Sunday, January 10, 2010

Snow and Gas Supplies.

Gordon Brown has said that there is no reason to fear that Britain will run short of gas during this uncharacteristically severe spell of cold and snow, which has been impinging upon us since before Christmas. Apparently we have six days worth of gas in hand compared to the French reserve of 120 days. Now the two countries get their gas from different sources, and Britain can no longer rely on the output of the North Sea fields, which are in steep decline, but needs to import more from its co-owner of that geological bestowal, Norway. Part of the recent concern over gas-provision was indeed due to some technical troubles in the supply of gas from Norway. France, along with other countries in mainland Europe obtains much of its gas from Russia, but it surprises me that there is so much gas stored in reserve.

This may derive in part from the fact that France makes 80% of its electricity from nuclear power while Britain makes 40% of its power from natural gas, and so the demand for gas is less. In Britain, around 100 companies are on interruptable gas contracts, meaning that they pay less for their gas but in times of crisis, like now, they must defer their demand on the national grid so that there are sufficient gas supplies to keep homes warm.

Being an island, once lauded as being Britain's source of protection, inter alia from French invasion, e.g Trafalgar, and a secure vantage point for the reverse, when Britain attacked France, e.g. Agincourt, Crecy and Waterloo, now appears rather vulnerable since we rely relentlessly on imports of fuel and food, and presently salt to grit the roads, since our own mines in Cheshire are unable to keep pace with demand, even suspending normal exports of it to Germany. Some of the imported salt comes from as far away as Egypt, and reserves are falling so low that local authorities are having to ration its use, e.g. by only gritting main roads, leaving the minor B-roads treacherous. There is a babble of complaint about this, but frankly what else can they do. When they do grit and snow falls, the effect is blanketed; and when the temperature falls below about minus 8 degrees C, the salt no longer melts the ice, for good and well understood reasons of thermodynamics.

We have been reminded of late too, irrespective of the prevailing weather conditions, that we will need to produce more of our own food over the next 20 years, as part of the blanket excuse of global warming. Well maybe, but the most immediate reason is to use less fossil fuel, particularly oil which I note is around $83 a barrel once more. Britain imports around a third of its food and this just isn't going to be feasible within 20 years and probably far less that that. "Peak Oil", is a term muttered out of the corner of someone's mouth but Global Warming is the main rallying cry. It matters not in the most pressing term since the same actions of burning less carbon both mitigate and buy time to re-adapt society from the global to the local, and maybe avert some of the worst cataclysms of GW, although some mathematical models predict that it is already too late to stop the planet from heating into the foreseeable future.

When we do suffer from such sputterings in the normally well-greased engine of modern life, I am reminded of the inevitability of change. That within a decade or two, we must completely change the way we live, powering-down to a society that doesn't need to use so much energy and move both goods and people around in the extent of the status quo. The transition will not be easy and maybe to quote Chinua Achebe in the title of his novel, "Things Fall Apart".

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Living in France, as I do, I am pleased that the French have 120 days reserve of gas. However, I wonder about the long term.
Russia can not be regarded as a stable supplier, they are liable to suspend supplies seemingly on a whim, and have done so several times already. It seems to me that a sensible British government (is that an oxymoron?) would do better to cultivate closer ties with our friends across the North Sea, and purchase their gas, together with increased use of LPG’s and LNG’s (using gas as fuel) which would give the possibility of flexibility of supply. Incidentally, just how much actual gas storage space does the UK have?
The above policy carries with it the need for a revitalised military, to protect those giant ships, as well as the vulnerable pipelines and storage depots. And proposing an augmented military contrasts sharply with today’s news that defence “experts” are expecting a 30% reduction in British military in the near future. I was listening to a BBC radio talk show (also today), on the subject of a reduced military, and it appeared that most of the responders seemed obsessed (either for or against) with Britains “Imperial Past”. Yet a strong military, to protect the inward flow of the UK’s continued food, energy just about everything else, is vital and has nothing to do with ancient glories. The old poem about “...the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble...” applies with even more force now, than when it was written, simply because of the extraordinary explosion in population the UK has called down upon itself.
The French nuclear power system is a wonderful thing, but I cannot help wondering
how they are going to go about decommissioning and replacing all of those mighty plants, as sooner or later must happen. I have no doubt the French have a plan for that, for that is their way. Can you imagine that (imaginary) sensible British government, mentioned above, handling such an enormous project?
Suppose the skeptics are right, and we really will see many years of colder winters ahead. Then wouldn’t it be wise to seek advice from countries accustomed to real snow, as to how best plan for it?
Your “powering-down” scenario would seem to be an awful prospect. How will this occur? Naturally, by biblical plague events? Or planned?
Peter Melia

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Peter,

I am of course being ironic in referring to those "victories" to make the point that actually as an island Britain in very vulnerable to essential supplies as you say.

Any powering down has to be done by design rather than default, which would be a disaster, indeed of Biblical proportions. Yes that is a good example of an oxymoron and with the national debt into the trillions, the government is planning to cut the army, the universities and probably the health service and the benefits system.

We need an entire revamping of British society, but I doubt any of the fab three parties if elected would have the guts to do it.

Old age pensioners don't freeze to death in Scandinavian winters because their homes are better designed for cold and the state gives them the energy they need. In Eastern Europe the windows are well designed - triple glazed and made from wood frames which can readily be replaced from local materials. They last a long time too, especially if they are painted regularly.

We are going to need our military in the time ahead, maybe to keep civil order in this country, and to guard essential supplies and the movement of fuel and food.

It is as though all forces are pulling in different directions at the moment, in the headless chicken scenario of the economic crisis (though those that caused it are still getting their bonuses - Bless them!), and it is almost as though the government doesn't know quite what to do.

I agree that the accepted methods will not necessarily apply in the cold future, and we need to look beyond these island shires for solutions, of actual supplies and indeed knowledge.

I think we need "Europe"!I am doing some work for the European Commission at the moment on funding various energy projects.

Kind regards,