AEP Finally Wakes Up To The Green Nightmare
SEPTEMBER 19, 2021tags: Electricity
By Paul Homewood
This, in a way, is an astonishing article by AEP.
For years he has been forecasting the rapid demise of fossil fuels, yet now he realises how critical they are:
British manufacturing leaders fear an industrial collapse over the winter as spiralling gas and electricity prices overwhelm the country’s energy defences.
Wafer-thin gas reserves have left the British economy almost uniquely vulnerable to an extreme global supply squeeze, and dangerously reliant on cross-Channel interconnectors that may be curtailed if Europe itself faces power blackouts and serious industrial stoppages.
Andrew Large, the outgoing chairman of the Energy Intensive Users Group, said: “It is potentially catastrophic. We’re already seeing plant closures at a time of year when the weather is still warm and domestic heating is low. Fast forward two months and this could be an acute crisis.
“CF Fertilizers have already stopped output and they account for 40pc to 60pc of the UK supply, which could have disastrous effects on the supply chain. The steel, cement, ceramics, glass, industrial chemicals, and the paper sector are all at risk. Individual companies are facing the very serious question of whether they can continue to operate.”
Gas futures contracts on the ICE exchange have risen fourfold over the last year to 165 pence per therm, while intraday electricity prices have become unhinged. Last week the National Grid was having to pay £4,000 per megawatt hour to secure back-up electricity at short notice.
The cost squeeze threatens to abort the economic recovery just as the furlough scheme winds down and fiscal stimulus fades. In a worst case scenario it could lead to systemic havoc akin to the industrial paralysis and candle-lit evenings endured in the 1970s, something that no government or prime minister can survive.
“There is a wider gas supply crunch across Europe and the question of storage retention is becoming geostrategic,” Mr Large said. “In an extreme situation countries are going to be looking at the letter of the law to see if they can take unilateral action. The UK may have to take what comes.”
The UK has slashed its strategic gas storage to barely 1.7pc of annual demand by closing the Rough facility off the Yorkshire coast, subcontracting the costly task of storage to Germany and the Netherlands. Clive Moffatt, a gas consultant and former adviser to the Government on energy security, said: “It should be nearer 25pc.”
Data from Gas Infrastructure Europe show that the UK has less than nine terawatt hours of storage compared to 75 terawatt hours in the Netherlands (with a quarter of the population). Dutch storage is nevertheless unusually low for this time of the year at 52pc of capacity, compared with 85pc to 90pc normally. The stocks are 113 terawatt hours in France, 148 in Germany and 166 in Italy.
Mr Moffatt said he warned that closing Rough was a dangerous decision in key meetings with British officials but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy dug in its heels. “They refused to listen and kept saying that we had diversity of supply: they misunderstood the responsiveness of liquefied natural gas to short-term shocks,” he said.
“We are now extremely vulnerable and I’m afraid the situation is going to get worse. Prices could go through the roof. You can’t rely on the interconnectors. Contracts can be rescinded and suppliers can declare force majeure: end of story. The EU made this very clear during the negotiations over Brexit,” Mr Moffatt added.
“We could easily see a three-day working week. The Government has been playing dangerous games with the grid and has allowed a situation to develop that is outside their control. It’s terribly depressing.”
Gareth Stace, director-general of UK Steel, said power prices had already reached “extortionate” levels and was forcing a partial suspension of operations across the sector. “Even with the global steel market as buoyant as it is, these eye-watering prices are making it impossible to profitably make steel at certain times of the day and night. The situation gets more urgent each and every day,” he said.
Europe is facing its own problems. The Norwegian fertiliser group Yara is curtailing output of ammonia, which relies on gas as a feedstock. Richard Ewing from ICIS said the dominoes are likely to fall across the Continent as far as Ukraine, with producers switching to the US wherever possible. Abundant shale gas in Texas, Pennsylvania, and the Dakotas means that locally consumed US gas costs a quarter of European levels.
A surge in European carbon prices to €60 a tonne – shadowed in the UK with an extra £18 premium – has compounded the shock and accounts for a fifth of the rise in electricity costs. This is now leading to open political revolt in Spain, Poland and other EU states. The European Steel Association said last week that the bloc risks being priced out of the competitive global market.
Mr Large said it is becoming a question of manufacturing survival in this country. “The UK has the most expensive industrial energy in Europe. We are running the very serious risk of meeting our carbon targets by deindustrialising the British economy,” he said.
Everything has gone wrong at once for the UK’s energy system. A wet cold spring depleted European gas inventories. The pandemic disrupted global gas output. Shipping is in convulsion. Exploding Asian demand for LNG has forced Europe to compete for scarce supplies, causing a tripling of spot prices in Europe in the past five months to a record $22 MMBtu.
Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of the crunch to try to pressure the EU to certify the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline on his political terms, restricting the normal summer top-flows through Poland and the Ukraine needed to rebuild Europe’s stocks. Gazprom is working to rule with minimum contractual volumes.
Thierry Bros, former gas strategist at the French economy ministry and now at Science Po in Paris, said: “Mr Putin relishes teaching the Europeans a hard lesson for pietistic grandstanding on their green deal. Brussels is talking day and night about dirty ‘fossil gas’, and the Russians are pissed off.
“They are saying to Europe: ‘you don’t want our ‘fossil gas’? Well, see what happens when you don’t get it’. This is purely geopolitical. They normally push 55bn cubic metres a year and this year it is running at 40bn cubic metres. That is what is missing from the European system.”
Mr Moffatt said the British Government had failed to come to terms with the implications of greater reliance on intermittent renewable power, especially since it was also phasing out coal and running down nuclear power.
More offshore wind and solar, coupled with the switch to electric vehicles, requires large amounts of gas on tap for flexible “peaker” plants able to respond with quick dispatchable power at certain times.
Large strategic gas reserves become even more critical under a net-zero strategy, not less – at least in the first phase up to the mid-2030s. Declining North Sea gas output further puts the spotlight on gas inventories.
The UK is now at the mercy of global events. A slowdown in the Chinese property, cement, and steel sectors might come just in time to cool the Asian market for LNG and free up cargoes for Europe. Mr Putin might restore pipeline top-up flows at any point, concluding that a full-blown crisis in Europe could ultimately backfire for Russia.
It is an invidious situation for Britain to find itself in. Downing Street can only hold its breath, and hope.
For the record, it needs to be pointed out that the decision to close Rough Storage was made in 2017.
The list of mea culpas from AEP is long:
- Dangerous reliance on interconnectors
- The lack of gas storage
- The threat to industry from high power prices
- Suicidal carbon pricing, which is making European industry uncompetitive
- The idiocy of relying on that “Saudi Arabia of wind” ( a term originally coined by AEP himself, I believe)
- The disastrous phasing out of coal power, without a proper replacement.
- The impact of EVs on demand for electricity
On all of these issues, AEP has been on the wrong side of the argument, preferring to listen to the green numpties and renewable lobby, rather than grown ups.
For years, he has argued that the world is turning its back on fossil fuels and that our future lay as a world leader in all things green.
It must now be clear even to AEP himself that this was always a pipe dream, a chimera. Sadly it has taken Vladimir Putin to bring the message home.