Cold snap renews concern over UK energy supplies

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Britain was hit by snow showers on Tuesday, with more predicted for Wednesday, clogging roads and rekindling concerns about the country’s gas supply this winter.

National Grid, which operates the gas pipeline network, expected average temperatures across the country to hover close to freezing – about four 4ºC colder than average this time of year.

The company was also expecting a jump in domestic gas demand, as households turned up their heating to stay warm. With most of Britain’s industry closed for the Christmas holiday, overall demand was still expected to remain moderate. But if the cold snap persists into the new year, Britain could see another spike in wholesale gas prices, closing some industrial plants and driving bills up further.

The Met Office has said there is a two-thirds chance of a colder-than-average winter this year.

Energy companies traditionally use the lull in demand during the Christmas period to fill up storage in time for the coldest months – January and February. However, the early onset of freezing weather is hampering that process, with increased household gas use cutting the amount that can be placed in storage.

Britain’s only large-scale gas store, an offshore facility called Rough, near Hull, was yesterday 84 per cent full. When full, the converted gas reservoir can provide more than 10 per cent of the country’s total gas demand for 77 days.

“Storage is certainly more depleted than at this time last year, there’s no doubt about that,” said Andrew Hanson of Centrica Storage, the company that operates the facility. He said that the company would be able to carry on injecting gas into storage.

If there is no sustained let-up in the cold weather in January, however, Britain may have difficulties meeting higher gas demand. The country’s North Sea gas supplies have been declining faster than predicted but new pipelines and ports to import gas from abroad have not been completed.

Furthermore, companies started withdrawing gas from storage facilities such as Rough last month during a cold snap that saw wholesale gas prices soar 500 per cent.

The Met Office has forecast that temperatures will continue to fall today and tomorrow, with heavy snow in many parts of the country. The Highways Agency said it was gritting main roads in advance of the icy weather but warned motorists to keep checking local media and delay journeys to avoid the worst of the snow showers.

Authorities were bracing themselves for up to 10cm of snow in the east and south-east of the country. Speed limits were imposed on the M20 in Kent and some other roads. The snow was expected to move towards north-east England last night, parts of which could see up to 15cm of snow, forecasters said. They are expecting a thaw in the weather by the weekend.

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