As the cold weather spell continued across the UK one of three gas import pipelines was shut down due to a technical problem. This double blow caused wholesale gas prices to rise by 50% to £1.50 per therm whilst the pipeline operator could give no indication how long it would be out of action. A spokesman said that ‘it couldn’t have come at a worse time, especially with domestic demand for gas 20% higher than normal due to the unseasonably cold weather’.
It is anticipated that if the disruption to gas supplies to the UK continues, heavy industry could be forced to temporarily reduce its usage in order to protect heating in domestic properties. Meanwhile energy suppliers claim that the increase in the wholesale cost cannot be fully absorbed and may have to be passed on to customers.
In another disturbing twist, it was revealed that reserve supplies of gas held in the UK may only last for another two days without being topped up. Even when storage tanks are full the UK only holds around 15 days’ supply, whereas both France and Germany store sufficient gas to last 100 days.
Historically Britain has relied on gas from the North Sea being readily available but production there is falling and other sources of energy have yet to take up the slack. Shale gas will not be available in adequate quantities for a number of years and the Government has been criticised for underestimating the anticipated shortfall in energy supplies. Although planning consent was granted recently for a new nuclear plant to be built at Hinkley Point in Somerset by the French energy company EDF, it is not due to start producing energy for 10 years. Once fully operational, Hinkley Point C will have two 1.6 gigawatt reactors capable of producing enough energy for 5 million homes. In the meantime, more cold weather is forecast and only two out of three gas import pipelines are working.