The beauty of gas? UK energy supplies and the future

Power cuts, energy conflicts, spiralling prices and industry shutdown – all are possible in a less-than-cosy view of an energy-depleted UK of the future, as suggested by recent news reports on gas and electricity supplies.

Last week (3 February 2010) energy regulator Ofgem, the office of the gas and electricity markets, published the findings of a year-long investigation into options for delivering secure and sustainable energy supplies.

The study, called Project Discovery, looked at current arrangements in the UK to secure investment in electricity and gas infrastructures over the next 10-15 years. It concluded that prompt Government action was needed to reduce the risk of disruptions to energy supplies.

“While the main imperative is to reduce greenhouse gases from our use of energy, it is also essential that a low-carbon energy system delivers energy security,” says Dr Jim Watson, Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex.

Dr Watson draws his own conclusions in a new report – UK Gas Security: Threats and Mitigation Strategies, launched at the House of Commons – explores the role of gas as a key bridging fuel in the shift to a low-carbon energy system in the UK, the possible threats to UK gas security and strategies that the UK could implement to mitigate these threats.”

He adds: “Reducing emissions and maintaining energy security and price stability is a growing political concern worldwide. The government and industry need to do more to ensure that both can be achieved. The tight gas supply position of the last two winters illustrates the pressing need for increasing the amount of gas storage in the UK from current low levels.”

Here, Dr Watson explains why the UK’s energy policy needs and overhaul, and how this might be achieved to ensure a brighter, greener future.

Q What is meant by “energy security” – and why is it important for the UK’s future?

Traditionally, energy security means that users of energy in households and businesses have access to a reliable supply of energy at affordable prices. However, the need to achieve significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means that the nature of threats to energy security will change – and government and the energy industry need to keep up with this fast-changing situation. Whilst the transition to low-carbon energy system will help to reduce some threats to energy security (e.g. possible disruptions to oil supplies or rapid oil price increases), it will also bring new challenges (e.g. how to redesign our energy system so it can accommodate new technologies such as wind power).

Q Is the UK really in danger of “running out” of gas?

No. Whilst the UK’s own gas resources in the North Sea are depleting rapidly, the UK is very well placed to access a range of sources of gas from abroad – via pipelines to Norway and other parts of Europe and via tankers. The popular belief that foreign sources of energy (including gas) are inherently less secure than domestic sources of energy is wrong – and is not supported by the evidence. Many of the security threats to UK energy supplies in recent years have come from within the UK. Examples include the Rough gas storage facility fire a few years ago and the truckers’ blockade of oil depots in 2001.

Q Aren’t  wind power, solar energy and wave power supposed to be taking over from fossil fuels to create our electricity?

Yes – to some extent. The government’s plans also include other renewable options, and technologies such as carbon capture and storage (which captures emissions from fossil fuel plants and stores these in geological formations) and nuclear power. Measures to reduce energy demand are also an important part of any strategy to reduce emissions – and are also one of the best ways to reduce our exposure to energy security threats. However, this transition will take time. In the meantime, gas will continue to generate significant amounts of the power we need, and will also be important for industry and for heating homes.

Q Doesn’t greener energy mean higher bills for the consumer?

Part of  the rationale for Ofgem’s Project Discovery is that much of our energy infrastructure is old and needs to be replaced. This will be expensive. However, this replacement infrastructure needs to be greener – particularly lower carbon – than the infrastructure we have. This will inevitably mean higher bills, whatever technology choices are made by investors.

Q What strategies do you propose for securing UK energy supplies?

Because the UK can’t counter every potential threat to energy security directly, it is important to think about strategies that will reduce the vulnerability of consumers to energy security threats. In our new report on gas, I argue that three elements are important for reducing vulnerability. First, ensuring the UK has access to a diverse range of supplies of gas (in terms of countries of origin and supply routes). Second, doing as much as possible to reduce energy demand – which will minimise the impact of price shocks and disruptions. Third, to improve the amount of gas storage we have in case of disruptions to some of our sources of gas (e.g. from Norway as happened in January). The UK currently has very little gas storage capacity when compared to other gas-dependent European countries because of a lack of incentives for companies to invest. Left to their own devices, these companies will not deliver the amount of storage that our society needs.

Q What’s wrong with the UK’s current energy strategy?

The government’s strategy has many laudable aims and plans. They have serious ambitions to reduce emissions – and serious plans about how to achieve this. But more needs to be done to make it happen – for example, to expand renewable energy as quickly as government wishes to do and to reduce emissions in homes (which stubbornly continue to rise). In addition, the government’s approach to energy security spends too much time focusing on threats from outside the UK and too little time implementing measures to improve our ability to withstand these threats - and indeed to withstand threats from within the UK such as the truckers’ blockades and infrastructure failures that have been important in the recent past.

Q Are we really going to have to rely on nuclear power in the future?

The jury is still out – but it is very unlikely that nuclear power will become the mainstay of our energy needs. It is just one option among many. Past experience shows that nuclear power needs much more financial support than is currently on offer from government. It is likely that whatever government we have after the next election will be under strong pressure to provide this financial support. However, this does not mean that current energy industry plans for a series of reactors will be achieved in practice. Our last plan for nuclear, launched in 1981, promised 10 plants and delivered only one.

Notes for Editors


Dr Jim Watson is Director of the Sussex Energy Group and co-leader of the Tyndall Centre Climate Change and Energy Programme. He was a Specialist Advisor with the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (2006-09) and is a Council Member of the British Institute for Energy Economics.

See Dr Watson’s report at:

Sussex Energy Group (SEG) undertakes academically rigorous, inter-disciplinary research that engages with policy-makers and practitioners. The aim of our research is to identify ways of achieving the transition to sustainable, low carbon energy systems whilst addressing other important policy objectives such as energy security.

On February 25-26 2010, SEG will be hosting its first major conference, with key academics from the field of energy policy and research giving talks. Visit the conference web pages for full details and schedule.

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email


Last updated: Friday, 5 February 2010