The UK winter starts – challenges with salt, coal, and natural gas

This is a guest post from Dave Summers (Heading Out). It was previously posted on Bit Tooth Energy.

The severe weather that is sweeping the United Kingdom is posing an early demand on the stored supplies of fuel, and on the grit supplies that are used to de-ice travel ways. Part of the problem causing train delays is that the snow and ice are blocking the connections needed to transfer electric power from the rails to the train engines. At the moment it appears that up to 500 gas stations (mainly rural stations in north-east England and eastern Scotland) may run out of fuel over the weekend.

Not that driving is that easy at the moment. When bad weather hit the UK last winter, the shortage of grit (which is largely salt) was one of the difficulties encountered by local councils. The government formed a “Salt Cell” to provide information on salt supplies and needs since salt comes from only three mines, one at Boulby in Yorkshire, the Winsford mine in Cheshire and the Kilroot mine in Ireland. The Winsford mine, which provides 50% of the UK salt need, can lift 500 tons an hour from the underground deposit and has been working 7-day weeks since last December.

With some councils reporting that 20-30% of their winter stocks have already been consumed, the Cell may need to be reactivated this winter. Typically the country stockpiles around 275,000 tons of salt for the winter, however when the country is totally blanketed with snow, then it can use as much as 194,000 tons in a day. (UK DOT figures). After the hiatus last year, the Senior Advisor to the Government for Highway Maintenance found that there were no easy answers, since the problem is bound up in limited mine production, limited local storage capacity, the reliance on local authority to deal with the problem, and a European shortage of salt. Yet at the beginning of this season 18% of the UK councils did not have enough salt to get them through the anticipated demand for the winter.

For those who think that this is purely a European problem, Park Forest in Illinois is already noting that it has almost depleted its supply, and there is a state shortage of salt already. Illinois has an average salt bid of 1.4 million tons and this year the prices was $61.60 a ton, down from the $100 of the 2008-2009 year. McHenry County, west of Chicago, orders around 60,000 tons a year.

Of course individual cities have different circumstances. Avon Lake near Cleveland, Ohio, for example, has stockpiled more than enough for the year. But there are already shortages showing up in other parts of Ohio that are driving prices back up, with prices of $142 a ton being reported. Pre-planning apparently works.

Fossil Fuel Problems

The problems with UK fuel supplies changes with the fuel that is needed. Coal, for example, is largely maintained in stockpiles at the power stations. In September (the last month with data available) there was some 17.6 million tons in those piles set against a September consumption of 3.63 million tons. (It might be noted that this was roughly half-a-million tons more than the 3.11 million tons consumed in September 2009.) With the UK now importing roughly two-thirds of its needed coal, having that stockpile, particularly in a hard winter, might be a wise precaution. About 80% of the UK power stations rely on fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or oil), though there has been a move to using a greater proportion of natural gas in the past few years.

Coal is increasingly supplied by imports, with overall demand rising at 9.6% over the equivalent period in 2009. A third of the imported gas comes in the form of LNG, at a level of around 2 billion cf/day. Capacity for imported LNG was expanded a little less than a year ago. Imported LNG is increasingly needed as natural gas supplies from the North Sea are falling at around 10% per year.

Natural gas supplies in the UK suffer from the lack of sufficient storage capacity, and the limited size of the supply pipes from Europe.

The storage capacity problem will not be fixed quickly. A recent plan to use a depleted field in the North Sea won’t come on line until 2015, if it is implemented.

Pipeline gas from Europe to the United Kingdom flows through the Interconnector with the terminal at Bacton and with flow to and from Belgium. During September and October the pipeline recorded record flows going to the continent (16,000 GWh worth); however, with the onset of the cold spell the flow reversed.

Flow of gas in MWh equivalents from Belgium to the UK through the Interconnector pipeline. (The dates are the end of November and December 1.)

With the relatively short supply of fuel, there is more potential for problems. For example, at 6 am on Wednesday, the flow stopped (h/t Luis de Sousa); however supplies increased through the Langeled pipeline connecting to Norway. And while there were some problems with flow from the gas being stored in the depleted offshore gas field at Rough, it is reported that five LNG tankers are on their way to the UK at the moment.

France Importing Electricity from the UK

It is worth noting, in passing, that with five nuclear power stations on maintenance, the French have been importing electric power from the UK.

Power demand in France, where one-third of domestic users rely on electricity for heating, is expected to reach a new record high at peak hour on Thursday, according to grid operator RTE.

With demand also at record highs on Wednesday, France was importing power from Britain at the interconnector’s full 2,000-MW capacity until around 1630 GMT, National Grid data showed.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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2 Responses to The UK winter starts – challenges with salt, coal, and natural gas

  1. The current bad weather in the UK is hiding the final arrival of the British aircraft carrier “Ark Royal” before it is done away with. To be able to defend territory there needs to be the will and the might to be able to do so. It is not clear whether the British Government will have either.

  2. majorian says:

    I think Britain has made a colossal mistake in turning to natural gas because it will end up competing in a world markets against South Korea, Taiwan and Japan for stranded LNG gas or perhaps be left at the end of a pipeline running to Yamal or Uzbekistan.
    It’s best bet is investing in coal/lignite gasification plants with CCS technology.

    In this case given their huge existing infrastructure in gas turbines that they build coal to synthetic natural gas plants like the Dakota gasification plant and pipe the CO2 into the depleting North Sea oil/gas fields to increase EOR recovery( Pemex has been doing this for decades at the offshore Cantarell only with useless nitrogen).
    I have NO doubt that Britain will be able to secure coal supplies some at home, most abroad to keep her in good shape for the next century and get another 5 billion barrels of oil out of the North Sea.

    Beyond this I strongly recommend that Britain strongly invest in the Falkland Islands
    which has an oil/gas resource potential of 60 Gb and Rockhopper, Desire have a couple Gb already on the books. To placate the Argies, I recommend that some of the oil be shipped to energy starved Argentine for processing and if Ms. Kurchner still pouts offer to do so to Uruguay.

    Possession is 9/10ths of the law!

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    —-Dylan Thomas

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