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Britain threatened with South African-style ‘load shedding’ as electricity rationing looms

·5-min read
energy crisis uk blackouts energy gas shortage
energy crisis uk blackouts energy gas shortage

As traffic lights went dark, South African citizens struggled to drive through busy junctions on their daily commute.

The country has been plunged into “stage six” load-shedding – up to six hours a day without electricity – in recent weeks as Eskom attempted to stave off a total collapse of the grid.

While South Africa's problems might have been tied to corruption and bad management at the state-run power company, load-shedding looks likely to become the buzzword of this winter amid warnings that blackouts of the developing world are making their way to Britain.

As chaos in energy markets picks up pace and supplies falter, the UK faces a similar crisis of having to choose how to distribute demand for electrical power across multiple power sources.

The spectre of organised blackouts risks Britain being dragged into a crisis to match the power cuts of the 1970s.

Now, industry is pushing Government officials to finalise plans for reducing demand on the electricity grid to provide certainty ahead of winter. It would be the first managed decline of the country’s energy system for decades.

Yet the reality of life under energy rationing may be difficult for families in an advanced economy to swallow.

Mark Nelson, managing director of consultancy Radiant Energy Group, says: "Load-shedding is a top issue in South African politics. What strikes me is how demoralising it is for people there, how it seems to make optimism impossible about the economy in general.

"Many developing countries have load-shedding, billions of people know what this means, it's just rich countries have not had to deal with it."

Nelson adds that while load-shedding is commonly described as blackouts, plans currently being put in place in Britain are very different.

"Blackouts we associate with sudden, accidental bad performance of the grid, but load-shedding is a planned, longer-term failure," he says.

"Load-shedding means the grid is fine but there just isn't enough power for everyone.

"It's a slower, managed decline of the country."

Britain is particularly exposed to shortages. In 2017, Centrica closed its Rough storage site off the coast of Yorkshire – which wiped out around 70pc of the country’s gas storage capacity. The UK currently has 10.07 terawatt hours in storage, compared to France’s 109.9 and Germany’s 177.7.

Meanwhile, turning to supplies abroad could prove increasingly tricky. The value of natural gas imports have soared in recent months as European countries compete to secure vital supplies to fill up their storage sites. The buying frenzy comes amid fears Russian president Vladimir Putin will completely ban gas deliveries to Europe through key pipelines.

As the energy crisis ramps up, the UK’s gas network has been preparing for rationing for more than a month, alongside similar talks within the electricity network. One industry source said National Grid's electricity grid operator is preparing for shortfalls on an "accelerated timeline" to prepare for the colder months.

They warned domestic energy consumers have become the focus of load-shedding plans for the electricity network – and that a public information campaign would be needed to make sure households were prepared.

Whitehall, meanwhile, has been working up scenarios for managing energy since May when it was reported that ministers were warned 6m households could face blackouts this winter because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Under that worst-case scenario, Norwegian imports of gas could more than halve amid increased competition from the EU for supplies. If Russia cuts off gas to the EU completely, the blackouts - throughout the week - could start in December and last for three months.

Under plans briefed to top politicians, ministers warned electricity would have to be rationed from the start of 2023 during peak usage times in the morning and the evening, from 7am to 10am and 4pm to 9pm.

Industrial users of gas - such as steel mills - would also be told to shut down and gas-fired power stations could be closed.

Those proposals, from May, gained renewed attention this week amid reports the UK could face blackouts for several days in January if cold weather and gas shortages leave the nation short of energy. One industry source warns the mass shutdown of nuclear plants in France could also threaten energy imports through undersea cables.

On Tuesday, Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi tried to calm public concern.

"As we did with the pandemic, we looked at reasonable worst-case scenarios, which were extreme, which never materialised. Why? Because we have a contingency plan for every outcome,” he said.

"But by working with the sector, having an energy strategy that Kwasi Kwarteng has worked up and has delivered really, really competently, means that I don't think we'll be in that world, in that space.

"It's a responsible government that plans for these things, this is a difficult moment in our history, there is war on our continent."

However, analysts have warned a severe scenario is "highly likely". A recent note from Rabobank said: "What is highly likely is that millions will freeze this winter; or fall into debts to avoid doing so; and the result will be deflationary demand for everything else, along with cost-push price increases for everything; and yet government help will just mean the latter inflation and less of the former."

Radiant Energy Group’s Nelson says load-shedding is likely to have a profound effect on households, particularly if it lasts for long periods.

He says people will learn to always have electronic items fully charged, and will stock up on additional charger packs. They will start getting dressed faster in the morning to stay warm, and may buy electric blankets if they can't fully heat their homes.

"People will relearn lots of things about daily rhythms of life before they had central heat or cheap electricity," Nelson adds.

"It's a hard way to live and, as a society, Britain hasn't had to do this for a very long time. Tea will become one of the main sources of warm comfort because it doesn't take that much energy to boil a bit of water for tea.

"Of course it's too late for this decade, but key decisions can be made now for a bright, warm 2030s."