid threat of days-long blackouts

Exclusive: Industry insiders are preparing for energy rationing measures, and the government has discussed the risk of mass non-payment of bills

Anna Isaac
Sunday 14 August 2022 07:18 BST
Cost of living: Expert warns energy bills could soar to £5,000 a year

Gas power stations could be shut off to ration energy supplies as part of emergency plans to stave off widespread blackouts this winter, insiders have warned.

Sources at two power stations, along with government officials, said they were preparing to “wargame” emergency plans next month, and that they had been asked to review measures to keep Britain’s lights on in the worst-case scenario of dangerously low supplies.

They suggested that drills could take place in September and October, and warned that they could be asked to switch gas stations off in order to ease high network demand.

These efforts go well beyond standard winter resilience planning, reflecting the higher risk amid the worsening energy crisis, and are more detailed than what is laid out in current emergency planning documents, the insiders said.

“We’re wargaming very serious scenarios. These are not unlikely scenarios,” one senior official involved with energy planning said.

Emergency communication plans are required if the government and National Grid have to take greater control of power generation in the UK, which normally only happens if there is a high risk of prolonged domestic power outages.

“The reality is it’s going to be a very tight winter,” said Nick Wye, director at energy consultancy firm Waters Wye Associates.

“If it’s very cold for an extended period, we can expect tightness, which may lead to customers being asked to reduce or cut off their supplies,” he added.

This includes asking gas-fired power generators to “load-shed” – a process that involves power plants turning off or curbing their operations in a bid to ease the pressure on energy networks by cutting gas consumption.

When asked about the plans, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We have one of the most reliable and diverse energy systems in the world, and unlike Europe, we are not dependent on Russian energy imports, meaning households, businesses and industry can be confident they will get the electricity and gas they need.”

However, they did not deny that the UK faced a heightened risk of an energy crisis, with a greater likelihood of days-long blackouts for large numbers of consumers.

They also declined to comment on the activities of the UK and Ireland Gas Planning Emergency Group, which, according to two people familiar with the group’s activities, has been holding extra meetings in an effort to create fresh plans for emergency exercises.

The UK government has placed emphasis on Britain’s relatively low dependency on Russian gas compared with that of its continental European neighbours. However, there is some interdependency between the UK and Europe in the way their electricity is supplied.

The UK receives some power via interconnectors from Norway and France, which power millions of homes each year, according to National Grid.

“Norway has said it might have to ration electricity exports, and France’s output is way down because nuclear power stations are out or limited because they need critical maintenance work,” one senior official working on the UK’s energy resilience warned. “That should worry the UK, when that’s been the key top-up power for our network at crunch times.”

Since closing the Rough undersea gas storage site, the UK only has onshore storage for 10 days’ worth of gas, according to industry experts.

This would not be enough to stave off energy rationing, which could amount to limited usage for more than six hours a day, officials said. “Forget just work from home, this could be an ‘unplug at home’ January,” one said, adding: “There’s no easy way to bank enough power to keep us going.”

If electricity supplies from Norway and France are trimmed, and gas storage runs low, then there is relatively little the UK can do to avoid energy rationing, power generators and government sources said.

“Power generators are nervous,” Mr Wye said. “Gas storage can only do so much. It’s simply not significant enough in volume to support high domestic gas demand plus additional demand for power generation. It’s just not big enough. It’s not the answer.”

Officials and ministers have also held meetings in recent days to discuss the risk of mass non-payment of energy bills by consumers, industry sources told The Independent.

It comes as energy price forecasts suggest that the average UK energy bill could top £5,000 next year, and amid warnings of a prolonged recession.

Power generators have also asked the government to review the caps placed on the emissions they produce when burning fossil fuels.

Industry sources told The Independent there was a risk they could have to down tools in order to avoid breaching the strict legal limits on the emissions they could produce this winter.

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