UK Fuel Shortages Hit Some Worse Than Others

Electrification of vehicles can and will make a significant difference to societal resilience from shocks like this.

Queues And Closures At British Petrol Stations Amid Haulier Shortage
A shortage of lorry drivers in the UK has affected a broad range of supply chains, including the distribution of petrol to service stations across the country. . Dave J Hogan / Getty Images

“Like the end of days,” is how one frustrated British motorist described the current panic at the pumps that appears to be gripping much of Britain. Gas (aka "petrol") stations have been running out of fuel all across the country, as drivers decided to top up their tanks "just in case" the nation runs out of fuel. 

In doing so, they caused their own fears to materialize. News reports suggest most forecourts around London were running dry. Having initially denied it, the government is apparently talking about using the army to move fuel tankers around. Meanwhile, reports abound about fights breaking out among frustrated motorists, and pedestrians almost being mown down by drivers desperate to get a spot at the pump. 

Petrol station forecourts are just one place where energy-related anxieties are playing out. A sharp rise in gas prices, combined with lower than average output from renewables, have also resulted in significant problems for the energy grid, sending many independent energy companies spiraling out of business. (And possibly also motivating a controversial pro-gas boiler/anti-electrification campaign from renewables giant Ecotricity.)

Here’s how James Murray, editor of Business Green, described the confluence of challenges: 

This being Britain in 2021, much of the debate to come will no doubt revolve around Brexit. But regardless of your opinions on that particular question, there is a broader and much more universal point to be made: The current paradigm, which was built on the universal availability of cheap fossil fuels, is astoundingly brittle. 

Meanwhile, not everyone is impacted equally. My brother, who had just bought an electric car a few weeks before the current shortages, was already a fan of his new wheels. Having been a little nervous about making the switch, he emailed me last week with an update on his experiences: 

“It's clear to me that just about all of our daytrip driving can be done from home (in practice, as well as in sales brochures), and that there are more fast and superfast chargers popping up like mushrooms, so roadtrips should be no issue either.”

As news started trickling in about the near-riots on petrol station forecourts, I followed up with him by asking how smug he was feeling right now. Knowing that I’d probably publish whatever he wrote, he sent me the following, carefully worded note: 

“As the new owner of an electric car in the UK, I really enjoyed my first week and a half of driving, silently, smoothly and in great comfort. I had not anticipated that my second week of car ownership would leave me offering lifts to family and friends, who were worried about what would happen if they could not find petrol (gas) at the filling station. The comfort of knowing that I could drive my essential journeys and simply plug in overnight was only tempered by the knowledge that it is still a relative privilege of the middle classes to be able to afford a new electric car, but hopefully as more affordable cars become available and the older generation feed through to the second hand market, this too will change.”

And therein lies the rub: Electrification of vehicles can and will make a significant difference to societal resilience from shocks like this. In the meantime, however, it will be lower-income families and the working poor who are hurt the most by the fragility of our current systems. That’s why it’s critical that governments continue down the path of decarbonizing the transportation systems, not just by supporting electrification—but by reducing the need for private car ownership in the first place. 

Given that London has at least one plumber that conducts his business by cargo bike, this week’s shortages will be an interesting test of the idea that we can’t afford to change. In fact, it seems increasingly clear to me that we can’t afford not to.