HC Deb 09 November 1976 vol 919 cc115-7W
Mr. Campbell

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what steps have been taken to ensure adequate energy supplies in the event of a severe winter.

Mr. Benn

I have sought from the coal, gas, electricity supply and oil industries their assessments of the prospect of maintaining supplies to consumers in the event of a hard winter which might disrupt transport or other supply arrangements. Their reports sent to me reveal that they believe that in general there are substantial stocks of fuel which are well distributed and a considerable amount of spare capacity in the electricity generating system. Conseqeuently, I am advised that the major hazard to supplies this winter lies in a combination of heavy snowfall and prolonged severe frost which can interfere with road and rail movement and freeze up stocks of solid fuel. Inevitably, any sudden onset of severe weather is, I am informed, likely to cause some temporary dislocation of energy supplies, but fuel industries tell me that they have contingency plans for minimising the effects and these are kept under regular review.

Below I summarise the reports sent to me, at my request, by the individual industries:

Coal.—Stocks of coal at both the Central Electricity Generating Board and the South of Scotland Electricity Board power stations are high and these, combined with the agreed winter programme of supply, should give ample cover for power generation. The requirements of the British Steel Corporation and other users of coking coal should be met, and there should be no difficulty in meeting general industrial fuel requirements.

In the domestic market, merchants have built up stocks to a reasonably satisfactory level, although in some cases they are lower than has been normal in previous years. During September it was necessary to lift from NCB stocks of house coal to meet a surge in demand, and output has been disappointing. Colliery stocks are, therefore, considerably less than normal. There could be supply problems in a severe winter if there is no improvement in output to help rebuild stocks. The National Coal Board, in conjunction with the unions, is taking vigorous action to achieve a better level of production.

So far as smokeless fuels are concerned, both the NCB and independent producers have reasonable stocks. Output of anthracite has, however, been insufficient to meet demand for some months, but a programme of imports, agreed with the trade, should enable demand to be met.

Gas.—At seasonal normal temperatures no difficulties are envisaged in maintaining full gas supplies to domestic, industrial and commercial customers. In very severe winter conditions, by discontinuing supplies to all interruptible customers and by taking other necessary measures, full supplies should be maintained to all domestic customers and to all firm customers in the commercial and industrial sectors. Supply difficulties might be encountered in the event of extreme and protracted bad weather conditions, but even then only if mechanical difficulties were experienced with transmission or offshore equipment; and provided that at the same time the transmission system did not have excessive demands made on it because other fuels were experiencing supply difficulties. However, I am advised that it is unlikely that the transmission system itself would be adversely affected by the weather.

Electricity.—The coal supply position generally is satisfactory and stocks are well distributed. No problems in securing adequate oil fuels are envisaged provided there is no major disruption in the supply of crude oil from the Middle East or Africa. Modifications to coal wagons, introduced to combat the freezing of both mechanisms and wet coal, have not been able to be put to the test because it is some years since extremely severe weather was experienced, but power station coal stocks should be adequate to cover short-term interruptions in supply. Similarly, it is some years since there has been severe icing on high voltage transmission lines, but the CEGB assures me that the lessons learned then have not been forgotten.

Oil.—The oil industry relies on others such as, in the cases of distribution, the railways and highway authorities to keep communications open. But it does not now foresee difficulty in meeting the demands for products placed on it provided there is no curtailment in the supply of imported crude oils.

Summary.—Given that the main threat to fuel and power supplies this winter seems to stem from temporary dislocations caused by the sudden onset of severe weather, consumers can help themselves where this is possible by building up their own stocks of fuel on their own premises in advance of winter.