The UK has little to no gas storage capacity and is at risk of becoming overly reliant on renewable energy to keep the lights on this winter, according to a leading scientist.
John Underhill, a Professor of Geoscience & Energy Transition at Heriot-Watt University, warns the country has a potentially crippling lack of gas storage facilities meaning consumers are, at best, only days away from facing a complete gas drought should there be insufficient levels of renewable energy.
Without addressing the need to replenish sources, have secure and reliable supplies and storage issues, the current crisis is simply a warning of what is to come over the winter and beyond.
His comments come as the UK faces an energy crisis, with global gas prices soaring, domestic bills rising and a number of energy suppliers going to the wall.
Professor Underhill, who is the Chair of Geoscience and Energy Transition at Heriot-Watt University, acknowledges that while there is a strong desire and need for the country to pursue more green energy alternatives in order to decarbonise industry, transport and energy systems as well as reduce emissions, the current energy crisis shows gas remains ‘absolutely essential’ to the UK.
Professor Underhill has voiced his concerns on the run up to COP26 when world leaders gather in Glasgow to discuss climate change. He said: “Our current energy crisis is a result of a perfect storm of factors including a complete lack of subsurface storage for renewable energy, local supply issues due in part to maintenance of North Sea facilities and a significant decline in our indigenous resources that means we have a reliance on imports.
“The current situation underlines why the move to a greener, renewable is a transition and must not be a cliff edge.
“Without addressing the need to replenish sources, have secure and reliable supplies and storage issues, the current crisis is simply a warning of what is to come over the winter and beyond. The real challenge will lie on cold, dark, windless days of winter when demand for heat, light, cooking and energy are at their highest…where will that leave us?
“At present, the UK’s energy needs are challenged. In fact, we are so stretched right now that the UK even had to re-start a coal-fired power station, which is not the best optic in the lead up to COP26. When that is decommissioned and off line, we will no longer have that safety net.”
The turmoil witnessed in the UK’s energy market in recent weeks has resulted in many smaller providers, such as Avro Energy and Green, collapsing and, according to latest reports, affecting almost 1.5 million customers.
Professor Underhill adds: “Only companies with sufficient reserves to withstand the current price crunch whereby buying gas costs more than the price ceiling allows it to be sold for, will survive.
“Short of the lights going out, cookers failing to light and radiators going cold, this may be as close as we get to the ‘black swan’ moment where people realise where our energy comes from and our need to ensure there is sufficient home-grown supply, reliable import sources and back up in the form of subsurface storage to avoid shut downs and other unintended consequences for food supply chains and the like.
“Until such time that we have a reliable and robust renewable base that more than covers our energy needs, oil and gas has a continued and vital role to play in our energy transition goals and to alleviate fuel poverty. While it’s clear society’s continued reliance on fossil fuels is untenable given climate change predictions, this demand will need to be phased out gradually and emphasises the need for a managed energy transition rather than a hard stop, as we move towards a sustainable, renewable energy future.
“At Heriot-Watt University we have a research program that is addressing these issues, assessing the critical technical risks, producing a road map of subsurface options and seeking long-term solutions to guarantee energy security for the UK. We are leading in the effort to train and educate the next generation of Earth Scientists through the UK’s Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) GeoNetZero program. The CDT students have a pivotal role to play in finding solutions to our energy needs in the years ahead. Those who study with us before working in this field will be crucial in enabling society to decarbonise, address the United Nation Sustainability goals and move towards a low-carbon sustainable future.”