As you might have heard, the UK is currently undergoing a gas shortage. Winter is coming, British homes are woefully uninsulated and many in the country are now facing a pile-up of issues, from soaring gas bills and the petrol crisis, to raised taxes and benefit cuts. It’s a catastrophic cocktail that could push people into serious fuel poverty over the colder months. But why are we in this nightmare scenario? And what can it teach us about the future of transitioning to cleaner energy sources?
Essentially, a host of things have gone wrong at the same time. There is always a natural demand for gas as we enter the winter months, but the demand has been higher this year as a result of the economy opening up post-pandemic. Gas continues to be a dominant fuel in the country, generating around 36 per cent of total energy in 2020. But not only has the supply from Russia been slow (there are many theories about the geopolitics of this, but that’s another rabbit hole to fall down), some gas platforms in the North Sea were also temporarily closed during the pandemic and a major cable importing electricity from France got damaged during a fire. Great. To add to this clusterfuck, there haven’t been enough strong winds to power the wind turbines that normally generate around 20 per cent of total energy.
This shortage of gas creates a terrible domino effect. Not only will people have to face higher gas bills at home, but the situation is also already affecting food supplies. Fertiliser plants that produce carbon dioxide as a by-product have had to close due to higher gas bills and this CO2 is used to make drinks, stun animals before slaughter and make dry ice. Turkey Dinosaurs manufacturer Bernard Matthews has even said that we might run out of actual turkeys. You know it’s a national crisis when British Christmas celebrations are under threat.
It’s a dire set of circumstances, but it’s also an opportunity. The gas crisis has outlined that we are too reliant on fossil fuel energy sources during a time we need to be rapidly transitioning to greener fuels – we’re running out of time to tackle climate change, remember? This is the perfect time to double down on green energy expansion, as well as commit to developing the technology that will be used to store renewable energy.
Climate change denialists have already started using the gas crisis to paint green energy sources as unreliable and are now insisting on digging out the remaining chunks of oil and gas in the ground for a stable flow of energy. Some are event proposing fracking to boost gas production, while others want nuclear solutions, which come with their own set of risks and huge short-term carbon footprints.
But the most unreliable element here is actually the unpredictable nature of fossil fuel prices, which are dependent on global events like the pandemic and geopolitical factors like which countries Russia decides to sell its gas to. The only way we can establish control and, for a lack of a better word, insulate ourselves from these types of disturbances is by prioritising low-carbon energy sources.
The UK isn’t the worst when it comes to investing in green energy. In fact, 2020 was our greenest year on record. But there are many more things that could be done to ensure calmer winters ahead. For example, why on earth has the government just approved another oil field in the North Sea, ahead of Scotland hosting COP26? Why haven’t we shelled out the money to insulate homes across the UK, to limit our long-term reliance on gas for heating? The crisis we’re dealing with now is not new. The UK faced similar issues in 2018. We should be better prepared.
Despite the government’s reluctance to mitigate our gas reliance, Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng agrees that “a home-grown renewable energy sector to further reduce our reliance on fossil fuels” is the answer. In a rare moment, the opposition party stands in unity on this issue, as Keir Starmer made insulating Britain a priority at the Labour conference this year. But is it all just talk and no action?
The government will soon be publishing a new strategy on heat and buildings, which could in part help in dealing with the energy crisis. Let’s see what it promises. In the meantime, layer up.