ITV News consumer editor Chris Choi explains why the UK may need blackouts to survive the winter.
Liz Truss has assured that the UK “can get through the winter” amid warnings that planned energy blackouts could be needed for the first time in decades.
The Prime Minister said the UK has “good energy supplies” - although stopped short of explicitly offering a guarantee of no blackouts, in response to concerns from the body that oversees Britain’s electricity grid.
In what it called an “unlikely” scenario, the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) said that households and businesses might face planned three-hour outages to ensure that the grid does not collapse.
Planned blackouts hit the UK during the 1970s in response to the miners’ strikes and the oil crisis.
But the lights will stay on this winter unless the gas-fired power plants that produced 43% of Britain’s electricity over the last year cannot get enough gas to continue operating.
It is the most dire of three possible scenarios that the ESO laid out on Thursday for how Britain’s electricity grid might cope with the worst global energy crisis for decades.
In the other two scenarios, the operator hopes that by paying people to charge their electric cars at off-peak times, and firing up back-up coal plants, it can offset the risk of blackouts.
Ms Truss told reporters during a visit to the Czech Republic: “We’re working very hard on energy security, it’s one of the reasons I am here in Prague today.
“We have interconnectors with our European partners, we’re working on more gas supplies, we’re working on building out nuclear energy, building out wind energy, so we do have a secure supply of energy.”
Pressed to guarantee there will be no blackouts, Ms Truss replied: “What we’re clear about is that we do have a good supply of energy in the UK, we’re in a much better position than many other countries, but of course there’s always more we can do, and that’s why I’m here working with our partners, making sure we do have a secure energy supply into the future.”
Ms Truss added: “We do have good energy supplies in the UK, we can get through the winter, but of course I am always looking for ways that we can improve the price for consumers.
“That’s why we put in place the energy price guarantee as well as making sure we have as much supply as possible.”
Ms Truss has previously said she would not be telling people to ration their energy use this winter, as Russian president Vladimir Putin limits gas supplies to Europe in retaliation for sanctions linked to the Ukraine war.
During the Conservative Party leadership contest, Ms Truss also said there would be no energy rationing.
She has since offered a multibillion-pound price guarantee which will prevent average annual household bills going past £2,500.
Households could be paid to put on their washing machines or charge their electric cars away from peak hours as part of efforts to prevent blackouts this winter.
To tackle a loss of imports from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, there are two gigawatts of coal-fired power plants on stand-by to fire up if needed to meet demand.
The gas network operator also said that while gas demand will increase this winter, it expects Britain to be able to get enough gas to take it through a Beast from the East scenario or a long, cold winter.
People are being encouraged to sign up with their electricity supplier to a scheme which will give them money back on their bills to shift their use of power away from times of high demand to help prevent blackouts.
That could mean putting on the dishwasher or washing machine overnight or charging an EV at off-peak times.
In addition, larger businesses will be paid for reducing demand, for example by shifting their times of energy use or switching to batteries or generators in peak times.
The “demand flexibility service” will run from November to March, and it is expected to swing into action 12 times whatever happens to ensure people get rewarded for being part of the scheme – with additional use if needed to protect supplies.
It is hoped it will deliver 2GW of power savings to balance supply and demand.
The ESO’s director of corporate affairs, Jake Rigg, said: “The demand flexibility service is a first of its kind and a smart way for signed up consumers in homes and businesses to save money and back Britain.
“If you put your washing machine or other electrical appliances on at night instead of the peak in the early evening, you can get some money back when we all need it.
“The service is due to launch in November, so watch out for further details soon. This really is a window into the future where a flexible energy system will be cleaner and lower cost to alternatives.”
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Without the scheme, there might be days when it was cold and still – creating high demand and low levels of wind power – when there would be a potential need to interrupt supply to some customers for limited periods, National Grid ESO’s winter outlook said.
The ESO also warned that if there is not enough gas to keep the country’s power stations going in January it could force distributors to cut off electricity to households and businesses for three-hour blocks during the day.
“In the unlikely event we were in this situation, it would mean that some customers could be without power for pre-defined periods during a day – generally this is assumed to be for three-hour blocks,” the ESO said.
It said the number of people left without electricity would depend on how many gas power stations would be forced to shut down because there is not enough gas.
But this was the worst-case scenario that the grid operator presented.
Its base case assumes that when Britain needs more electricity, cables that link the country to its European neighbours will be enough to keep the lights on.
It does not assume that there is any “material reduction of consumer demand due to high energy prices”.
Responding to the winter outlook, a government spokesperson said: “The UK has a secure and diverse energy system.
“We are confident in our plans to protect households and businesses in the full range of scenarios this winter, in light of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.
“To strengthen this position further, we have put plans in place to secure supply and National Grid, working alongside energy suppliers and Ofgem, will launch a voluntary service to reward users who reduce demand at peak times.”
The spokesperson said Britain is not dependent on Russian energy imports, and has access to North Sea gas reserves, imports from Norway, and via ports which can handle liquefied natural gas, as well as clean energy sources.
National Grid Gas Transmission, which is a separate business to the ESO, said Britain will use more, not less, gas this winter, despite soaring prices.
Households and small businesses whose meters are not read every day are expected to reduce their consumption by 5%.
Demand from larger businesses and some heavy industry is also expected to drop as they seek alternatives to expensive gas.
But the amount of gas needed to power the UK’s electricity grid is expected to rise by nearly 22% – offsetting the household and business savings.
Some of this extra electricity will go to France, where the nuclear power fleet has faced trouble in recent months.
The gas operator set out several scenarios, including one where the winter is so cold it pushes demand to similar levels as in the winter of 2010.
If this happens Britain will need to start importing gas from storage sites in mainland Europe at high prices.
If another Beast from the East hits, the UK will need to tap into its own gas storage sites.
If the cold snap happens early in the winter when storage sites are still relatively full they can supply all of the extra gas needed.
But if it happens later in winter when storage levels are low the UK will need to import more gas from the continent.