When we bought our current house, one of the things we made sure of was, even the house was all-electric, that there was a fireplace, and when we added on to the house we added a tile stove from Germany, that burns wood we obtain locally (though it can also burn coal). Thus when the power goes out (as it has for periods of time in winter and summer) we can keep the house warm enough to prevent things freezing. (We also used to use candles for light, but now have a variety of lights that can be either shaken or wound up that provide light, as well as the occasional flashlight). I was thinking of that situation this week, as the headlines in the UK worry about the supply of natural gas during the cold spell.
It is the problem that heating with natural gas and electricity have, over other fuels, in that the typical home owner has no storage capacity, and where natural gas is used for power generation neither does the power plant. Thus both are critically dependant on their being enough gas coming down the pipe to supply the fuel, when it is needed. However, to quote an example that I have used before from the book “Cape Wind” by Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb, that shows the increasing vulnerability of places such as New England as the balance that exists between available supply and demand narrows. The event occurred in mid January 2004 when there was a sudden cold spell that lasted over a week, and the story is told from the point of view of the Independent System Operator (ISO) that manages the supply for some 14 million folk, and is located in Holyoke, MA.
On January 14th the ISO had assurances that up to 10,000 megawatts would be available from gas-fired power plants as they anticipated demand rising to around 23,000 to 25,000 megawatts, as the temperature was anticipated to drop to minus ten degrees. But by 8:30 am on the first morning of the crisis, this began to change:
A trickle of phone calls began coming in to the Holyoke headquarters, all with pretty much the same bad news. Plant operators who relied on natural gas as their fuel reported that although their plants were in working order, there was no gas available for them to buy. It had all been taken by the companies responsible for providing gas for home heating.In the end crisis was averted by some load shedding, including closing the schools, but it illustrates the coming vulnerabilities that we face as our historic assumption that there will be enough power when we need it, suddenly starts to be significantly challenged. However, in this case, action was taken, and things no longer look as grim.
By afternoon the trickle of “no gas” calls became a flood. . . . .During this all-time winter peak, when electricity was essential for the very survival of many New Englanders, roughly 7,200 megawatts of gas-fired generation was now unavailable. . . . .because they couldn’t find enough natural gas to buy.”
But this dependence on flows of gas through pipelines that can only accommodate a certain volume flow rate, means that in periods such as this where there is a sustained cold spell where both power atations and domestic users are increasing demand, it is possible that the supply cannot reach the volumes needed. In this case depending on LNG supplies is not a viable answer, since they, in turn, rely on the passage of tankers that can take days if not weeks to bring gas to a terminal where it can be reconverted and fed into the pipeline.
As with the case in New England, the initial cut-off’s of supply in the UK will be allocated to industrial users.
National Grid warned this week that the gas grid was close to running short of supplies.And the situation is apparently not going to get better in the short term:
Icis Heren, the gas consultancy, reckons that some industrial customers could be cut off within days if the cold weather continues.
“It is pretty tight. At one point on Monday, we were on a knife edge,” said Louise Boddy, managing director of Icis Heren. The exceptional cold, about 6C below the seasonal norm, has pushed gas demand up and is exposing Britain’s new dependency on imports of fuel.
Much of the UK was blanketed in heavy snow this morning as the extreme weather headed south and forecasters warned that the country was on course for its coldest winter in 30 years.Unfortunately too few in the UK still have that pile of coal in the back shed to provide warmth, when the main power goes off.
The Met Office issued an alert warning that nearly half a metre of snow was due to fall in some areas, while freezing conditions spread after having brought chaos to the north of England and Scotland today.
Tony Waters, the Met Office chief forecaster, said: "This is expected to cause disruption to transport networks and could lead to problems with power supplies."
Oh, and the Cape Wind project has just run into another roadblock as the National Park Service is considering the area for designation as a National Historic Site.