Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

U.K. Faces Power Supply Crunch and Winter Isn’t Even Here Yet

  • National Grid power plant reserve not available until November
  • Clean-spark spreads jump, reflecting possible scarcity

Britain may struggle to find the electricity supply it needs to meet demand even before the heating season officially begins as utilities complete maintenance at power stations before winter.

Availability of gas-fired generation is set to drop to the lowest since April 2009 this month as companies from SSE Plc to RWE AG halt plants before the peak demand season, according to S&P Global Platts. The looming scarcity of gas plants, that at times generate half of the nation’s supply, plus falling fuel costs have pushed the stations’ profitability to a six-year high.

The U.K.’s supply margin has declined to near the lowest in a decade. For this winter, National Grid Plc has contracted 10 power stations to provide back up electricity, but the contracts don’t start until November. U.K. utilities have closed coal plants that made up 9 percent of total generation capacity in the past year, leaving the nation’s power supplies vulnerable on cold days with little wind.

“Gas is running more often than it was a year ago and outages now have more of a price impact,” said Glenn Rickson, the London-based head of power analysis at S&P Global Platts, an energy information provider. “October is even more risky as it’s colder and there will still be some plant offline for maintenance in the coal and gas fleet.”

The U.K. government intends to address the security of supply issues through its capacity mechanism. In March, Britain said it will start payments to power generators to guarantee electricity supply in 2017-2018, a year earlier than previously planned. That’s to encourage new plants, particularly gas-fired.

Month-ahead clean-spark spreads, a measure of gas-plant profit margin, jumped in August to more than 17 pounds ($22) a megawatt-hour, the highest since 2009, according to data from ICE Futures Europe.

Supply Backup

“It isn’t unusual at this stage in the year for the forward margin between supply and demand to appear tight during September and October,” National Grid said by e-mail. “As we get closer to the time, we would expect the market to respond and demand forecasts to become more accurate.”

The market response may be higher prices, and this winter could work out more expensive for consumers than in previous years.

Balancing supply and demand is only going to get more expensive in future in an increasingly complex system, Charlotte Ramsay, head of commercial, regulation & new business at National Grid, said at panel discussion in London on Thursday.

“We’re under pressure from the regulator to keep costs down,” she said declining to comment on likely costs for this winter.

Regulator’s Response

Britain’s regulator, the Office of Electricity and Gas Markets, will be keeping a close eye on costs to “make sure that consumers are as well represented as possible,” Mark Copley, associate director at Ofgem said at the same London event.

Average gas-fired capacity may be as low as 18.2 gigawatts, compared with 21.1 gigawatts in August, according to Platts’s forecast.

While there’s a risk of supply shortages in September, Rickson said he’d be surprised if the network operator runs out of commercial tools and the lights go off.

One operator set to benefit from the high spark spread is Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board, which is connecting its 880-megawatt Carrington station to the grid on Sept. 18. It’s the U.K.’s first new gas-fed plant since 2012.

National Grid more than doubled the amount of capacity it will keep in reserve this winter in order to keep margins steady at 5.5 percent. Stations in the so-called supply balancing reserve are required to be available on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. from November to February, according to the grid’s website.

Even a “moderately cold winter” would increase the likelihood of National Grid needing to use its backup tools, pushing up power prices, according to Felix Chow, a project manager at Aurora Energy Research Ltd. in Oxford.

“Unpredictable variations in weather and plant availability means the capacity margin this winter could potentially be as low as 2.5 percent,” he said.

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