Cooking without gas

Microwave and gas rings
Image caption For many the microwave meal has been the only option for home cooking

Pity the people of Clackmannanshire, denied a gas supply as temperatures plummeted over the past two days. But far beyond the Wee County, heed the warning signs.

This time, the pipeline rupture was only a farmer digging in his field. Next time, it could be Russia cutting off supplies to western Europe or a disruption from Norway, and not enough back-up supply in storage.

Ofgem, in its role as adviser to the government, has today - alongside the UK government's Energy Bill - set out some alarming scenarios in which the gas pressure drops to zero. That would leave a lot of homes and businesses without vital power, as well as a rising share of electricity generating capacity.

The report on security of gas supply points out that share of generating capacity is on the way up, from 40% to 60%.

And it gives us the figures on how vulnerable gas supplies are: households would suffer interruption of gas supply if more than 60% of sources are cut off, assuming that industrial users take the first impact and cut their demand.

That calamity would require no more liquid natural gas supply, loss of all imports via Belgium and Netherlands, and a loss of half of current UK production.

That combination seems a bit unlikely, but the consequences would be severe. As the people of Clackmannanshire are finding out, it takes a long time for gas company people to visit every property to reconnect, and that's traumatic in cold weather.

And it's sufficiently likely that Ofgem says the government needs to give serious consideration to the case for further measures to secure gas supplies. It suggests learning from European neighbours by relying less on volatile market pricing, expanding Britain's storage capacity and putting an obligation on gas suppliers to secure supply.

Energy jigsaw

We'll hear more about the future strategy for securing gas next Wednesday, alongside the Chancellor's autumn statement.

That's one part of a jigsaw of policy decisions that is slowly taking Britain towards an answer to a difficult set of decisions facing ministers: how to keep the lights on, while replacing old and polluting power stations; how to incentivise new, cleaner generation, plus back-up for peak demand; how to keep prices competitive for businesses that could go overseas; and how to respond to the high tide of public unhappiness at the size of domestic fuel bills.

Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, put several elements of that in place today, saying the Bill is the most significant change to the energy market since privatisation.

Having failed to agree on a target for renewable power beyond 2020, the emphasis today was on energy efficiency. You could be paying less in bills by the end of the decade, said Mr Davey. But that would require you to use quite a lot less electricity.

That emphasis is no doubt partly because the cheapest way of meeting climate change obligations is to use less rather than different energy. But it may also be because it's the neatest way of dodging the difficult decisions elsewhere.

Competing technologies

That includes important decisions about the level of support to be given to competing technologies.

And those decisions on the floor prices for power, which are a feature of the new mechanism of subsidies from customers to generators, won't be known until the back end of next year.

The prices are hotly contested between different types of generator, as nuclear makes the case against renewable. The industry is expected to give government its advice next week, and renewable advocates are concerned that their voice at the industry table is not as loud as others.

While the delay continues, investment decisions on new power stations and on the supply chain for new generation are being put off.

So while Gamesa and Areva are among the wind turbine generators saying they want to manufacture in Scotland, they're not committing until they have orders, and commitments for orders are still some way off.

One sceptic compared the government's approach to power companies with that of an airline that loads up a plane, only then telling the passengers that the destination is uncertain and the cost of their journey is not clear either. It then seems surprised when, as in the backing for nuclear, that there's a rush for the exits.

You can also comment or follow Douglas Fraser on Twitter: @BBCDouglasFraser

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