Businesses and even consumers could face blackouts this winter under government crisis plans as concerns grow over power supplies, it has emerged.
Under the government’s latest “reasonable worst case scenario”, officials believe the UK could experience blackouts for several days in January if cold weather combines with gas shortages to leave the country short of power.
Concerns are mounting over the toll on households this winter as new forecasts showed annual energy bills are forecast to top £4,200 from January, triggering a warning that Britons face “serious hardship on a massive scale” without government intervention.
The deepening energy crisis has piled further pressure on the Tory leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, who are split on how to support households struggling with the rising cost of living.
Under the forecasts, which government sources insist are highly unlikely to materialise, the power shortfall could total about a sixth of peak demand even if emergency plans to fire up retiring coal power plants are enacted, Bloomberg reported.
In that scenario, a reduction of electricity imports from Norway and France, combined with low temperatures, would force the government to enact emergency measures to conserve gas for four days in January.
Under the plan the network operator would initially override commercial agreements to direct flows of gas on the system. After that, supplies to gas-fired power stations would be halted, leading to power cuts for businesses and homes.
Rail services could even be hit if electricity is rationed, because the railway is one of the biggest industrial users of power, sources said.
Officials are concerned that the UK may have to rely more heavily on piped gas shipments from Europe at a time when gas exports have already been curbed and the continent is scrabbling to rebuild its own supplies.
European nations have been embroiled in a dash for winter gas since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with volumes in gas storage reservoirs running well below historical levels.
The Kremlin-controlled firm Gazprom has reduced gas deliveries to Europe since the war began while countries are attempting to wean themselves off Russian gas to cripple the country’s economy.
The war has sent gas prices soaring and sparked concerns over shortages of power across Europe this winter.
A source at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the government prepares for “all and every eventuality” based on “made-up scenarios” but it was unlikely to come to pass because of the UK’s “highly secure and diverse gas and electricity system”.
They did not deny that the worst-case scenario modelling had been undertaken but highlighted that the most extreme situation of Norway turning off all its gas to the UK was “extreme” and “never going to happen”.
Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary for climate change, said: “Whilst the Tories squabble over tax cuts, Britain is now readying itself for catastrophic power cuts this winter. This is a complete disgrace to a British public already struggling at the hands of an absent government that has left our economy in tatters.
“What we are faced with is the result of 12 years of Tory government which has failed to prepare and refused to invest, leaving bills higher and our country less secure.”
Concerns over winter blackouts have intensified this week after Norway threatened to ration electricity exports.
The UK receives hydroelectric power from Norway through a subsea interconnector cable running beneath the North Sea. However, water levels in southern Norway have been so low this year that the country’s government could put its own consumers ahead of international customers.
On Tuesday, the owner of British Gas, Centrica, signed a £7bn deal to bolster its gas supplies as European energy companies attempt to replace Russian fuel.
Centrica has signed an agreement with America’s Delfin Midstream to buy liquefied natural gas from the US’s first floating export facility. However, the 15-year deal does not begin until 2026.
Peter Matejic, the chief analyst at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity that aims to tackle poverty, urged the government to tackle rising energy bills. He said: “The payments promised by the government earlier in the year offer some help but their scale has been overtaken by events, and they must now be at least doubled if they are to protect people from serious hardship on a massive scale.”
Officials in Westminster have also been deliberating whether to introduce a campaign to urge consumers to use less energy this winter.
A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson said the scenario was not something that was expected to happen, adding: “We are not dependent on Russian energy imports unlike Europe.
“Households, businesses and industry can be confident they will get the electricity and gas they need.”