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UK drops plan to prepare for winter blackouts with energy rationing campaign

<span>Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Ministers have stepped back from mooted plans to launch a public information campaign to encourage households to reduce their energy use this winter.

A campaign asking households to turn their thermostats down and use their dishwashers and washing machines at times when energy demand is lower has been discussed between the business department, energy companies and the network operator National Grid.

However, the business department on Wednesday said there are now “no plans for the government to tell the public to reduce usage for the sake of our energy supplies”.

National Grid will on Thursday explain how Britain’s power system will cope with a harsh winter, amid growing concern that factories could be forced to shut down as Vladimir Putin chokes Europe’s gas supplies.

Ministers have so far played down the threat to energy supplies this winter, insisting in August that the UK’s “highly secure and diverse gas and electricity system” had prepared the UK for “all and every eventuality”.

Liz Truss also ruled out rationing when she was campaigning to become Tory party leader – and her credo is not to tell people what to do.

However, Russia has since intensified its squeeze on Europe’s gas supplies, including suspected sabotage of pipelines to Europe.

It is understood that officials discussed using a text, phone call and email alert service run by National Grid to contact households about cutting power use.

The system is normally used to notify consumers when it detects a power cut and gives timing estimates and confirmation when the power will be restored. Under the mooted plans, consumers could be sent advice on their energy use through the service.

Sources close to the discussions said government officials and industry executives were determined to avoid blackouts disrupting the supply of energy to Britons’ homes. A public information campaign could help ease pressure on energy supplies during the winter.

Energy rationing could also help to cut the huge bill for capping household and business energy prices, which the consultancy Cornwall Insight reckons will cost taxpayers £89bn.

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has said there was a “significant risk” of gas shortages this winter because of the war in Ukraine, which has resulted in a dash for gas stocks in Europe before winter.

National Grid is examining measures to prevent power shortages this winter. Earlier this year, Octopus Energy ran a trial that gave consumers a day’s notice to cut their usage during a peak period in return for payments. National Grid hopes to extend that service, but suppliers have suggested the payments may be too low.

National Grid’s outlook for winter energy supplies will be the first comprehensive assessment of the risk of blackouts this winter. The eagerly awaited document should show how resilient Britain’s energy supplies are over the coming months. An early view, published in August, showed that the UK should be able to meet its energy demand in the coming months. However, since then Norway has indicated it may prioritise supplying its domestic market over exporting power.

Government analysis has predicted that Britain could experience power cuts for four days in January if there were gas shortages and the weather was particularly severe.

Although European countries have made good progress in filling up gas storage facilities and reducing consumption, there are concerns about supplies and high prices through next year. Last week, the Nord Stream Russian gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea were damaged, with Russian sabotage suspected.

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts this week said Europe could suffer a colder winter with less rain and wind than average. It predicted a period of high pressure over western Europe in November and December, which could reduce the amount of renewable power generated.

European governments have attempted to cut consumption through various methods. Germany is trying to cut gas usage by around a fifth and has asked all companies and local authorities to reduce the minimum room temperature in their workspaces to 19C during the winter, and ministers in France are wearing warm clothes to send a message to consumers.

A UK industry source said: “There is still a debate over who is best to offer guidance to households – government, suppliers or network operators.”

However, any messaging campaign would have been at odds with the prime minister’s libertarian principles, and her insistence at the Conservative party conference: “I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.” Asked during the leadership campaign whether she would rule out energy rationing, Truss said: “I do rule that out. Yes.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the business secretary, when asked on Tuesday about a campaign to save energy, said: “I think the price signal is pretty strong … The price signal for businesses is similarly scaled. So I’m not sure we need to tell people to do things that are obvious. I’m not in favour of condescending government assuming people are stupid. Voters know what they need to do and don’t need me to tell them to do that.”

But the government’s reluctance to tell households to use less energy provoked criticism from Gavin Barwell, a former No 10 chief of staff. “So, if it is a cold winter and there simply isn’t enough energy to go round – which is a real risk – we are just going to have random blackouts rather than the government rationing non-domestic use so that vulnerable people don’t find themselves without heating?” he asked.

The UK is far less reliant than some European countries on Russian gas but the scramble for supplies caused by the war in Ukraine has threatened to have a knock-on effect on supplies to Britain.

Rees-Mogg is reportedly negotiating deals with two gas exporting countries, Qatar and Norway, over long-term supply contracts that would commit the UK to buying gas in large quantities at an agreed price for more than a decade. That is likely to prompt concerns that the UK’s net zero decarbonisation goals could be at risk.

At a Centre for Policy Studies fringe event at the Tory party conference on Tuesday, Rees-Mogg failed to say he was confident the lights would be kept on this winter.

“There will be a report out fairly shortly from the National Grid going through all the risks for the winter, and what may help us and what may not help us, what the options are and what things can be done,” he said. “I think I shouldn’t pre-empt it.”

A business department spokesperson said: “There are no plans for the government to tell the public to reduce usage for the sake of our energy supplies. The UK has a secure and diverse energy system, and we are confident that the steps we are taking will protect security of electricity and gas supplies.”

National Grid declined to comment.