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Can we reboot Britain?

Some of my readers who read my August post, Nobody could have seen it coming, will have gone on to revisit the 2004 BBC docudrama, If… the lights go out.  Those who made it to the end, will have noticed something odd and unexplained… how, exactly, did everything go back to normal?  The points made in the programme were stark enough – short-sighted governments failing to invest in the long-term infrastructure, private energy companies putting profits ahead of energy security, a regulator focused solely on maintaining a quasi-market in energy, and too rapid a transition from fossil fuel generation to non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) all conspired to set the conditions for a complete grid failure – something that is more likely today than at any time in our history.  But the question of how the grid might be switched back on again was left hanging… perhaps because that would have been an alarm too far.

The kind of weather system which provided the conditions for the fictional blackout of Britain is reasonably common – as I write, Britain is in the grip of one.  Still, cold, high-pressure air has reduced the electricity generated from wind – The UK’s main source of renewable energy – to just five percent of total demand, and Britain is importing twice as much from continental Europe to plug the gap.  But while it is cold, it is far from the freezing temperatures that such weather systems tend to bring in January and February… when our European neighbours may be less keen to export energy to us.

In the programme, the triggering event for the blackout was a terrorist attack on the pumping station at the Russian end of the Nordstream pipeline.  What has actually happened is a little different and, with the systematic dismantling of the Ukraine energy infrastructure, far worse.  Nevertheless, we are at considerable risk of gas shortages this winter – particularly if the weather across continental Europe is cold.  And while we have access to some liquid natural gas, we lack the tanker fleet and terminal facilities to entirely replace the gas we used to get via the pipelines.

The gas threat to electricity generation stems from our over-reliance on gas generation both to replace the old coal and nuclear power stations which are being decommissioned, and to provide back-up against the intermittency of wind.  Nevertheless, as essential as gas-fired power stations are, faced with a shortage the grid operators would prefer to shut down gas power stations than risk disconnecting domestic supply… the threat of gas explosions after reconnection is too great.

It is easy enough then, to imagine a scenario not too far removed from If… the lights go out – or, indeed, from events in August 2019 – in which the grid operators are unable to balance supply with demand, even as NRREHTs intermittency causes a dangerous drop in grid frequency.  The only difference being that a complete grid shutdown across Great Britain would be far more disruptive.  As Christopher Owens, author of The Blackout Report explains:

“Modern life is now so reliant on electricity that a loss of power for any prolonged period of time would see society as we know it rapidly descend into chaos. No internet. No mobile phones. No petrol pumps. No contactless payments. No planes and trains, and no traffic lights on the roads… Towns and cities would become uninhabitable within days. Law and order would quickly break down as panic grows. Disease would start spreading because of a lack of sanitation and clean water…

“Without electricity, food stored in fridges or freezers would quickly go off. Shops and supermarkets would either at best be quickly stripped of all supplies or at worst off limits due to tills and payment systems being unavailable.”

The risk of a “cascading collapse” in which critical infrastructure begins to breakdown causing an even wider cascade of failing systems, grows with each hour the electricity is off.  And this is where things get seriously scary, because the most optimistic timetable for restarting the grid after a complete blackout is between seven and fourteen days!  And this estimate is likely to be overly optimistic for two key reasons.

The first is something that we learned to our cost during the pandemic – that we cannot simply rely on private companies to deliver on their commitments to the public authorities.  As we saw with suppliers of PPE, ventilators and a host of services, while companies had happily taken public money, when the proverbial hit the fan, all too often they failed to deliver.  It is in this light that we should consider the Grid operator’s statement that it is awarding contracts to private providers of so-called “black start” services.  These are generators who claim to have enough on-site energy not only to power up their own facilities but also to generate sufficient power to begin restarting the wider grid.

The second – and much greater – concern though, is with the high penetration of NRREHTs and the low concentration of coal and nuclear in the contemporary British grid.  As Owens explains:

“Only a limited number of UK power stations can provide Black Start capacity. Typically, these have tended to be the old-style coal-fired plants equipped with large generators that can produce enough power on-site to restart the facility without the need for any external power… Circumstances aren’t helped by the trend towards generation from renewables. For example, most wind farms can’t currently Black Start the grid because most depend on some sort of external power before they can start generating. And even though some of the latest designs are now self-starting, they can’t yet provide enough reactive power to energise the grid through the long offshore AC cables they connect with.”

The situation has worsened since Owens’ report was written, with the loss of the Hinkley Point B nuclear power station together with the ongoing closure of all but two of the old coal stations.  Moreover, as explained in the 2004 docudrama, any “mothballed” power stations are likely to have been cannibalised for spare parts, so that there is no chance of their being brought online quickly enough.  In practice then, Britain is almost entirely dependent upon gas power stations to reboot the grid:

“A Scottish Black Start Restoration Working Group review of procedures in September 2018 warned that the 2016 closure of Longannet coal-fired power plant in Fife would result in ‘severe delays’ to the restoration of power north of the border, as it left the gas-fired facility at Peterhead as the only remaining high-power and high-inertia – crucial to stabilise frequency – power station in Scotland.”

These are the same gas power stations that, in the event of a complete blackout this winter, would have failed due to a shortage of… well… gas.  This, in turn, raises the question of whether, without gas, Britain could even be rebooted.  Perhaps out of humanitarian concern, LNG tankers could be rerouted to the UK – although without electricity we would have no means of unloading them.  Maybe our European neighbours could reroute enough electricity through the interconnectors to begin to restore limited power. 

But in the meantime, how much of our critical infrastructure will have collapsed beyond repair?

As you made it to the end…

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