What happens when the lights go out?

In July we posted a blog about whether the lights will go out in the UK. This blog discussed the startling fact that the peak demand on our electricity supply network is perilously close to the supply capacity. With this comes the real risk that consumers will be exposed to outages “blackouts” and voltage dips “brownouts”. There is debate about whether this could happen, Datamonitor’s director of energy and utilities research and analysis, Neil Atkinson has commented that in practice the lights won’t go out in the UK or at least not for a long time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried or ignore the problem all together. He states that the Government hasn’t put sufficient contingency plans in place for the future of the UK’s supply and demand, that the Green Deal and the dwindling hopes of Nuclear power aren’t enough.

The ECA are less optimistic than Datamonitor. Bill Wright, head of energy solutions, states that the intended increasing reliance on wind power assumes that the UK as a whole will not be affected by periods of cold weather at the same time as minimum wind. This is something that has to be considered though, for if the UK were to suffer a harsh or long winter like we saw in 2012/2013 then there is a real risk that we could end up facing lights out this year or during any winter that is out of the ordinary.

Fuel poverty in England – 10 per cent, 1996 to 2011

Fuel poverty in England – 10 per cent, 1996 to 2011

There is also Ed Milliband’s pledge to freeze energy costs for customers to consider. Will this pledge speed up the process of blackouts and brownouts or it will have no impact at all? The government’s Fuel Poverty Report 2013 suggests there are already 4.8 million households in the UK that are already suffering with blackouts so Ed’s pledge won’t necessarily make any difference.

But what if it does? What will happen if the lights do go out?

BSRIA held a number of parallel workshops in June to discuss that possibility. The workshop covered the effects blackouts would have in the UK, the risks for business, the systems required, the continuity plans and what BSRIA will do. Here are some of the conclusions:

Effects of power outages

There are many potential effects that come with a long power outage. At the moment, most power outages don’t last more than an

An image of Channel 4's The Blackout

An image of Channel 4’s The Blackout

hour so there are minimal risks but the longer the outage, the more opportunity for chaos to ensue. The loss of power could lead to an increase in crime due to diminished security options e.g. alarms and security cameras leading to shops being broken into and civil disorder (a dramatization of the potential damage can be seen in Channel 4’s The Blackout). The country’s communication and transport systems would soon break down and there is a high risk to the economy due to closed businesses and lack of trade. There are few benefits to a power outage; the only redeeming effects being an increase in self-reliance and a chance for the standby power industry to shine.

Risks for business

If power outages have such an impact on society in general, then the risks to business are high as well, even more so due to the current lack of awareness in businesses. If they are unaware of the future problems, then they may well have made no contingency plan to keep their businesses running. Without a contingency plan, they face disruption to their work through either staff shortages (staff may be unable to get into work due to the breakdown of transport), or loss of process and equipment failure. If companies are dependent on computers or other technology, then they risk losing business or missing deadlines, resulting in damage to reputation and loss of profit.

Required systems and contingency plans

To help the UK prepare for the risk of future power outages, the workshop came up with some ideas for required systems and contingency plans that could help reduce the damage caused. Here are some of those. Firstly, education is key and more needs to be done to raise awareness. BSRIA is in a prime position to promote and facilitate this. Starting with the low-hanging fruit, buildings should make maximum use of natural light and ventilation to reduce base energy load. Critical areas or services need to be identified and ring-fenced to maximise the opportunity for them to run when other systems go down. There needs to be a way of controlling the amount of energy used in buildings and this is where energy services and building energy management systems could play a very important role. Incentives, such as variable tariffs from utilities, would encourage changes in consumer behaviour and more investment in smart technology. The debate over alternative fuels like shale gas needs to be had to assess its suitability and impact on the future of UK energy. Whilst standby generation may seem an easy option, and undoubtedly this will form part of the solution, it also needs to be highlighted that it cannot necessarily be relied on as a last-minute solution, for when the crunch comes, it will be in high demand and availability will plummet.

Continuity plans need to be made for a multitude of scenarios. The Government and businesses alike, need to prioritise the services

Graph taken from Bill Wright's presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

Graph taken from Bill Wright’s presentation given at BSRIA Workshop

they need most and make sure they are supported in the best possible ways. If blackouts are expected to become a regular part of our lives, then announcing them in advance will help companies to plan closures or change working hours. Companies also need to think about how their employees work; the fact is, we are highly dependent on technology like laptops and mobile phones. Without the means to recharge their batteries they quickly become redundant and we become unproductive, so companies need to think of alternative methods to keep their workforce useful – we may even have to resort to good old pen and paper!

What BSRIA could do

 From the workshops, it was suggested that BSRIA can help raise awareness and provide education on the subject. This could take a range of forms, and conferences, publications and guidance for continuity planning were just some of the activities suggested. BSRIA can also work with other organisations towards these goals to help limit the risks for everyone.

About jeremytowler
Senior Manager – Energy & Smart Technologies at BSRIA. BBA (GSBA Zurich), Betriebsoekonom dipl. oek. 30 years’ experience in intelligent building controls, fire and security systems. Educated in the UK and Canada, and trained as a building controls engineer with Honeywell Control Systems in the UK. Moved through a series of international sales and marketing roles at Landis & Gyr (now Siemens Building Technologies) in Switzerland and then marketing manager for employee time scheduling and access control systems at Amano Blick International Ltd (now part of Stanley Security group). Bachelors degree in Business Administration. Joined i&i-Proplan in 1999 as a Senior Consultant and managed market research projects in building controls, fire detection/alarm, and electronic security systems until its acquisition in 2008 by BSRIA. Since Mar. 2013 managing the BSRIA Energy and Smart Technologies team. Languages: German, Spanish and English (mother tongue).

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