Monday, 18 July 2016

Bad news for UK gas supply winter 2016/17

If Rough was a car, you'd scrap it and buy a new one. But it's actually the UK's biggest gas storage facility, and supplies up to 10% of peak winter demand for gas. A few weeks ago I wrote about how planned maintenance was preventing Rough being filled with gas until early August. Well, the news has now got worse. The BBC summarises it here, but here's the detail straight from Centrica's website:

On 22 June 2016, CSL announced that in the course of conducting the testing works it had identified an additional issue with one of the wells. This resulted in CSL ceasing all injection and withdrawal operations pending the further testing in relation to the issue identified. This program of testing was estimated to last at least 42 days.
CSL has now ended the 42-day testing program early and has plugged the affected well. However, the affected well has identified potential uncertainties in the remaining untested wells. CSL will therefore continue with an enhanced version of its original calliper run and seal testing program. We estimate completion in March to April 2017. In the meantime because of the uncertainty as a prudent and safe operator CSL cannot inject or withdraw gas from Rough.
CSL is also examining the feasibility of returning a number of wells to service for the Winter 2016/2017 withdrawal season. CSL anticipates it will complete this study by 30 October 2016. CSL currently anticipates that at least 4 wells will return to service for withdrawal operations by 1 November 2016. In respect of injection CSL cannot increase the Rough reservoir pressure during the testing programme.
If you're wondering how big an impact plugging one well is, and what possibly having four wells open in November means, the Operational Guide to Rough from 2015 says that it had 24 operating wells for injection, and 29 for withdrawal. Rough is currently about a third full, so opening some wells for withdrawal in November is of some use, but with no chance to inject any new gas, the UK is going to be left exposed to any further malfunctions or international incidents, and may even struggle to cope with a moderately cold winter. The ability to import LNG will be crucial to maintaining supply over this winter - this may work fine, but will cost us more, as we will have to outbid other countries to make sure we get what we need.

It's worth remembering that in Q1 2016 38% of the UK's electricity was generated by burning gas - this represents 25% of total gas use in the UK (data from here). So a shortage of gas implies a potential shortage of electricity, especially with more of our ageing coal plants having shut down over the past year.

One slightly odd thing is that National Grid's Prevailing View website is missing information on gas storage. One could be forgiven for thinking they're trying to avoid scaring people...

We may get more news, good or bad, on Rough over the coming months, but the key thing to look out for now will be long range winter weather forecasts. Time to start praying for a mild winter I think...

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Friday, 24 June 2016

While you were watching the EU referendum, something happened at Rough...

While we were all caught up in the EU referendum this week, there was an item in the news about the UK's largest gas storage facility, Rough:

Wholesale gas prices have been volatile following news that the UK's largest gas storage facility is being shut down for 42 days.
Normally, gas would be being injected into Rough right now, and was being until a couple of days ago, as you can see from the first graph on this page. The update on Centrica's website says:
In March 2015, CSL began conducting testing and verification works on the Rough wells. In the course of conducting these works, CSL has identified an additional issue on one of the wells tested. As a consequence, CSL has ceased all Rough injection and withdrawal operations. CSL will seek to expedite testing on the issue identified and expects this period of testing to last at least 42 days.
The current restart date is 3 August, but of course it could be later, given the above update says "at least 42 days". If storage isn't filled quickly enough over the summer, we'd better hope for a mild winter, or we might run into difficulties... One thing that's clear is that Rough is showing its age, and has had several mechanical breakdowns in the past 10 years. Worth keeping an eye on over the summer...

Easington Langeled Terminal

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Friday, 16 October 2015

UK gas supply outlook for winter 2015/16

It was back in April that I blogged about the cut Centrica had made in the capacity at Rough, due to problems with some of the wells limiting the maximum operating pressure. At the time, Centrica hoped that by now the capacity would have been restored, but a press release in July said that they now didn't expect to know if this would be possible until some time between September and December 2016! The net result is that the capacity of Rough has been reduced by 25%.

Clearly this presents a problem for UK winter gas supply, so it's not surprising that another July press release stated that the Oil and Gas Authority had given Centrica permission to reduce the minimum operating pressure of Rough, thus 'converting' some of the cushion gas (which would normally be left in the store) into working gas, which can be withdrawn and re-injected. This shows up on the chart below (black line = 2015), where a sudden jump up in July can be seen, due to the addition of about 4,625 GWh (or about 400 mcm). The same trick was pulled in 2013 (red line in chart below), after dipping into the cushion gas in April 2013, capacity was increased arbitrarily in the October 2013. It's a bit like keeping driving your car after the fuel gauge has gone into the red - it works OK for a while, but you can't do it for long...

Despite this bit of creative accounting, the chart below shows that we are still going into this winter with a record low amount of gas in storage, and National Grid's Winter Outlook notes this on page 43, saying storage is reduced by 14%, from 4.9 bcm to 4.2 bcm. It would have been 22% less if Centrica hadn't fiddled the figures by dipping even further into the cushion gas.

UK long range gas storage 16 Oct 2015

Medium range storage is looking better, with increased capacity and a record amount in storage, but nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall at Rough.

UK medium range gas storage 16 Oct 2015

So, the big question has to be about demand. We have fewer coal power stations than we did a year ago (which is a good thing, of course!), which could in theory mean that more gas gets burned to generate electricity. But the big factor will be the weather as always, which is hard to predict at this stage, as there are several extra factors to bear in mind:
Time will tell, and we'll soon see if this winter looks like this:

or like this:

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

UK gas storage capacity slashed

A couple of weeks ago Centrica Storage quietly made an announcement on its website:

As part of CSL’s assurance programme and as a responsible operator and given the age of the field and installation, CSL has decided to limit the maximum operating pressure of the Rough wells to 3000 psi. CSL has decided to take the prudent step to test and verify the operating parameters of the Rough wells. It is anticipated that this limitation will last up to 6 months.
 Rough is an undersea gas storage facility, connected by pipeline to the terminal at Easington in Yorkshire:
Easington Langeled Terminal

It's able to store about 4 billion cubic metres of gas - or at least it was before the above announcement. Some more detail from Platts indicates that the reduction in operating pressure will reduce Rough's capacity by about a quarter. Because Rough comprises about 72% of the UK's total gas storage, this is equivalent to losing just under 20% from total storage capacity.

Now, Centrica Storage has said this is for six months, while tests are carried out, but Platts notes that the tests are needed because of concerns about well integrity - so it's possible that the capacity will be permanently reduced. Even if it isn't, the coming six months are exactly when the storage is normally refilled, so if full capacity is restored at the end of the testing period, it may well be too late to completely fill the storage.

So, let's assume the UK goes into next winter with 1 billion cubic metres of gas less in storage than usual - what might the impact be? 2013/14 was a mild winter, and Rough still had over 1.5 billion cubic metres left in it in March 2014. It was a different matter in April 2013, when it had actually gone below 'zero', eating into the gas cushion that was supposed to be left untouched. This year, there's about 0.5 billion cubic meters left in it right now - the situation was similar every year from 2008-2011 inclusive. This means that if the coming winter is mild, we should have no problems; if it is average, then we will probably need to increase imports, which will bump up prices; if it is cold, then we could well have a problem.

The graph below shows the levels in Rough over the past few years in GWh (10 GWh is about the same as 1 million cubic metres), so you can see the situation for yourself. Any year where the level dropped below 10,000 GWh is a year when the announced capacity reduction might have been a problem:
UK long range gas storage

Let's hope and pray for a mild winter!

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Friday, 12 December 2014

What will the impact of falling oil prices be?

So, oil prices are falling again - down to close to $60, compared to over $100 just a few months ago. Good news for economies and motorists around the world? Or a sign of problems to come?

Prices last fell dramatically in 2008, dropping from $145 in July to $30 in December of that year. Of course, this was due to falling demand caused by a global financial crisis - brought on in part by the rising price of oil forcing homeowners to default on their sub-prime mortgages in order to keep buying ever more expensive food and gasoline. Since then, the oil price crept steadily back up again as economies recovered and expensive oil production was mothballed, clearing $100 in 2011 and staying around that level until the recent fall.

So what's happening this time? Well, two key factors are the risk of weakening demand in some parts of the world due to economic issues, and the increase in USA oil production through the fracking of shale oil. Possible falling demand combined with rising supply has reduced the price. Normally, OPEC would act at this point, reducing oil production to support prices. But this time Saudi Arabia has political motivations, as noted by the BBC recently, wanting to punish countries like Russia and Iran, who are being badly hurt by the falling oil price right now. Saudi Arabia is hurt too, but it has a much bigger financial cushion, so can survive for some time yet on lower prices.

So what will the impact be, beyond lower transport costs in the short term? Most of the new oil supply that has come from US fracking needs a high oil price to be profitable - higher than the price is right now (estimates vary from $65 to $80), so fracking companies will be wondering whether they should pause or halt production, and save the oil for a time when prices are higher and they can make a profit selling it. But the problem is they've borrowed money to get started, and that money has to be paid back no matter what the oil price is. Some people even think this might trigger a new financial crisis, as there is over $200 billion in 'junk bonds' in the energy sector. This isn't a USA-specific issue, Barclays is involved in an $850 million loan which may not be paid back in full.

Looking further ahead, when demand for oil picks up again, the shutdown of expensive oil production like fracking, and also tar sands, would mean that prices could jump up significantly, as it would take time to bring this production back online.

Tar sands in alberta 2008

Finally, there's another factor affecting future oil production - the risk of falling investment. Anybody who's grasped the climate change issue understands that if we want to keep global temperatures from rising too high we can't burn all the fossil fuel resources we know about, never mind resources we haven't found yet. But companies, and even whole countries, are valued by stock and bond markets according to the quantity of fossil fuel reserves they own or have a right to produce. If some of these reserves have to be left in the ground, then the shares of these companies and the national debt of certain countries could be over-valued right now - a 'carbon bubble'. In fact, The Bank of England is researching the risk of this right now, as reported by The Guardian:
The Bank of England is to conduct an enquiry into the risk of fossil fuel companies causing a major economic crash if future climate change rules render their coal, oil and gas assets worthless.

The concept of a “carbon bubble” has gained rapid recognition since 2013, and is being taken increasingly seriously by some major financial companies including Citi bank, HSBC and Moody’s, but the Bank’s enquiry is the most significant endorsement yet from a regulator.

The concern is that if the world’s government’s meet their agreed target of limiting global warming to 2C by cutting carbon emissions, then about two-thirds of proven coal, oil and gas reserves cannot be burned. With fossil fuel companies being among the largest in the world, sharp losses in their value could prompt a new economic crisis.

CarbonBubble ENG

The UK Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, has also been talking about this issue with regard to pension funds, as reported by The Telegraph:
"One has got to worry about the investments for pensioners.

If pension funds are investing in companies or banks that have on their balance sheets huge amounts of assets in fossil fuels, and those assets don’t give the return that people expect – because of changes in technology where low-carbon becomes cheaper or because of the world having to take action against carbon emissions – one has got to protect those pensioners and those investments."
 In summary, there are more than simple market forces at play in the oil price right now, and the consequences of any action, or inaction for that matter, will be far-reaching. Governments would do well to give some serious thought to two key problems - how to get off our addiction to oil (and fossil fuels in general), and how how do it without causing another financial crisis as the big fossil fuel companies are wound down.

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

UK National Grid asks for help keeping the lights on this winter

After a fire put one of the 370MW generators at E.ON's Ironbridge coal-fired power station out of action in February, another fire knocked out two 500MW coal-fired units at SSE's Northbridge power station too, with one expected to return to service no earlier than November 2014, and the other after March 2015. Then EDF announced the shutdown of the 1190MW Heysham 1 and the 1150MW Hartlepool nuclear power stations in August, due to concerns over a design flaw in the boilers - these are expected to return to service during October.

So it's hardly a surprise that National Grid has asked if anybody can commit to providing extra reserves of electricity generation for this winter...

Of course, we don't know how cold the winter may be yet - if it's mild like 2013/14 then we probably wouldn't have a problem. At least the gas storage is nice and full, after light usage last winter. But if it happens to be cold, or if there are further outages at our ageing power stations, then things might get a bit tight...

Heysham Power Station, from dockside

UPDATE (4 Sep 2014): EDF has now said the reactors will only come gradually back online between October and December...

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Friday, 27 June 2014

DECC Energy Trends - some good news on renewables!

Just to make a change, the latest Energy Trends publication from DECC is not all bad news! The statistical press release actually starts with this graph, showing how renewable energy supply has grown rapidly in the UK recently:

Energy Trends 2014 overall renewable energy

The biggest chunk of this is electricity, so here's how the overall electricity supply looked in the first quarter of 2014, compared to a year ago:

Energy Trends 2014 renewable electricity

What's interesting to note here is that while renewable energy supply did increase significantly in absolute terms, from 12.7 TWh a year ago to 18.1 TWh this year (43% increase), the reason its share in the chart above increased so dramatically is because the mild winter reduced demand for electricity by 10.4% compared to a year ago. What's really significant here to me is that the cut in demand was reflected in a big reduction in coal and gas burned to generate electricity - which is of course what is supposed to happen as renewable energy generation increases. But it underlines the fact that cutting demand has a huge impact on the proportion of energy we supply from renewable sources.

Although renewable energy capacity had increased over the past year, the other thing that boosted generation was the exceptionally wet and windy weather the UK experienced this winter. Probably not enough of a 'silver lining' to make it worth it for the people who got flooded though... The effect of the weather is shown clearly in the breakdown of renewable energy generation below, with wind and hydro well up on a year ago.

Energy Trends 2014 renewable electricity breakdown
The seasonal trend of more solar power in the summer and more wind/hydro in the winter is clearly shown above as well, which makes a good case for increasing the amount of installed solar PV to even out renewable supply across the year. Though having said that, demand is higher in the winter anyway, so maybe it's not too big a deal.

I'm afraid there's one not so good chart included for electricity though, and that's the one showing our net imports, which are steadily rising:

Energy Trends 2014 electricity net imports
Clearly this isn't a good thing for energy security, or for the UK balance of payments. Perhaps it's a sign of our steadily ageing generation infrastructure?

Moving on to fossil fuels, there's not a huge amount to report really:
  • Coal production was down 27.7% on a year ago.
  • Gas production was down 0.2%, but imports were down significantly due to the mild winter
  • Oil production was actually up 3.5% for a change!
Of course, we are still a major energy importer - the graph below shows net imports for crude oil (red) and also for petroleum products (blue). We've been a net importer of crude oil for a long time, and the recent rise in production is too small to make a dent in that. But our change to being a net importer of products (diesel, petrol, etc.) is relatively new, and due to reductions in refinery capacity in the UK.

Energy Trends 2014 oil net imports 

So, nice to have some good news to report on the renewables front, even if the overall picture hasn't changed a great deal.

Click here to read the rest of this post.