UK households urged to reduce energy use to avoid winter power cuts

Millions of British households will be asked to cut back on energy consumption by National Grid this winter, as it warned them to prepare for rolling blackouts in the “extreme” case of gas shortages and reduced electricity imports from the rest of Europe.

The company in charge of Britain’s electricity and gas systems will launch a voluntary scheme next month offering financial incentives to domestic customers with smart meters and businesses to reduce power usage during peak hours when supplies are tight.

The aim is to try to reduce demand by more than 2 gigawatts during busy periods, the equivalent output of two of the UK’s fleet of five nuclear power stations.

National Grid on Thursday published several reports setting out possible scenarios for the winter, as Britain and the other European countries it normally relies on for gas and power imports during the coldest months grapple with what the company called an “unprecedented” energy crisis caused by Russia’s squeeze on natural gas exports.

Europe’s gas crisis has been compounded by other problems, including outages at France’s large nuclear reactor fleet and low water levels at Norway’s hydropower plants. France recently warned that it would have to rely on electricity imports, including from Britain, over the winter.

National Grid said its “base case” was unchanged under which supply would meet demand. But for the first time it acknowledged that it would have to impose rolling power cuts in what it described as the “extreme scenario” that generators could not secure enough gas or electricity imports from countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands. This would see supplies cut off in three-hour blocks in certain regions at different times.

It said it would aim to use the voluntary scheme in a slightly better supply scenario, in which gas-fired power plants — the mainstay of Britain’s electricity generation — were able to operate but it could not secure enough electricity imports.

In the case of a prolonged cold spell, Britain would likely need to secure gas imports from other European countries to meet demand, according to the documents. This warning alarmed analysts who are increasingly concerned that EU member states would likely be struggling to cope with the same weather conditions and would not have any supplies available.

“Is this likely when Europe is very short of gas themselves in cold weather? As we are now outside the EU, will they be willing to supply us if it means going short themselves?” asked Niall Trimble, managing director of consultancy the Energy Contract Company.

National Grid does not ascribe a probability to any of the scenarios. “Under our base case . . . we are cautiously confident that there will be adequate margins [between supply and demand] through the winter period,” said Fintan Slye, executive director of the National Grid subsidiary that oversees the country’s electricity system.

But he added: “As an expert and responsible operator of Great Britain’s electricity system, it is incumbent on us to also factor in external factors and risks beyond our control, like the unprecedented turmoil and volatility in energy markets in Europe and beyond.”

The reports are likely to increase pressure on the UK government to follow other European countries and launch a public information campaign to encourage households to conserve energy. Industry chief executives have privately questioned why ministers have refused to do so.

The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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