The UK has recently experienced three straight weeks of below seasonal-normal temperatures. The colder than normal weather combined with low wind generation and ever darker evenings have driven up energy demand.
Last week saw UK gas and power demand rise to their highest levels for the winter so far. This was driven by a significant increase in domestic consumption as households ramped up their heating to combat the cold.
Minimum temperatures in London dropped to minus 2 degrees, the lowest since early February. In parts of Scotland, temperatures overnight reached lows of minus 10 with another cold spell forecast for next week.
Year-on-year gas demand
Overall gas demand reached 350mcm. This is the highest since early February, with domestic gas consumption rising to over 240mcm as households increased heating use. Year-on-year gas demand was 100mcm higher as November 2018 saw the UK enjoying a late heatwave with a prolonged spell of above average temperatures. This kept gas demand under 250mcm.
LDZ Gas Demand
The increase is even more prevalent in LDZ gas demand. This has averaged 190mcm/d so far in November, the highest in more than five years. Domestic gas demand in November is so far 45% higher month-on-month. It’s 20% higher than the same period in November 2018.
October gas demand was also the highest in over five years with consumption up 20% since 2017. As a share of overall gas demand, LDZ has also climbed strongly in recent months. Domestic use accounts for over 70% of the country’s overall gas consumption.
Gas is also playing an increased role in the electricity sector, which adds another element to this winter’s higher gas demand. Demand from power stations reached 78mcm last week, the highest since January. Electricity generated by gas power plants has averaged 14.9GW per day in November. This is the highest since January and an increase of 2GW on November 2018. This is despite a continued trend of reduced electricity demand from 2018 to 2019. Lower wind output, which is on average 1.5GW lower year-on-year is contributing to the increased gas use for electricity generation.
The last time domestic gas demand was close to this high was in 2016. Front-month gas prices climbed nearly 30% as temperatures dropped in early November. In November 2018, front-month gas prices averaged 50p/th – 25% higher than the current Dec 19 contract.
However, so far this winter, gas prices across the curve have moved lower, breaking below a long-standing trading range. The December 19 gas contract has fallen 20% since the start of October, while the Summer 20 prices are at their lowest level in over 18 months.
High demand no match for supply flexibility
If demand is higher then why has the price reaction been muted or even bearish? Increased gas demand from home heating and the electricity sector during the last three weeks of cold temperatures have seen very little price support. This is because the impact of the increased consumption has been entirely offset by the levels of spare and flexible gas supplies available to the market. This is notably from an influx of LNG tankers and record high levels of gas in storage. Supply levels are persistently matching fluctuations in demand with flexibility from Norway, LNG and storage helping to manage the higher demand levels seen recently.
The UK has enjoyed an influx of LNG arrivals this winter, with Britain an attractive destination for tankers amid an oversupplied global market for the fuel. Fifteen tankers arrived in October, eighteen tankers are booked for November and seven arrivals are confirmed for December. LNG imports for Q4 2019 have already surpassed levels from Q4 2018.
The influx of LNG and flexibility from Norwegian and UK gas flows have left storage withdrawals and Interconnector imports struggling to get gas onto the grid. Both sources offer around 150mcm of combined gas supplies which can be attracted to market when required. It is this extent of spare capacity available to the gas system which has kept prices so depressed, in spite of rising demand levels.
Gas Storage Withdrawals
Storage withdrawals had averaged 8mcm/d for the winter and colder temperatures last week lifted that withdrawal rate to around 40mcm/d. The potential for sendout is over 90mcm/d across the country’s seven facilities.
However, even with last week’s increased withdrawals – which have seen reserves declining at 0.4TWh per day – stocks are still at record highs for the time of year. European storage stocks are also at all-time highs, after surpassing 1,000TWh in September, with zero net withdrawals recorded so far this winter.
European imports via the Interconnector have been untouched, with gas prices unwilling to increase to a sufficient premium over the European market to encourage deliveries. If the price response was sufficient, however, an additional 60-70mcm per day of gas could be available. This is further strengthening the health of the current gas system and its flexibility in responding to spells of higher demand.
With the extent of spare capacity available, the gas system is able to manage prolonged spells of below seasonal-normal temperatures. It will likely take a severe cold snap, alongside a breakdown in supply or a slowdown in LNG imports to warrant a significant rebound in prices across the energy market.