What to expect in a winter blackout

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The head of the National Grid has warned UK households that power cuts could be imposed between 4pm and 7pm on “really, really cold” winter weekdays if Europe cuts its gas exports.

John Pettigrew said electricity and gas could be cut on “those deepest, darkest evenings in January and February” if energy supplies from Europe prove to be insufficient due to the disruption of the war in Ukraine.

Countries across Europe have been unable to rely on Russia for gas as the colder months approach and, despite rationing, analysts have said further cuts from Moscow could leave the continent short of gas. supply.

Mr Pettigrew said January and February are the months when outages are most likely, especially in the event of a cold snap. He said the situation could be even worse if wind speeds were low, reducing the efficiency of electric turbines as energy imports were restricted.

The National Grid has assured Britons it is not changing its ‘base case’ that there will be enough gas and electricity to meet demand in Britain this winter, but due to the consequences of the Russia’s war in Ukraine, power outages are a possibility for the first time since the 1970s amid the coal miners’ strike and oil crisis.

In the 1970s, blackouts saw candles sell out, companies impose a three-day work week and children thrown out of school early.

More than 50 years later, in a digital world heavily dependent on electricity to work, socialize and stay connected, blackouts seem completely alien. How would it be communicated, who or what facilities would be exempt, how long would it last?

We spoke to home energy experts about what to expect if power outages occur this winter.

How would we reach the blackout point?

Power cuts are the worst-case scenario this winter, the National Grid said. Therefore, before reaching that point, there are a few steps the UK would have to take to land on the blackout.

One of the first steps would be to delay the closure of coal-fired power plants. Greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal are significantly damaging to the environment, but due to pressures on energy supplies, the National Grid has worked with the Department of Energy to delay the shutdown five coal-fired power stations in the UK.

Londoners use candles to read newspaper headlines about the miners’ strike continuing

(Getty Pictures)

Another step would be to ask heavy industrial users like factories to limit their use during peak periods.

The penultimate step before declaring an outage would be to encourage customers to reduce their energy consumption through adjustments such as reducing the use of the washing machine or dishwasher. Another step is government campaigns urging people to ration energy consumption during peak hours.

If all of these measures prove unsuccessful and supplies are still not sufficient to meet demand, a series of continuous blackouts could be announced to manage the emergency.

What would a blackout look like?

According to the Energy Network Association (ENA), which represents the companies that control Britain’s electricity systems, power cuts would be widely extended to almost the entire country, including the switching off of traffic lights, the switching off of street lamps and cutting off the electricity supply to homes.

“It wouldn’t be business as usual,” an ENA spokesperson said. The Independent.

“The purpose of this would be an emergency. If we don’t reduce demand on the power grid, we lead to more widespread and less controlled blackouts, so it’s a matter of controlling that by reducing demand and bringing the system back into balance, and then starting to manage the emergency.

Customers having their hair cut on the pavement in Hatton Garden, London, due to power cuts following a miners’ strike, UK, 17 February 1972

(Getty Pictures)

Power cuts would be communicated in advance through government channels via local and national media and would generally be for blocks of three hours at a time.

Professor Keith Bell, co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre, said The Independent that the public will likely receive at least 24 hours notice before power is cut off with the national grid by using weather forecasts to assess when a cold snap is likely.

“It will be up to the local network operators to implement the blackout,” Professor Keith said. “They get an instruction from the national grid and then the local grid operators literally open a circuit breaker on sections of their network and they disconnect the right amount of demand to give the reduction requested by the operator.

“So it’s everyone connected there that’s disconnected, including stores, offices, homes.”

The National Grid has prepared procedures under the legally binding Electricity Supply Emergency Code to ensure electricity is shared fairly across the UK during an energy crisis and avoid a ‘postcode lottery’ on supply.

Who would be exempt?

The big question for many vulnerable people is what electricity would stay on in the event of a power outage.

The government and National Grid have an agreed list of facilities that will be exempt from a power cut – these are known as protected sites.

According to the ENA, these include air traffic control centers, large hospital facilities with emergency and accident services and military bases. These facilities are considered “critical national infrastructure” and the list is very limited to help manage the emergency supply issue.

As part of the emergency code for electricity supply, companies can ask regional network managers beforehand to become “protected sites”. This means that they would continue to be powered during scheduled outages.

Local network operators also have what is called a register of priority services for people who are medically dependent on electricity, have young children or suffer from mental illnesses such as dementia.

A woman breastfeeding her baby during a blackout in the maternity ward at St Andrews Hospital, Dollis Hill

(Getty Pictures)

Although this register gives customers advance warning of power outages and offers support and advice on power outages, these homes and individuals would not be exempt from a power outage.

Robert Gross, director of the UK Energy Research Center and professor of energy policy at Imperial College London, said The Independent that people medically dependent on electricity would likely make arrangements with their healthcare advisers to ensure that their care would continue in emergency circumstances via back-up supplies like generators.

Prof Keith added that local distribution networks need to ensure that their register of priority services is up to date and that customers know what to expect in the event of a power outage.

He added: “People should be prepared for a possible power outage – we should think about it and be somewhat prepared.

“I don’t see the situation as bad as it was in the 1970s because the circumstances we are thinking of are cold weather coinciding with a severe major gas system outage and coinciding with no electricity imports from neighbours. There are several things that need to come together. »

How long would that last?

The war in Ukraine has led Russia to cut off much of its gas supply to Europe, with the bloc accusing Vladimir Putin of weaponizing Russian gas.

According to Professor Keith, one could flirt with the idea of ​​a blackout as long as the war in Ukraine lasts and even longer depending on how long it takes to restore normal activity with Russian gas producers. However, he added that there was an opportunity to explore other energy sources.

The war in Ukraine could affect how long energy supplies could be affected

(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“On the other hand, there is the potential for other places to increase production. Fracturing in the United States, production in the Middle East. There is a global demand for gas, there could be investment for more liquefied natural gas (LNG) transportation as well as gas production,” Professor Keith said.

Professor Robert added that the war in Ukraine makes the difference between this winter and last winter, but believes that by the winter of 2023 we could be in a less “angst-ridden” position. He called on the UK to turn to an energy cooperation pact with its neighbours, similar to the solidarity agreement EU members struck to share supplies during a crisis, to ensure that the energy can be sustained during steep declines.

“In the meantime, we should reduce our reliance on gas by continuing to invest in renewables,” said Professor Robert.

“Expanding wind generation capacity takes years and it will continue, but it helps. As each new wind farm comes online, we need less gas to burn.”

What is the probability of failures?

According to the National Grid’s Winter Outlook, its nationwide report outlining energy supply and demand during colder seasons, UK power outages are unlikely, but due to pressures on gas supplies in Europe caused by the war in Ukraine, power cuts are more likely than in previous years.

This has led the National Grid to warn that on very very cold evenings in January and February in particular, power outages could be possible for up to three hours between the 4-7pm peak hours.

The report states: “Overall, this winter is likely to be difficult for energy supply across Europe. We have taken significant steps to try to mitigate the impacts for UK consumers and expect our base case margins to be adequate. »

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