As National Grid warns that gas shortages could lead to power cuts this winter, RenewableUK's Director of Strategic Communications Luke Clark, looks at the roots of the crisis and explore how much renewables are reducing the UK’s dependence on imported gas.
Keeping the lights on over winter is a challenge that National Grid grapples with every year. This is no mean feat as there are multiple stresses that can hit our power system: from lightning strikes knocking out transmission lines, to subsea power cables being cut by fishing nets, unexpected shutdowns at nuclear power stations to periods of low wind – these are all scenarios Grid has to plan for and they have become expert at managing these risks. But National Grid has now warned about a new risk to our electricity supply that we haven’t experience before: a shortage of gas. This could lead to Grid potentially cutting power for 3-hour periods at times of high demand in parts of the country.
The UK isn’t alone - across Europe winter countries are worried about how to meet their energy needs this winter amid the chaos created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That decision by President Putin has unleashed the most significant fossil fuel crisis in 50 years and pushed energy bills into the stratosphere. And beyond those rising prices, the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline has forced countries to fundamentally reassess their energy security and dependence on gas imports.
The good news is that the UK doesn’t import gas directly from Russia, as many EU countries do. But the gas crisis impacts all countries that rely on it within their energy system and the UK is, unfortunately, heavily-reliant on gas to provide three-quarters of heating and around 40% of our electricity. Over two-thirds of the gas we use is imported, mostly coming from Norway and Qatar, and last year imports totalled 66 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas. And our reliance on imports has been increasing since the UK became a net importer of gas in 2004.
If there is a silver lining to be found in the UK’s exposure to global gas markets, it’s that it could be even worse. Every unit of power generated from renewables and low carbon means one less generated by gas. And, thanks to investment over the last decade and more, the UK now gets the majority of its power from non-fossil fuel sources. Renewables meet around 40 % of our power needs, with nuclear providing an additional 15%. And wind energy, the UK’s largest renewable source, is most productive during the dark and windy winter months.
Looking at how that impacts our gas demand, the power generated by renewables last year avoided burning the equivalent of 21bcm of gas – and if we had to source that from global market, our imports of liquified natural gas (LNG) would more than double. When we add in generation from nuclear power, those LNG imports would have to treble.
So every time you see a spinning turbine this winter, it is pushing back the risk of blackouts and an even bigger, more expensive energy crisis. The £175 billion-plus investment that is planned for wind and renewables is the only certain way of avoiding fossil fuel crises like this in the future. This winter we’ll be highlighting the contribution that renewable and low carbon power sources are making to keeping the lights on, reducing our reliance on gas and cutting bills.
Our first update shows that low carbon power made up 63% of UK generation in the first two weeks of this winter. Generating that power from gas would have meant burning 1.2bcm of gas - equivalent to 5% of our annual imports of LNG. Wind provided most of that low carbon generation, followed by nuclear. In total, the clean power produced in the first two weeks of November was enough to meet the annual power needs of over 1.7m homes.