In the dark about energy blackouts?

In the last 24 hours, there have been a lot of articles with worrying headlines detailing how "homes could face three-hour power cuts this winter". I attended the meeting which prompted these news articles and thought it was useful to try and explain what was actually announced and whether you should be worried about blackouts.

1) What was this meeting?

The meeting was a presentation of forecasts and plans for the coming winter by Ofgem (the energy regulator), BEIS (Government department responsible for energy), National Grid (who own and operate the gas network) and National Grid ESO (who operate the electricity system operator).

2) Could we run out of gas this winter?


The operators of the gas network presented a scenario of a 'typical winter'. This showed that we could meet all our gas requirements using gas from the North Sea, Norway and LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) imports without relying on European imports.

They also presented a 'cold winter' scenario based on the winter of 2010/11. In this scenario, we'd need to rely on European imports, which is concerning because it's possible that Europe also has a gas shortage during a cold winter. When pressed on this, the panel was confident we could solve this by mutual cooperation. 

In either scenario, exports from Norway are vital, and some industry experts think the government is over-confident on how much we can rely on these.

3) What happens if we run out of gas?

Some people would have blackouts on the coldest evenings

There are long-standing arrangements about how the gas and electricity networks respond to shortages - so no new plans have been announced. In short, the existing plans that if there is insufficient gas supply, stage 2 is starting to switch off the largest gas consumers - many of which are electricity generation plants. (The National Grid does have some discretion in choosing who they switch off.)

The Electricity System Operator (ESO) presented a scenario where they assumed that due to a gas shortage approximately one third of the UK's gas powered electricity generation would be unavailable. In this situation, they said they may have to initiate 'temporary rota load shedding'. This means the operator of each region of the electricity network would have to reduce their demand by a certain amount, likely for 3 hours over the evening. If this was needed to be done multiple times they would rotate through different parts of their region so everyone would be equally disrupted.

4) Should we be worried about blackouts?

To sum up the conclusions of the reports - ESO effectively said “we'll be fine unless we have to switch off gas generation because of a gas shortage”. The Gas Network Operator said “there shouldn't be a gas shortage unless it's a cold winter and we can't import gas from Europe”.

Unfortunately my crystal ball has been delayed by the Royal Mail strike so I don't know if these circumstances will happen. What I can say is that the industry is paying much more attention to the well established plans and procedures of what happens in a supply emergency. The equivalent reports from last year did not mention Gas Supply Emergencies or the Electricity Supply Emergency Code a single time. Energy supplier, SSE, has just filed a request for an urgent modification to regulations so they don't get caught in the middle if they're told by the Gas Network to switch off and they've already promised the Electricity Network they'll generate electricity - so they've definitely been dusting off the emergency plans and reading them closely.

And am I worried? Let's just say if a pilot mid flight tells you not to worry about the plane crashing it probably increases your anxiety by a couple of notches.

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