Alice Philipson and Hayley Dixon – Telegraph.co.uk March 23, 2013
Blizzards and freezing temperatures were expected to continue through the weekend as some areas of the country woke up to a foot snow on the ground.
A major undersea gas pipeline shut down unexpectedly on Friday, pushing prices up by 50 per cent to a record high and forcing suppliers to eat into the country’s limited gas reserves.
Britain has less than 36 hours of gas reserves remaining and with severe cold weather forecast over the weekend, energy demand is unlikely to abate.
The Met Office has put a level 3 cold weather alert in place until Monday morning, warning that heavy snow and cold temperatures posed a particular risk to vulnerable elderly people.
It said that strong winds are also expected to contribute to the harsh conditions. Sleet and snow is due to spread from the south west, bringing significant snowfall to the Midlands and north of England over the weekend.
It is expected to be the coldest Spring weekend for 50 years, with temperatures reaching -7C (18.4F) in some areas on Saturday.
Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch, the energy consultant, said if the unseasonable weather continued for the next two to three weeks “rationing would be inevitable, for businesses and domestic users”.
Officials have insisted, however, that it will not be necessary to ration gas and Downing Street has said it is confident that supplies will not run out.
Charles Hendry, the former energy and climate change minister, also dismissed fears of gas rationing, insisting that there were still plentiful supplies coming into terminals in Wales and on the Thames.
A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change added: “In the unlikely event of a gas supply emergency, Government and industry have in place well rehearsed plans to ensure that gas supplies can continue, so that consumers would not be cut off.”
The warnings of gas shortages were raised when a water pump failed at one of the three underwater pipelines that connect the UK to gas supplies coming from Europe.
The pipeline from Belgium to Bacton, Norfolk, which has the capacity to supply around a fifth of the UK’s gas needs, was immediately shut down by its operator Interconnector UK.
The fault was repaired and the pipeline returned to operation after a few hours.
Flow data from the National Grid showed that supply from the pipeline stopped early on Friday morning but had returned to normal by Friday evening.
Nick Butler, a former vice president for strategy and policy development at BP and chair of the Kings Policy Institute at Kings College London, said there was a need for more gas storage in this country.
Currently Britain has storage capacity for 20 days of gas, while France and Germany both have storage to supply gas for around 100 days.
Mr Butler said: “It strikes me that this is a quite unnecessary crisis. If we had put in place enough storage over the past few years, the price increase that occurred for a few hours yesterday wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t be talking about even the possibility of people being cut off.”
“We could easily build more storage. If the weather stays bad and anything else happens to the interconnector we will be facing real difficulties. It is unnecessary.”
The worries over the nations gas supplies came as hundreds of thousands of homes around the country were left without power on Friday night and Saturday morning.
Engineers were still working to restore power to around 41,000 homes on Saturday morning after high winds, snow and ice brought down power cables.
Wintry conditions also closed 400 schools and several roads on Friday with further travel disruption expected on Saturday.
The Met Office issued severe weather warnings for the Midlands and the North.
On higher ground there will be up to a foot of snow, and as far south as Oxford will see two and a half inches throughout the day.
The Met Office warned: “The public should be aware of the potential for severe disruption to transport and to power supplies.”
London and the South East are expected to experience snow showers, with little chance of any accumulations. A severe warning was also issued for the South West, where two and a half inches of rain in 24 hours brought widespread flooding yesterday.
The snow will peter out, but the bitter easterly winds will continue to batter Britain throughout Sunday and into next week, meaning that temperatures will continue to feel below zero.
Andrew Sibley, a Met Office forecaster, said: “There is no end in sight to the cold weather.”