UK Blackouts

[ Home page | Factlets ]

Will Britain run out of electricity during the winter in the near future, as a result of a lack of power stations?

No, not for a while at least, though it might do by about 2020.

The Institute of Civil Engineers publishes a `State of the Nation' report every year. I believe that is the source for this meme, though it doesn't make the explicit statement quoted in some newspapers, e.g. in a recent issue of the Observer magazine.

Page 10 of the report covers energy; a summarising press release states, (my emphasis)

A report published today by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) reveals that, within a generation, Britain will become completely reliant upon energy sources supplied via pipelines from politically unstable countries thousands of miles away. The `State of the Nation 2003' report highlights a potential 80% shortfall in meeting the country's energy demands from current supplies by 2020, and points to the possibly cataclysmic effects of becoming reliant upon unsecured, imported fuel supplies.

I think the 80% figure is based on the notion that by 2020, we expect 80% of our electricity to be generated by gas turbines, and that the gas supply is subject to interruption by any country through which the pipelines happen to run.

The current figures are 32% coal, 23% nuclear, 38% gas, 4% oil and 3% others. So the argument is that we can the 55% coal and nuclear, replacing them with mostly gas fired capacity plus a bit of renewable, to bring us to 80% gas.

That's not quite how they put it, though:

The generation shortfall (80% of current capacity) will be taken up by gas, 90% of which will be delivered to this country through a very small number of pipelines, initially from Norway, but later from West Africa, the Middle East and former Soviet Republics.

I don't see how they get a shortfall of 80% there, since the types of power stations which are going to be retired make up only 55% of capacity. It could just be expected growth in energy consumption, but they don't state that explicitly; they do, however, have a `briefing note' (Microsoft `Word' format) which says that,

To address long-term energy issues it is necessary to reduce demand, rather than merely trying to meet it. In doing this, it is important to note that electricity generation accounts for less than a fifth of the UK's total energy usage, and incentives to reduce consumption must target all areas.

which is fair enough.

In summary, I don't think we need worry too much yet. The coal-fired stations only get retired in 2016, and gas-fired stations can be built in 18 months to 2 years, apparently, so the government has a fair amount of time to change its mind about gas.

There is a second potential problem, which is that now (summer 2003) electricity is so cheap that many generators have mothballed power stations. See, e.g., this article from The Times:

The 40 per cent collapse in wholesale electricity prices after the electricity trading system was changed two years ago has led to power companies mothballing power stations round the country.


The margin of generation available over what is expected to be needed has fallen from an average of 26 per cent two years ago to an expected 16 per cent average this year. At peak times, and when more generating plant is switched off than expected, the margin shrinks to much lower levels, triggering a system warning. In just three days last week [mid-July 2003] the Grid issued six system warnings.

Obviously if prices rise enough before the winter, then the mothballed power stations will be brought back into service and there will be no immediate shortage.

In any case, this is independent from a long-term capacity shortage as described above.

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot. All rights reserved.