The head of National Grid has warned UK households that power outages could occur between 4pm and 7pm on “really very cold” winter weekdays if Europe cuts gas exports.
John Pettigrew said electricity and gas could be turned off in “those deepest, darkest evenings in January and February” if power supplies from Europe prove inadequate due to war disruptions in Ukraine.
Countries across Europe cannot rely on Russia for gas supplies as the colder months approach and analysts say further cuts from Moscow could result in supply shortages on the continent despite rationing.
Mr Pettigrew said January and February are the months when power cuts are most likely to happen, especially if it’s freezing cold. He said the situation could get worse if wind speeds are low, reducing the efficiency of power turbines, while energy imports are limited.
National Grid has assured the British that it is not changing its “base case” that there will be enough gas and power this winter to meet UK demand, but due to the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the first blackouts are possible. since the 1970s, during the miners’ strike and the oil crisis.
In the 1970s, candles were sold due to power outages, businesses enforced a three-day workweek, and children were sent home early from school.
More than 50 years later, in a digital world heavily reliant on power for work, socializing and staying connected, power outages seem completely alien. How would it be communicated, who or what facilities would be released, and how long would it take?
We spoke to national energy experts about what to expect if there were power outages this winter.
How could we reach the blackout point?
Blackouts are the worst case scenario this winter, said National Grid. Therefore, before reaching this point, there are several stages that the UK would have to go through in order to land on a power cut.
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 the pressure on energy supplies, National Grid is working with the energy department to delay the closure of five UK coal-fired power stations.
The next step would be to ask heavy industry users, such as factories, to limit their use during peak periods.
The penultimate step before declaring a blackout would be to offer customers incentives to reduce their energy consumption by making improvements, such as reducing the use of the washing machine or dishwasher. The next step is government campaigns urging people to ration energy consumption during peak hours.
If all these measures prove ineffective and supplies are still insufficient to meet demand, a series of power outages may be declared to contain the emergency situation.
What would the blackout look like?
According to the Energy Network Association (ENA), which represents the companies that control Britain’s energy systems, power outages will affect almost the entire country, including switching off traffic lights, turning off street lights and cutting power to homes.
“It wouldn’t be business as usual,” an ENA spokesman said Independent.
“The purpose of this would be an emergency situation. If we don’t reduce the demand on the power grid, we will cause more extensive blackouts that are less controlled, so it’s all about controlling that by reducing demand and rebalancing the system, and then starting emergency management.”
Power outages would be announced in advance through government channels through local and national media, and would typically be for blocks of three hours at a time.
– said Professor Keith Bell, co-director of the UK Center for Energy Research Independent that the public is likely to be notified at least 24 hours in advance before power is shut off from the National Grid, using weather forecasts to assess periods when cooling is likely.
“The implementation of the blackout will be up to the local grid operators,” said Professor Keith. “They get instructions from the National Grid and then the local grid operators literally open the breaker on sections of their grid and disconnect the right amount of demand to get the reduction the operator has asked for.
“So everyone who’s connected there gets disconnected, including shops, offices, homes.”
National Grid has procedures in place under the legally binding Electricity Supply Emergency Code to ensure a fair distribution of power in the UK during the energy crisis and avoid a ‘postcode lottery’ on supply.
Who would be fired?
The big question for many sensitive people is whose electricity will stay on in the event of a power outage.
The government and the National Grid have an agreed list of facilities that will be exempt from the power outage – these are protected sites.
According to the EAW, these are air traffic control centers, large hospital facilities with emergency departments and military bases. These facilities are considered “National Critical Infrastructure” and the list is very limited to help manage the emergency power issue.
Under the Emergency Electricity Supply Code, companies can apply in advance for “protected facility” status with regional grid operators. This means that they will still receive electricity during planned power outages.
Local network operators also have what is known as a Priority Service Registry for people who are medically dependent on electricity, have young children or suffer from mental illnesses such as dementia.
While this registry gives customers advance warnings of power outages and offers support and guidance regarding power outages, these homes and individuals would not be exempt from power outages.
said Robert Gross, director of the UK Energy Research Center and professor of energy policy at Imperial College London Independent that people who are medically dependent on electricity would likely agree with their health care advisors to provide follow-up care in an emergency via backup energy sources such as generators.
Professor Keith added that local distribution networks were faced with the task of keeping their Priority Service Record up-to-date and customers knowing what to expect in the event of a power outage.
He added: “People should prepare for the possibility of a blackout – we should think about it and be a little bit ready.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as it was in the 1970s because the circumstances we’re thinking of are cold weather coinciding with a major gas system failure and coinciding with the lack of electricity imports from neighbors. There are a lot of things that have to come together.”
How long would it take?
The war in Ukraine has led Russia to cut off much of Europe’s gas supplies, and the bloc accuses Vladimir Putin of using Russian gas as a weapon.
According to Professor Keith, we can flirt with the idea of blackouts as long as the war in Ukraine lasts, and even longer, depending on how long it takes to restore normal relations with Russian gas producers. However, he added that other energy sources could be explored.
“On the other hand, there is potential for other sites to increase production. Fracturing in the USA, manufacturing in the Middle East. There is a need for gas all over the world, there could be investment in liquefied natural gas (LNG) transportation as well as in gas production,” said Professor Keith.
Professor Robert added that the war in Ukraine is the difference between this winter and last, but he believes that by the winter of 2023 we may be in a less “disturbing” position. He called on the UK to enter into an energy cooperation pact with its neighbors, similar to the solidarity agreement EU members have made to share supplies during the crisis to ensure energy support during severe downturns.
‘In the meantime, we should reduce our dependence on gas by further investing in renewables,’ said Professor Robert.
“The expansion of wind capacity takes years and will continue, but it helps. As each new wind farm comes into operation, we need to burn less gas.”
What is the probability of blackouts?
According to National Grid’s Winter Forecast, its national report on energy supply and demand during the colder seasons, power outages in the UK are unlikely, but due to pressure on gas supplies in Europe caused by the war in Ukraine, power outages are more likely than previous years.
This led to a warning from National Grid that, especially on very cold evenings in January and February, power outages could last up to three hours between peak times between 4 and 7 p.m.
The report stated: “Overall, this winter could be a challenge for energy supplies across Europe. We have taken extensive action to try to mitigate the impact on UK consumers and we expect margins to be appropriate in our baseline scenario.”