The Observer view on Britain’s blackout08/11/2019
Nearly a million people without power; parts of the rail network crippled; Newcastle airport plunged into darkness; a hospital temporarily without power. Friday’s power cut caused chaos across much of Britain’s transport network, leaving people stranded at stations for hours and causing traffic light failures across parts of the country.
The National Grid has pointed out that this was caused by a highly unusual event: two simultaneous power station failures, one at a gas-fired power station in Cambridgeshire, the other at an offshore wind farm in the North Sea. It also said the system operated “as planned” in reaction to the resulting fall in power frequency, by disconnecting “an isolated portion of electricity demand”, allowing power to be restored quickly. A cyber attack or wind power supply problems – which critics of renewable energy have been quick to try to pin the disruption on – have been ruled out.
We will need to wait for a full technical investigation to understand what exactly happened and whether the two generator failures were connected in some way. But the energy regulator, Ofgem, is right that this incident raises immediate and serious questions about the resilience of the UK’s energy systems. Why did what experts say would have amounted to around a 5% decrease in energy capacity for 90 or so minutes cause so much chaos across essential infrastructure?
Given that the National Grid said an isolated portion of electricity demand was affected, why were hospital power supplies, traffic systems and the railways so affected?
And while a multiple generator failure may be a rare event, it is far from unheard of – the last was in 2008. Britain’s energy network should be able to cope with a once-in-a-decade event without causing so much potentially dangerous disruption. Even though the culprit in this instance was not a cyber attack, it illustrates just how vulnerable we may be to a malign attack of this nature.
This should ring alarm bells about the resilience of British infrastructure to rare but far from unprecedented events. Resilience planning requires a joint effort by industry and government. But because Whitehall has been so consumed by Brexit in recent years, resilience planning – alongside many other big policy challenges facing the country, like a solution to the social care crisis – appears to have fallen by the wayside. What other vulnerabilities are there in the system that could be exploited by our enemies?
Now we find ourselves in the extraordinary situation where the no-deal Brexit that much of Whitehall is engaged in planning for could cause a series of self-imposed shocks to vital services – not just energy, but to food and medical supplies and air travel, to name just a few – that could make Friday’s power supply disruption look like a relatively minor event.
The disruption comes in the context of serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of Britain’s energy supply. As we rightly move away from coal-fired power generation, there will need to be a big increase in nuclear and renewable capacity in the next 20 years. But the climate change committee has said that current government policy simply will not deliver the additional low-carbon energy capacity required by 2030.
The government’s policy on nuclear energy is in a complete mess in the wake of the hugely expensive subsidy deal it struck over Hinkley Point, which the National Audit Office has criticised as terrible value for money for taxpayers. An energy white paper was supposed to have been published to provide some sorely needed direction over long-term energy, but has been delayed as a result of Brexit. If Britain crashes out without a deal on 31 October, who knows when the government will have the capacity needed to ensure the sustainability of our energy supply?
The power outage should function as a rude awakening to the brittleness of core parts of British infrastructure to cope with events that should not be debilitating. Is this really a country ready for the huge strain a no-deal Brexit would probably place on essential services? It hardly looks like it.
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