Blog: 15 August 2019Power outage outrage – what’s the solution?

Ben Kwok

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Ben Kwok

Graduate Infrastructure and Environmental Planner

London office

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A major power shortage affected almost a million people across England and Wales at the height of the evening rush hour earlier this month with trains stranded on major commuter lines into and out of London. Nearly a million homes, Liverpool Airport and Ipswich Hospital were also all left without power.

The power outage was triggered when a gas-fuelled power plant in Bedfordshire was disconnected shortly before 5pm, followed by the disconnection of the Hornsea offshore wind farm in the North Sea moments later. Under normal circumstances, a sharp fall in the frequency of the grid can be met with short-term back-up contracts.

National Grid asserts that the circumstances which led to this event are ‘incredibly rare’, with the combination of two plants going offline a “freak coincidence”. Yet, reports suggest that there have been up to three occasions in the past three months where the nation’s energy supply has teetered on the brink of similar blackout events.

The biggest outage in a decade has reared severe controversy and outcry from the public as to how National Grid manages the energy system to allow such events to happen. More important to some was the way in which certain key infrastructure was seemingly ‘chosen’ to be turned off in the midst of the crisis with questions raised, understandably, as to how critical transport infrastructure was allowed to come to a grinding halt, with other power-sensitive locations, including a hospital and airport, severely affected.

There were added complexities regarding the failure of contingency emergency power generation systems. Another key and worrying consideration is the prospect that the UK’s economic status could be downgraded if “brownouts” are allowed to occur – the last thing the country needs in times of political and economic uncertainty.

Those events serve as a timely reminder of the fragility and reliance of modern-day life on key networks. Whilst an inquiry into what happened will follow in the forthcoming days and weeks, these events give a stark reminder of the fundamental need to build resilience into system networks and add depth to the discussion regarding how this can be achieved whilst still decarbonising the energy sector. Building resilience into an entire energy network is clearly no easy task.

Resilience can be built through reducing reliance on the grid itself, or through proper contingency measures. Lord Adonis warns that with the gradual decommissioning of Britain’s nuclear plants and transition to renewables, the scope for these types of catastrophic events widens. Yet, naturally this is assuming that plans are not put in place to match and shadow the needed change of our energy make-up. The intermittency of renewables, such as wind and solar PV, has blemished their adoption globally.

However, energy storage systems hold great potential to capture and store renewable energy, to be released onto the grid in times of need, making up for the intermittency of generation itself. Smaller scale power generators also have a part to play through providing backup supply to the grid at times of need and there is a business opportunity for those operating in the “peaking” market. As is widely acknowledged, a mix of energy sources gives the most resilience. Indeed, whilst Brexit currently serves as the epitome of uncertainty in decision-making, events such as these should shock the Government into a review of our dated renewable energy planning policy to promote coherent and resilient ways of decarbonising the energy system.

Crucially, the power outage lasted for around half an hour. Yet, services for rail, for example, were disrupted for up to, and over eight hours. The inquiry will delve into National Grid’s decision-making regarding cutting off energy demand to certain consumers in the face of reduced energy supply. But it also quite rightly provokes thought into how other pivotal infrastructure systems must build resilience as well.

The outcome of the inquiry will serve to uncover where the fault lies with the disruptions. However, the events serve as a timely wake-up call on the importance of a secure energy supply.

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