25 November 2021
It’s a Gas
by J.R. Thomas
In your prayers this Sunday, you might want to include a gentle plea for a mild winter. The Met Office has already added its crystal ball to your imprecations, saying that their analysis of historical trends and deep ocean currents and long term climatic drifts, to say nothing of a good grope of the seaweed on the Met Office roof, suggests that the first three months of 2022 will be mild and very wet. However, Accuweather, and DTN who now supply the BBC with their weather forecasts, say the opposite – we are in for a cruelly icy winter (panic buy now whilst stocks last!) So far the Met Office seems on a loser – the Artic waterways are freezing up unusually early and already a number of ships are trapped on voyages (mostly north of Russia) that would have been mostly ice free in recent winters.
Not that the Russian President will be minding too much. Mr Putin could do with a boost to the Russian economy and a few iced-in ships will be nothing if that wintry blast descends and extends across Europe this winter. Russia of course is now mainland Europe’s main supplier of natural gas and its Nord Stream 2 pipeline is intended to become the main supply to Germany, a country which has a looming energy crisis mostly of its own making. Green issues play well in German politics and Chancellor Merkel, now in her last few days of power as the new coalition finally forms itself and chooses a leader, has always kept an eye on the power of green in Germany. That meant closing down nuclear power plants with life in them for a few more years, clamping down on coal production and especially lignite, an especially smoky dusty form of fuel, and building wind and sun driven systems. Whilst production of the latter has been taken up with great alacrity in the UK they have not gone down so well in Germany which has less sea space to deploy offshore turbines, and lots of much valued forests which do not work well with turbines on land. Many German roofs now sport solar panels but German farmers are resistant to losing land to glass – and oddly, many German Greens are not so keen on any sort of visible technology systems in their much loved countryside. Oil has to be imported, so does gas.
All that means a worsening energy deficiency to be plugged by oil and gas imports, the former from various spots, but the latter mostly from Russia, through Nord Stream’s One and Two which pass underwater direct from Russia to Germany – though through the territorial waters of Lithuania and Finland. Or, it seems, just One. Two is finished and ready to do its final tests and then start to pump gas to eager German consumers for this winter. But Mrs Merkel got into a big barney with President Biden, sitting in a land with so many sources of energy that if it had closer and colder neighbours it would be one of the world’s great energy exporters. Joe frowned on a key ally making such seductive noises to a key foe (Putinian Russia) and all for the sake of a warm toes at Christmas, and, to be fair, the continuing success of German industry, a lot of it dependent on making things to sell to the world – not least, to pay for that oil and gas.
So Mrs Merkel suddenly did a remarkable about face and said that the new pipeline would not be authorised for use. Also, she added in agreement with the Biden Administration, Poland and Ukraine, who also depend on Russian gas, will be protected; any interruption to their supplies will mean the Nord Stream pipes will be closed. Mrs M too will be praying for a mild winter, or at least her successor will.
But Mr Putin cannot resist his games of diplomacy, massing Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, and perhaps encouraging Middle Eastern refugees to the Polish border with Belarus. (There is an alternative view that Mr P is very alarmed by this, any disruption to cash flows from gas will be very disruptive to the Russian economy.) Whatever, this has stiffened the German resolve to continue to boycott their potential Russian supplies. How long that will last as the icicles lengthen in Berlin, who knows. But that is where we are now.
All of which has what to do with the UK? Many things. Mr Johnson’s urge, like Kermit the Frog, to be Green, has inspired what may turn out to be a number of premature actions. Coal fired powered stations are practically extinct in the UK; a few could be fired up in emergency, and if the coal could be found (from overseas, probably Poland or Russia) to get them running. A new generation of nuclear reactors is very slowly coming along, but will not be ready for another nine or ten years. Eight of the former generation are still operational but Hinkley closes next year, and Hunterston (Ayr) is also planned to do so (and Scottish National Party policy is that no new or recommissioned stations will be permitted). There are some oil and some gas plants still operational, mostly supplied from imports and from North Sea gas; and a couple of biomass plants which depend largely on imported biomass. Solar panels are growing as an electricity source, but are not much use in grey British winters. And of course there are all those turbines, operational about 30 percent of the time, when it is windy enough, but not too windy. In winter, alas conditions are indeed often not windy enough, or too windy.
Oil and gas prices have rocketed as Europe scrambles to guarantee supply for the winter months, gas up 21% last week as Nord Stream 2 gently begins to rust with lack of use. Electricity prices are rocketing, taking into bankruptcy many of the small suppliers who are mostly not generators but power traders and have been badly caught out by the combination of government imposed price caps and the bidding war for supply. It is more than likely that most people will find their bills this winter double or treble last years’. Private supplies of coal ended in May this year, and “wet” logs are also banned (kiln dried are fine but expensive) so no more toasting toes and teacakes for most of us. Chop down your leylandii and apple trees whilst you can.
The British winter is the knife edge. A mild winter, more or less like last year, everything should keep powered up. A prolonged burst of our old friend, the beast from the east (not Mr Putin), and your electricity bill may go down – because there will not be enough electricity to go round. Back to the 1970’s we shall go – candle light and three day weeks, though, thankfully, no Ted Heath or Arthur Scargill. Dear old Boris will no doubt joke and bluster his way along, but without TV or PC we won’t be able to see him doing it.
Top tip for this winter, as well as well-directed prayers. Stock up on vests and long johns, and refresh the sock drawer. If winter is mild, at least you will be able to turn the heating down and save on the bills.