Here in the UK had a programme on Channel 4 the other week “Blackout”, which asked the question, what if the UK’s power grid went through a major failure? I watched it out of hope that it would attempt to introduce the serious issues that could in future potentially affect the stability of the UK’s energy grid (and not just its electricity). Instead the programme turned out to be an exercise in almost comical paranoia, so called “disaster porn”, if pens get hot sort of stuff.If anything this programme simply doled out a mass of misinformation and mumbo jumbo that clearly needs debunking.
Taking down the Grid
How likely is it that, as portrayed in the film, the UK’s entire electricity grid could be taken down by “hackers” ? Well it depends on what you term “taken down”. A temporary power cut to parts of the country is certainly a risk, but knocking out the entire grid for several days would be a fairly audacious feat.
The UK grid is controlled by a series of computers distributed across the country. So you’d have to take down all of these at once and that ain’t easy, not least because I’m assuming the National Grid controllers ain’t dumb enough to connect them to the internet (i.e. you’d need to be physically at the relevant computer terminals…and get past the burly guards whose job it is to stop you!). And even then all the controllers have to do is reboot a couple of computers afterwards, possibly restore software from backups, and they’d be back in business. Furthermore, there is no reason why we couldn’t run the grid without computers (we did it before they were invented). It would be a bit of a ball ache, more labour intensive, more cost, the grid wouldn’t be as reliable nor as efficient as it currently is (those who remember the old days will recall power cuts were more regular), but that’s about it.
No, in order to take down the grid for days, you’d probably need to do some serious damage to it, take down a couple of powerlines or sub-stations. In theory a so called “cascade failure” could occur if a single critical part failed at a crucial moment (like the US blackout of 2003 which was caused by the failure of a single power line). However, it’s worth remembering that many systems in the grid are designed to automatically trip (much like a fuse box) to protect equipment in the event of failure.Also at this point it should be remembered that the grid output varies through the day, and as I discuss here, throughout the year. Normally, nominal demand in the UK is around about 28-32 GW’s (useful tool here for observing the UK grid), with a typical peak at various parts of the day at around 35-50 GW’s (potentially as high as 60 GW’s in winter), with an installed capacity of 70 GW’s at present. Or put it another way we’ve “slack” capacity equal to roughly half of the grid’s generating and distribution network to play with. Physically taking out half of the UK’s entire energy grid is I suspect well beyond the means of any hacker or terrorist group, indeed even the Luffwaffe failed to do this back in the blitz.
And it’s also worth remembering that the UK’s grid is interconnected with the grids of neighbouring EU countries, such as France, Ireland and Holland with whom we trade power as and when it’s needed.
Implementation of energy conservation measures can easily drop the grid demand down to suitable levels until any faults are fixed. But will people obey such measures? I suspect yes is the answer when you consider that major users of electricity (steel mills, smelting plants, cold stores, factories) are contractually obliged to do so (they have deals with the energy companies where they get cut price electricity in return for turning down or switching off their major loads at times of peak demand).
Indeed there is a very British phenomenon whereby electricity demand can rise by as much as 2GW’s in a few seconds after the ending of a popular soap opera or football game (so called “TV pick-up”). Suspending such broadcasts, or getting the TV companies to phase broadcasting or advert breaks across the country would ease pressure on the grid.Restarting the Grid – Renewables to the rescue
However the premise behind this programme seemed to be that while the whole grid going down was unlikely yes. But if it did happen restarting everything would be impossible, because its all like hugely complicated stuff….with maths….and that’s why the producers studied liberal arts at Oxford…and not something useful to society like engineering 😉
Actually, the idea of how to “reboot” the entire UK grid, a so called “black start” has been considered before, it was a necessary part of cold war policy to consider such things and I’m assuming that such plans are being kept up to date. Now those plans are also secret(ish!), for obvious enough reasons, but from what we know about the grid one can speculate the chain of events.First to come on line would be the UK’s pumped storage systems, such as Dinorwig in Wales or Cruchan in Scotland. Dinorwig incidentally has been specifically designed to support a nationwide “black start”. It would put enough power into the grid to allow a couple of major loads (i.e. towns) to be gradually turned on. As the output rises, the rest of the UK’s hydroelectricity plants would be turned on, with more and more sections of the grid reconnected. Eventually there would be enough power available to restart the UK’s fossil fuel plants (of course many have standby generators anyway and can do a cold start all by themselves), eventually leading to power restoration across the country. Other renewable sources would also play a role here. One of the nice things about wind power and solar panels is that they were designed from the ground up to provide remote off grid power. If they do go down, it’s not particularly difficult get them running again and they tend to be fairly fault tolerant, e.g. wind turbines can support so called “low voltage ride through”. Although of course, the wind has to be blowing (or its day time for PV, in the absence of storage they don’t do much in the dark!) so what level of role they played would depend on whether there was an actual need for them and the exact time and sequence of events.
Incidentally though, it’s also worth pointing out that one of the advantages of having renewables installed in your house (a CHP boiler, PV on the roof, etc.) is it means you’ve got your own grid independent power source. I suspect in the middle of a nationwide black out that 30 GW’s of PV panels on German roofs will be looked on as not such a bad idea, nor will my idea of replacing much of the UK’s domestic boilers with CHP systems.
Indeed its also worth considering on this point whether it might be sensible to start directly tying renewables into energy storage systems, such as batteries, hydrogen or a newly proposed technology called Liquid Air Energy Storage.
Similarly if you’re on the same circuit as a nearby power station, which given their geographic distribution is quite likely to be a wind farm, that has advantages in a blackout as it means your less likely to be cut off and more likely to see power restored earlier.
Now while again, the role played by wind power would likely be minor (although that might change in the future), I bring this matter up because in the event of any future grid instability the grid controllers will likely prioritise the restoration of electricity firstly to places where it is geographically convenient to restore power (e.g. you’re on the same line as a major power station!). But then they will focus on restoring power back to major cities, as they tend to be where power shortages are going to cause the maximum disruption (traffic lights and street lighting going down, hospitals, care homes, government buildings, banks, markets, etc.).
Rural areas and provisional towns without any generating capacity (because the locals complained about the wind farm spoiling the view) however, are the lowest order of priority. They will literally be the last people in the country to get reconnected in the event of a major black out and the first people to have the plug pulled on them in an emergency. Something to keep in mind in future before protesting against wind farms!
The UK’s nuclear power plants will probably be the last of the UK’s generating capacity to be turned on. Which is fairly ironic as it tends to be nuclear power supporters who talk with such glee about “the lights going out”. Why you may ask? Well for two reasons.
Firstly nuclear power plants don’t like surprises. They can’t vary their output as rapidly or as easily as CCGT’s or hydroelectric plants (its also not terribly economic to run them in this way). Secondly, nuclear power plants also need to draw power from the grid to run their control and cooling systems, which means they are only supposed to be running when the supply of power from the grid is stable and reliable.
Now there are multiple independent backups (e.g. standby generators) and modern reactors are a lot more fault tolerant than reactors such those at Fukushima (also the bulk of the UK’s current fleet are Gas-Cooled which are fairly safe from meltdown). But I suspect the grid controllers will argue that they’ve enough problems to deal within such a scenario and would likely hold nuclear in reserve until something resembling normal services has been restored.
Not least because the largest “intermittent” load in the UK is Sizewell B nuclear power station. When its running, the UK grid needs to maintain 1.3 GW’s in spinning reserve in case it suddenly has to shut down for safety reasons (nuclear propagandists tend to ignore this pesky little fact!).
However one of the key themes of this show was the idea that UK society would descend into anarchy within a few days of the lights going out (unlikely though a nationwide blackout for that long seems) ….and ultimately middle class people will be beaten and robbed in their home by their Asian or working class neighbours (nice how they worked in that bit of petty bigotry and snobbery).
Now call me an optimist but I’ve a little bit more faith in the UK public than the producers of this show. It’s worth remembering that other parts of the world have experienced major power outages before and while I suspect it wasn’t a fun experience, society did not collapse.
Specific examples I’d point to would be the 1998 winter ice storm in Canada, the outages caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, the Auckland power crisis of 1998 (unrelated to the ice storms in Canada of course!), the California energy crisis of 2000’s (caused by an artificial shortage created by ENRON for political reasons) and the 2012 Indian blackout (which saw ten times the UK population affected). All of these events led to massive power failures affecting millions, or even hundreds of millions, of people for many days if not weeks, yet society did not collapse.
Granted there are some people who are addicted to their mobile phones who would probably collapse into a gibbering, blubbering heap at the loss of the internet, twitter and multi-channel TV, but it ain’t going to kill them. There are indeed some ne’er-do-well types who would go on a crime spree, but it’s not as if that hasn’t happened before (look at the Riots of a few years ago) and that’s sort of what we’ve got the police and army for.
Of course part of the problem here, is the main source of information for this TV show was coming not from technical people like me, but the UK’s security services. Aside from having absolutely no idea how the electricity grid actually works, they of course have long assumed that the only thing keeping the plebs from tearing the country apart is the network of CCTV, electronic tags, internet surveillance, etc. After all, if we didn’t have all these security measures they’d be out of a job. So they will inevitably be convinced that the gates of hell would open if they were forced to go for so much as a day without power.
But could people last without power you may ask? Could I cope for five days without electricity? Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt and I might do it again sometime soon! My habit of Munro bagging means I have gone out on the hills and lived in a tent or a bothy (remote mountain shelter with no electricity or running water) for many days without any of the convinces of modern society and I got by perfectly well, even in winter (what do you think the Scots invented whisky for?).
Now yes, there are some people who would struggle, for example there are some who seem to live on take-away’s and microwave ready meals. But I’m guessing that most people will have a few day’s worth of food stashed in cupboards, and probably a camping stove or barbeque.
Similarly as far as water supplies (the programme tried to make out that the country would die of thirst) you’ll find in your attic a large tank of water, enough to last for days with proper conservation. Now while for hygiene reasons it’s not recommended that you don’t use water from the cold water tank for drinking or cooking, there’s no reason why you can’t do so in an emergency (after checking it first of course for signs of corrosion or a dead pigeon floating in it, etc.).
Furthermore much of the UK’s mains water supply is pressure fed, relying on the head of water at a height to drive the water flow through the network. Admittedly in the absence of power for pumping this head will rapidly deplete, particularly if lots of people do silly things like run baths or continue to flush toilets, but I’m assuming that most people will be sensible enough not to do that until the power is restored (and if they don’t, the authorities can simply turn off the water and bring in stand pipes in the street).
And in the worse case scenario, there’s places you can get water. You may notice these big wet things running through the UK’s towns called “rivers”. Granted, I won’t recommend drinking Thames water without filtering it and boiling first, but perfectly usable for washing and cleaning. As for going to the toilet (without water for flushing) granted there are probably a small minority dumb enough to crap in their own garden without digging a hole first, however I suspect the combination of smell and food poisoning will quickly teach them the error of their ways.
All of that said, as we may be heading into a period where in the future some grid instability is a risk, I would argue that it might certainly be prudent for many to insure a small stockpile of canned food and a portable gas stove (if you don’t have one already). Just enough to get by for a short period, I won’t go crazy.
Keep calm and carry on
In short there would be no crisis as such, unless people panic…of course I suppose part of the problem here is that there are some in the UK who will head off in a screaming tizzy at the slightest hint of danger, often because they make the mistake of reading the tabloids (or watched Fox News or Sky), who tend to make a mountain out of mole hill.
Far from “keep calm and carry on” some British seem to run by the motto “now panic and freak out”. This is exactly what happened during the petrol “strike” a few years ago….of course the petrol companies pointed out in advance that they held more than adequate stocks and shortages would only occur if people engaged in panic buying (which some promptly did!)….then the strike never happened!
So in short, if panic buying is the problem the solution is to stem the panic, e.g. tell shopkeepers in such a scenario to begin rationing supplies (or simply lock the door until the police arrive to supervise the situation) and holding more stock on site…or my preference simply tell all tabloid readers to stay indoors for a few days (easily achieved, just tell them that the bogeyman (or possibly bogeymen)…on benefits…are stalking the streets and they’d probably believe you!).
The Real crisis
I do not fear the UK losing its entire electricity supply for several days. It’s fairly unlikely to happen and even if it did, as I’ve shown, its won’t be the end of the world. Far worse has happened in other parts of the world and they coped with it.No, what I fear is the UK having to put up with unreliable electricity supplies and prolonged energy shortages lasting for decades. This is the inevitable consequences of underinvestment in the energy sector, unrealistic government policy and a failure to take seriously the twin threats of climate change and peak oil.
A prolonged energy drought is, if anything, far more frightening. While the majority of us can probably cope without electricity for a few days (or even weeks) with some discomfort. Facing the prospect of going through an entire winter (or possibly multiple winters) with rolling blackouts and gas shortages an inconvenient times is going to be far worse. Indeed, it is the sort of thing that could easily lead to anarchy.
This is the real crisis the UK faces in the future. And this Channel 4 programme completely missed the opportunity to bring these problems to the attention of the public. Instead they broadcast something about as technically accurate as the “Day After Tomorrow” is towards climate science.