At a presentation I recently gave at Birkbeck, University of London, I introduced the British situation as regards Natural Gas production, consumption and the consequent trend towards import dependency – within the context of import dependency for all energy use in the UK :-
There are several reasons why a continued dependency on imported Natural Gas is a risk to the British economy. First of all, it makes the economy dependent on the commodity price of Natural Gas. Should there continue to be a continued uptake in the use of Natural Gas in most regions of the world (and this is likely to be the case), this could put pressure on the commodity prices for Natural Gas, a significant factor in economic development that would therefore be out of the control of the British Government. Should the global commodity price for Natural Gas remain relatively low (and this is quite likely to be the case), this would benefit the UK economy. However, there is a risk that Natural Gas commodity prices could climb appreciably. If this were to happen, the UK economy would have to bear the brunt of higher energy prices, and the UK Government would have no control over the cost of one of the key energy flows into the economy.
Although the global supply of Natural Gas is likely to be healthy for the next 20 years, the price of Natural Gas could change in impactful ways. So – likelihood of scarcity ? Small. Negative economic impact outside of control ? Possibly.
The temptation would be to avoid major energy projects and just rely on Natural Gas by default. However, this carries a small but not negligible risk of supply constraints, and a larger risk of economic damage from uncontrollable prices.
So where is policy on this ?
I have been taking a little look at the output of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) and their modelling tool ESME (Energy System Modelling Environment). They have recently launched their summary of their “Clockwork” and “Patchwork” scenarios. Their modelling could be expected to reflect UK Government energy policy fairly accurately, so it’s interesting to see the results :-
In the “Clockwork” scenario, there is a heavy emphasis on nuclear power – the total generating capacity is expected to be 40 gigawatts by 2050. What needs to be understood is that this requires at least 40 + 16 = 56GW of new build nuclear power plants, as the current 16GW in operation is all expected to need decommissioning in the 2020s. Considering the battle to sign off just 3.2GW for Hinkley Point C in England and another 3.2GW for Sizewell C in England, and a further 5.4GW at Wylfa, in Wales, this could be a significant challenge. The companies that are being asked to build and finance these new power plants may not be sufficiently stable to complete these mega-power projects. In addition, there are legal challenges to the state subsidies being offered for new nuclear power, and questions still not answered about the liabilities of the end of life of nuclear power plants, including the disposal of radioactive spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste.
So, even if policy does proceed like clockwork, there is a risk to this strategy – and that risk is the default dependency on Natural Gas, resorting to the use of Natural Gas, should the nuclear power plants not come online.
In the “Patchwork” scenario there is a massive dependence on offshore wind power, and although the support structures for this to happen are more secure than for new nuclear power, there is a danger that government subsidies for new nuclear power could crowd out investment in true low carbon renewable energy, including offshore wind power. Again, in this scenario of patchwork energy sector development, the default position would be Natural Gas, if the offshore wind power could not be brought online for reasons of initial financing or resistance from recalcitrant actors, such as disbelievers in renewable electricity that still occupy positions of influence. A continuing high dependence on Natural Gas would leave the country open to risks of economic and energy insecurity.
The truth is probably that neither “Clockwork” nor “Patchwork” reflect the future accurately, and I would suggest that since Natural Gas is likely to be the “fallback” position, this backstop needs supporting – with the development of Renewable Gas.