Thursday, December 2, 2010

The UK winter starts - salt, coal, and natural gas supplies

The severe weather that is sweeping the United Kingdom is posing an early demand on the stored supplies of fuel, and on the grit supplies that are used to de-ice travel ways. Part of the problem causing train delays is that the snow and ice are blocking the connections needed to transfer electric power from the rails to the train engines. At the moment it appears that up to 500 gas stations mainly rural stations in north-east England and eastern Scotland may run out of fuel over the weekend. Not that driving is that easy at the moment. When bad weather hit the UK last winter, the shortage of grit (which is largely salt) was one of the difficulties encountered by local councils. The government formed a “Salt Cell” to provide information on salt supplies and needs since salt comes from only three mines, one at Boulby in Yorkshire, the Winsford mine in Cheshire and the Kilroot mine in Ireland. The Winsford mine, which provides 50% of the UK salt need, can lift 500 tons an hour from the underground deposit and has been working 7-day weeks since last December.

With some councils reporting that 20-30% of their winter stocks have already been consumed, the Cell may need to be reactivated this winter. Typically the country stockpiles around 275,000 tons of salt for the winter, however when the country is totally blanketed with snow, then it can use as much as 194,000 tons in a day. (UK DOT figures). After the hiatus last year the Senior Advisor to the Government for Highway Maintenance found that there were no easy answers, since the problem is bound up in limited mine production, limited local storage capacity, the reliance on local authority to deal with the problem, and a European shortage of salt. Yet at the beginning of this season 18% of the UK councils did not have enough salt to get them through the anticipated demand for the winter.

For those who think that this is purely a European problem, Park Forest in Illinois is already noting that it has almost depleted its supply, and there is a state shortage of salt already. Illinois has an average salt bid of 1.4 million tons and this year the prices was $61.60 a ton, down from the $100 of the 2008-2009 year. McHenry County, west of Chicago, orders around 60,000 tons a year. Of course individual cities have different circumstances, Avon Lake near Cleveland, Ohio, for example, has stockpiled more than enough for the year. But there are already shortages showing up in other parts of Ohio that are driving prices back up, with prices of $142 a ton being reported. Pre-planning apparently works.

The problems with UK fuel supplies changes with the fuel that is needed. Coal, for example, is largely maintained in stockpiles at the power stations. In September (the last month with data available) there was some 17.6 million tons in those piles set against a September consumption of 3.63 million tons. (It might be noted that this was roughly half-a-million tons more than the 3.11 million turns consumed in September 2009). With the UK now importing roughly two-thirds of its need, having that stockpile, particularly in a hard winter, might be a wise precaution. About 80% of the UK power stations rely on fossil fuels, though there has been a move to using natural gas over the past few years. This is increasingly supplied by imports, with overall demand rising at 9.6% over the equivalent period in 2009 (). A third of the imported gas comes in the form of LNG, at a level of around 2 billion cf/day, and is needed as natural gas supplies from the North Sea are falling at around 10% per year.

Natural gas supplies in the UK suffer from the lack of sufficient storage capacity, and the limited size of the supply pipes from Europe. A recent plan to use a depleted field in the North Sea won’t come on line until 2015, if it is implemented.

Pipeline gas from Europe to the United Kingdom flows through the Interconnector with the terminal at Bacton and with flow to and from Belgium. During September and October the pipeline recorded record flows going to the continent (16,000 GWh worth), however with the onset of the cold spell the flow reversed.

Flow of gas in MWh equivalents from Belgium to the UK through the Interconnector pipeline (the dates are the end of November and December 1 )

And at 6 am on Wednesday the flow stopped (h/t Luis) however supplies increased through the Langeled pipeline connecting to Norway. And while there were some problems with flow from the gas being stored in the depleted offshore gas field at Rough, it is reported that five LNG tankers are on their way to the UK at the moment.

It is worth noting, in passing, that with five nuclear power stations on maintenance, the French have been importing electric power from the UK.
Power demand in France, where one third of domestic users rely on electricity for heating, is expected to reach a new record high at peak hour on Thursday, according to grid operator RTE.
With demand also at record highs on Wednesday, France was importing power from Britain at the interconnector's full 2,000-MW capacity until around 1630 GMT, National Grid data showed.

And, also in passing it is worth noting that the claims of increased deaths from global warming are not being borne out by the statistics in the UK. A study, back in 2008, noted that there had been no increases in summer deaths from rising temperatures, but rather a fall in winter deaths by some 3% in the UK. However the return of harsher winters has already had an effect. Local councils have reported that with the colder weather last year deaths increased by some 25,000 and one may anticipate a similar impact this year. In a normal year the cold-related winter deaths would average about 20,000.

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