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Assessing the Possibility of Winter Blackouts






The possibility of blackouts during the winter months in the UK has been hinted at several times in the past few years, with National Grid warning several times that it would be operating with a much smaller supply margin than is optimal. This coming winter, however, looks likely to be the tightest margin for decades, and the risk of blackouts has been widely discussed. While the Government has typically minimised the risk of power disruption, even National Grid have warned that blackouts are a growing possibility.

Why is the UK at risk of blackouts?

The current energy crisis has now rumbled on for over a year, described this week by the International Energy Crisis as the first truly global energy crisis and ‘unprecedented’. One of the major drivers for this is supplies of natural gas, an issue that has been exacerbated in Western Europe, and in turn the UK, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Before the invasion, the EU imported 155 billion cubic metres of natural gas during 2021. This accounts for around 40% of all gas consumption in the EU.

While the UK does not purchase Russian gas supplies directly, we are still reliant on imported supplies, which make up about 50% of our total consumption. The UK has interconnectors with Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Republic of Ireland, as well as the Langeled pipeline connecting us to Norway. With Russian supplies dwindling, competition for available gas supplies on the continent ensures less is available for export to the UK, and what is available is at an elevated price.

Despite the rapid rollout of renewable generation in the UK, we are still reliant on gas-fired power stations for around 30% of our electricity generation. In the event that supplies run short, load shedding will be introduced to conserve supplies for heating. This means that the largest consumers of gas would be cut off first: power stations. As a result, a shortage of natural gas supplies means that most businesses and homes are more likely to experience disruption to their electricity supply, rather than their gas.

Will the UK experience blackouts?

National Grid has warned that if blackouts do occur, they will fall during weekday evenings on the coldest days. Under the old TRIAD system which identified the three one-hour periods of maximum UK demand, they would invariably fall under the same circumstances, between 4pm and 7pm on a weekday. This is due to a spike in demand for both gas and electric as household demand coincides with ongoing industrial activity.

Any disruption, if it happens, is still expected to be relatively minor. Domestic customers may see brief periods without electricity, although it is probably more likely that instead energy-intensive sectors, such as manufacturing, will be asked or compelled to reduce their own consumption during periods of peak demand. However, National Grid appears to be preparing for the worst, with leaked scripts from the BBC intended for use in the event of blackouts including the possibility of up to 48 hours of disruption.

If your business does experience power disruption, there are a couple of things to bear in mind. The first is that as we know in advance when a power cut might happen in terms of time of day, if not date, some activity around that time may be able to be time-shifted to other times of day when it will not be disrupted. This also helps to mitigate the risk of disruption as a whole, as it reduces peak demand on the grid. A blackout could also be followed by a surge of electricity when supply is restored, which risks damaging sensitive equipment if not managed properly.

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