In this blog, Matthias Noebels and Mathaios Panteli from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at The University of Manchester discuss, motivated by the recent UK wide power cut in August 2019, the need in the UK to think beyond electricity infrastructure resilience to be able to handle such events in the future.
- In August 2019, businesses, several critical sectors such as transport systems, health services, and society in the UK struggled to cope with a short power outage.
- Although electricity network resilience in the UK is at a good level, actions need to be taken to improve community resilience and preparedness to such unexpected events.
- Showcases in Nepal and Chile highlight how communities can adapt to power outages and can respond to emergency situations effectively.
- There are several approaches the UK could adopt to support community resilience to future power cuts.
On 9 August 2019, parts of the United Kingdom were thrown back into pre-industrialised times. After a lightning strike hit a transmission line and two UK power plants shut down almost simultaneously, the country was left in darkness during evening rush hour, as trains stopped, traffic lights ceased to function, and around a million people were left in their homes without electricity. The major power cut across the UK, including London, has raised many questions about the resilience of our electricity supply. Many were quick to blame National Grid who own the electricity and gas transmission system in England & Wales. Others suggested that there has been a lack of investments in the electricity infrastructure, or that the shift towards renewable energies increases the risk of widespread blackouts.
It is, however, often ignored that National Grid was in fact able to restore power within fifteen minutes of the outage, but businesses, several critical sectors such as transport systems, health services, and parts of the society in the UK were not able to cope with the power outage and were significantly affected for longer periods. Other shortcomings that were triggered by the outage also became apparent, such as trains across the UK not being able to restart, and a malfunctioning backup system at Ipswich Hospital – to name just a few.
Learning from others
So could looking at case studies from other countries help the UK to handle power cuts better? Until very recently, power cuts were imposed in Nepal on a daily basis, even in the capital city of Kathmandu. This has driven the deployment of microgrids and household energy systems, mainly based on solar power and hydropower. When Chile was hit by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in February 2010, 4.5 million citizens were left without power. However, a study by researchers from The University of Manchester revealed how communities used their available resources, such as local knowledge on clean water sources, to cope with the consequences. It can thus be argued that while the electricity network resilience in the UK is at a good level, we instead lack community resilience, or, in other words, ways to deal efficiently with the impacts of a major power outage. This raises a number of important questions: Is the current UK policy of merely reacting to events and investing in network hardening measures to create a system that never fails the most resilient- and cost-effective approach? Should we be more geared towards incentivising and improving community resilience in order to enable and further enhance community preparedness and response to a power outage? Or should we look into a whole systems approach and aim to achieve an efficient trade-off between infrastructure and community resilience?
What can be done to ensure the UK is better prepared for future power cuts? Firstly there needs to be a collective, whole systems approach enabled by a better collaboration between the four major regulators involved – Ofgem, Ofwat, Ofcom and ORR. Our infrastructure is highly interconnected and many parts of it rely on each other. Water supply, communication and transport all require electricity, but the electricity network also requires communication networks, access roads for service workers, and water as a coolant. Therefore, our infrastructure can never become truly resilient if the responsible regulators do not coordinate towards a common goal. By working collaboratively on resilience planning, these regulators should be able to come up with solutions using a holistic approach rather than looking to the critical infrastructures in silos.
Secondly, we need better support for communities and districts. Local electricity generation on district level can supply communities during outages, and even help us meet our carbon emission targets while reducing the need for investments into transmission infrastructure. However, the business case for microgrids is difficult as up to now, there is no economic value for resilience. The Government’s guidance on Community Energy is outdated by almost five years and lists the Feed-in Tariff’s scheme, which is currently being phased out, as the main support mechanism. At the same time, no localised and reliable solutions, like combined heat and power, were considered in the Government’s recent Contract for Difference Allocation Round 3, the country’s key mechanism of reshaping our electricity market, and its £60 million budget annually now mainly goes in the development of offshore and remote island windfarms.
The Government should also take appropriate steps to improve community resilience, or the ability of communities to utilise available resources to cope with adverse situations. If we picture a power outage in our own neighbourhood, that lasts an hour, a day, a week, we can easily find out how resilient our community is by asking ourselves: Where can we charge our phones? How can we access water? Who needs to be looked after because they can’t look after themselves? Social capacities, such community networks, local knowledge or a sense of community, can make a huge difference. Communication plays a key role here in order to raise awareness of power outages, and local schemes prepare their communities for outages and other emergencies, but a coordinated approach to community resilience is necessary instead of focusing on physical and economic aspects alone.
Electricity has changed our world probably more than many other developments, and its role for our society in becoming carbon neutral is immense. But in a modern, complex society is it enough to simply keep the lights on? Or should we adopt a more holistic approach with communities to deal with power outages when they occur?