It wasn’t much of an investigation, and it wasn’t much of an experiment. It was like the kind of measuring you do in primary school and call an experiment: I came back from the deli and put the kettle on. From the jump on the smart meter (already installed when we moved in a couple of years ago) I worked out the kettle was sucking in about three kilowatts of power. It took a minute to boil. The firm that sells us our electricity, Octopus, changes its tariffs every half-hour according to the price set at the auctions where it and other buyers bid for electricity from the companies that generate it. It was just before 11 o’clock, and the price was 35 pence for a kilowatt hour. I think I got this right: a small tea-water boiling set me back a penny and three-quarters.
Next to nothing. Teas all round! But it adds up. A router here, a fridge there, always on. Put a wash through, set the dishwasher going, switch on the lights, charge the phones and the laptops, set the microwave to gyre, bake a pie, and before you know it the monthly bill is in the high double figures. Or more. Normally, on a weekday morning in late September, outside the peak demand of early evening, electricity’s way cheaper than this. At the same time last year, boiling a pint of water would have cost halfpence. The pandemic was full on then, you might think; demand was down. But the year before that, pre-Covid, it was even cheaper – a quarter of a penny.
Thirty-five pence per kwh on a bright, sunny, early autumn morning is an emergency price, a sign of extreme stress on the system. It’s the most the UK government allows electricity firms to charge households. They would charge more, but because they’re not allowed to, the smaller ones can’t cover their costs, and they’re going bust, nine so far this year. Farewell, People’s Energy, Utility Point, PfP Energy, MoneyPlus Energy, Hub Energy, Green Network Energy, Simplicity Energy, Avro Energy and Green Supplier. We hardly knew you. A million and a half customers will be shunted onto bigger suppliers that have survived so far because they built clever financial defences against the predations of the market they live by. But there isn’t space inside the fortress for a sudden inrush of new households. Having benefited from electricity privatisation, the big firms are calling for state help. None is talking about giving its old dividends back.
Why have prices risen so high? How much time have you got? As I write, the sun’s shining, and that gives a handy few gigawatts of solar power, but much of Britain’s electricity is generated by wind, and the country lies becalmed, breezeless. It’s blowing a gale off the north-west coast, but the waters there are too deep for wind farms. There are practical ways of storing wind energy, but none has been built on a big enough scale. Most of the country’s coal-fired power stations have been shut down. Both reactors at Hartlepool nuclear power station have broken down, as have two reactors elsewhere; the new nuclear station at Hinkley C is at least five years away from making electricity. As the transition to renewable energy proceeds, Britain relies more and more on being plugged into the biggest possible trans-European grid, so windless or dark days in one region are balanced out by sunny or blustery weather in another. But a fire knocked out much of the capacity on the main electricity cable linking Britain to France, and a new cable connecting Britain to Norway has only just begun operation. In all this Brexit is not quite the blame-sponge that hardcore Remainers might like it to be, but decoupling from Europe’s automatic electricity balancing system, and replacing it with two uncoordinated, daily British auctions for European electricity, didn’t help.
All these problems, even combined, wouldn’t be causing the trouble they are if it weren’t for another issue that outweighs them all. If coal, nuclear, wind, solar and electricity imported from Europe aren’t generating enough of Britain’s electricity, what stops the lights going out is gas. It would be different on a windy day, but on the morning I’m writing, gas-fired power stations in the UK are making half the country’s electricity, compared to 15 per cent for nuclear and 8 per cent for wind. For better or worse, for the time being, fossil gas is Britain’s energy backstop. And it’s everybody else’s backstop, too. It’s become expensive very quickly. Over the past five years the price of gas traded in Europe has never risen above €29 per megawatt hour. This week it was up to €75.
The days are long gone when Britain could count on a supply of gas from the North Sea to cover its needs; one of the reasons it burned through its North Sea fossil fuel reserves so quickly was that the market encouraged the construction of gas-fired power stations. Now the country is dependent on supplies piped from Norway and consignments of liquefied natural gas shipped to Milford Haven and the Isle of Grain. The LNG carriers with their distinctive raised tanks load up in producer countries and set sail for the highest bidder. Any shortfall in the market for gas, anywhere in the world, redirects the tankers, and raises the price for everyone. The richest countries are forced to pay more; the poorest countries may have to go without.
Some of the hike in the price of gas is the result of industrial economies ramping up production as the world part overcomes, part assimilates the pandemic. Some of it is a consequence of catch-ups on coronavirus-delayed maintenance. But these aren’t the only explanations. Increased demand for gas is also tied to countries reining in their coal-fired power stations without the renewables to replace them, and to Japan and Germany’s turning against nuclear power after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster of 2011. Japan is very gingerly reopening its reactors; Germany is moving as fast as it can to shut them all down.
The present crisis began to show in Asia towards the end of last year. John Kemp, a Reuters energy analyst, describes the emergency there as a shock similar to Britain’s terrible winter of 1947 or the oil crisis of 1973: a sudden event that exposed deeper structural problems. Pakistan warned of a major gas shortfall last October and abandoned a planned series of LNG imports because they were too expensive. By this summer industries were shutting down and power cuts rampant. India and Bangladesh, too, couldn’t meet the price in a seller’s market, and people who were used to regular gas and electricity had to go without. Some residents of Dhaka had to sit up until the small hours of the morning to wait for gas to cook with. China ran into gas shortages and high prices, in part because it had shifted so many district heating systems from coal to gas. A ferociously cold winter in South Korea and Japan, where at one point blackouts seemed likely, put more pressure on the LNG market and the ageing fleet of coal-fired power stations Japan uses to fill in for its missing nuclear. In Europe, the dominant gas supplier, Gazprom, has stopped filling its storage facilities, putting extra pressure on prices: sceptics accuse the company, which is controlled by the Russian state, of deliberately heightening gas anxiety as leverage in its efforts to get approval for a new pipeline to Germany that bypasses Ukraine.
As winter approaches, then, an electricity crisis is accompanied by a gas crisis that is its major cause. For cash-strapped countries in Asia, it’s a crisis of supply – intermittent gas and blackouts. For Japan and Europe, it’s more likely to be a crisis of money, threatening poverty, layoffs and cold homes for people who can’t afford to heat them. In Italy, the government stepped in earlier this year with a €1.2 billion subsidy to protect households after energy bills jumped. A new spike of 40 per cent on electricity bills is now threatened and Italy is proposing a further €3 billion in subsidies. Spain and France have also promised to help bill-payers. But Britain is in a particularly dire place, afflicted by four decades of free market fanaticism that left it up to commercial companies to pay for the storage of natural gas reserves against a supply crunch or a price explosion. Result: there isn’t any storage. In a cold winter, Britain warms itself from tanker to tanker.
It’s still an open question whether the UK will see a crisis of energy supply as well as a crisis of energy price. According to Mike Bradshaw of the UK Energy Research Centre, LNG imports account for a fifth of Britain’s gas use, and few UK-bound consignments are on long-term contracts. The ships will turn round and head for Japan instead of Britain if Japan bids more. ‘The UK is not considered an attractive market for LNG traders and is often seen as a market of last resort,’ he writes. Graeme Wildgoose, an LNG analyst at Poten and Partners, told me that ‘the logic has always been that the market will find a solution, and the price will rise to a point at which the necessary supply will come in. However what we’re seeing at the moment suggests this is not quite as robust an argument as was thought.’
It still seems more likely that Japan and Britain will secure enough gas, in the same way they secured enough coronavirus vaccines, by the expedient of poorer countries not getting enough. But for Britain the price crisis will be harsh. Free market fanaticism combines with the brutal practice of making the poorest citizens pay a disproportionate share of the cost of funding the transition to zero-carbon energy. What are essentially taxes to subsidise offshore wind and new nuclear power stations are collected via the electricity bill, without much concern for people’s ability to pay. Inflation is on the up, low-income workers will be hit by the national insurance rise more than high earners, and a cut to universal credit is looming. The increase in energy bills causes the same size wound in the finances of comfortable households and precarious ones, but it barely marks the flesh of the well-off, and cuts the poorer to the bone.