Blackout Britain

| 1st June 2004
Within two years, Britain could be facing a series of blackouts and the ignomony of importing the resource it once considered so plentiful from a host of politically unstable countries.


By now sweat was streaming from his brow. Tim Davies gasped as the first crushing wave of claustrophobia swept over him. Then the accountant cursed as his briefcase slipped from his soggy palms, sending the day’s paperwork cascading around the feet of his fellow Tube passengers. About 20 minutes earlier, their train had stopped abruptly during the manic jam of the evening rush hour. Carriage lights spluttered, then died. They were trapped 100 feet beneath central London. The heat was rising. So too was the panic. Voices wobbled in the darkness of a terrorist strike somewhere above them.

Antonio Moroni would soon know how Davies felt. Days later, 1,000 miles away in Rome, the security guard had summoned an elevator to pop downstairs for a late-night espresso. It was a bad choice. With a fearsome clank the tin box froze between floors. And unlike Davies, Moroni would have no-one to share his nightmarish thoughts of an Al-Qaeda strike. Outside, pandemonium would erupt on the streets of the Italian capital. Barely a week earlier neon-gorged New York, beacon of the world economy, had too been plunged into blackness. A power shortage in Denmark and Sweden would quickly follow, and soon after the biggest of all would strike Moroni and his homeland. One by one some of the brightest Western democracies, built on their addiction to safe, reliable electricity, had seen their lights go out. In the space of just 40 days late last summer, many of the planet’s great cities had the reassuring cord of power ripped from them, leaving them flapping and confused in the dark.

Now, though, it was the turn of southern England. London mayor Ken Livingstone watched from his plush fourth floor Thames-side offices as the glare of his city sputtered out below him. ‘An outrage,’ he screamed. Yet Livingstone had better get used to it. Blackout Britain is inevitable, according to the UK’s most eminent experts on the subject. Key government advisors, engineering bodies, leading think tanks and the power industry itself concur that a dim future remains a likely scenario. The first wave of blackouts are forecast in less than two years. By then, Britain will be well on the way to begging some of the world’s most volatile regimes for something as basic as its power.

Make no mistake, Britain is facing the gravest energy crisis in its history. Cursory investigation soon casts light upon an unholy alliance of failed policies and short-sighted cost-cutting. Tony Blair already knows his country is inching towards a day when the factories will fall silent and candles will dominate supermarket sales. MPs recently analysed the London blackouts and found that Britain’s power network was nearing the end of its 40-year life span. Chronic under investment, they concluded after sifting through the evidence, was squarely to blame. Dieter Helm, who advises the government on energy policy, similarly describes a ‘clapped out’ system. Former Government advisor Professor Ian Fells of Newcastle University and principal author of a far-reaching energy inquiry by the Royal Academy of Engineering, describes those in charge of our electricity strategy as living in ‘cloud cuckoo land’. Yet the malaise runs way deeper than a decrepit supply network. Britain’s main supply of electricity – gas – is about to run out.

 The world’s third largest consumer of natural gas, after the US and Russia, has effectively exhausted the North Sea’s once-plentiful reserves in little more than a decade. Britain has come to rely on gas as though it were like the wind: replenishable, safe and never-ending. In 1990, gas provided just 1.7 per cent of Britain’s main electricity supply. Twelve years later it was fuelling almost one-third of our power. In two years’ time, the government will face the ignominy of having to import an energy that it had considered so plentiful so recently. At the same time, Britain’s other two key sources of power – coal and nuclear – are about to be phased out for environmental reasons that few dispute. Britain’s dirty, belching power stations will begin closing in 2008 when European directives to curb emissions ensure that these ancient powerhouses of yesteryear can no longer be countenanced. At around the same time, Britain’s controversy-shrouded Magnox nuclear reactors will finally start to shut. All but one of the nuclear plants that now generate almost a quarter of Britain’s electricity will start to be decommissioned in the next seven years. The nuclear dream, punctured by persistent safety and financial concerns, has all but faded.

Last year both these produced 58 per cent of Britain’s electricity. ‘A yawning energy gap will start appearing by 2006. Things are beginning to go really astray and I am not alone in that belief,’ said Fells.

The answer, according to the Government, is blowing in the wind. Yet more than a year after the laudable aims of Blair’s energy white paper, his green dream remains just that. No-one seems clear just how wind energy will reach his intended target of producing a tenth of Britain’s electricity in the next six years. Fells believes an optimistic target stands at just seven per cent. Inside Whitehall the heat is rising. Like Davies, ties are being loosened in rising panic. If wind farms are not given the chance to succeed, Britain cannot power itself.

By 2020 Britain risks a staggering 80 per cent energy shortfall, according to the Institution of Civil Engineers. The days of wallowing in a hot bath before catching the latest episode of Coronation Street – safe in the knowledge that there is electricity for all – appear to be coming to an end. Yet against this backdrop the government has remained publicly upbeat. So far ministers have refused to ensure against economy-crippling power cuts. Similarly the National Grid, responsible for distributing power to our homes, refuses to discuss contingency measures designed to deal with a bout of blackouts.

And so Britain rushes headlong towards the moment when it cannot offer electricity for all. A worse case scenario involves four-fifths of UK energy being harvested in faraway gas fields within 15 years. Massive gas pipelines will snake thousands of miles across continents to ensure that our lights stay on. Mechanical failure, political whim and blackmail threaten as much disruption as a terrorist act might. In addition, the economy would remain hostage to volatile gas prices over which it has no control. Yet it is the terrorist threat that haunts most in the industry. And the countries pinpointed to supply Britain’s future energy only serve to exaggerate such unease. Algeria, Iran, Turkmenistan, Russia and Nigeria are among those on the list.

Blair’s war on terror suddenly seems faintly incongruous when ordering his nation to rely on states it has pinpointed as some of the most dangerous in the world. Even so, civil servants have little option but to consider Algeria – despite it having been named as a principal runner in the rise of North African fundamentalism and whose former residents are implicated in the Madrid bombings. Iran is likewise considered unstable by the intelligence services. Turkmenistan and Nigeria are viewed as operating under the cloud of corruption. Russia in turn remains firmly under the dark shadow of terror, with the Moscow bomb certain to linger long in the memory. Chechnya separatists have vowed not to give up their struggle.

A pipeline supplying a state that remains accused of kow-towing to Bush’s perceived war on Islam would appear a target too tasty to ignore. Elsewhere, dispute continues to rage in the Ukraine through which vital pipelines could run. In March the BBC offered an apocalyptic vision of blackout Britain following a terrorist attack on a gas terminal near Moscow. The message was that a very high stakes game of Russian roulette may have to be played. Fells, who helped write much of the programme’s script, said he did not receive a single complaint of scare-mongering from anyone inside the energy industry.

Those involved in negotiating for their gas supplies will, like Davies, loosen their ties as they blush at the sheer temerity of their diplomacy. Yet they cannot fail. Britain has enough gas storage to feed the island for about 14 days. Germany and Italy, by comparison, have several months’ storage capacity. Experts agree that a £13bn programme on new gas pipelines, liquefied gas terminals on the Thames Estuary and South Wales, as well as new interconnector links to the continent will help. But there is little hope that they will be completed by 2006 and maybe not for another decade. The short-term energy vacuum, as well as the long term one, seem equally intractable. Meanwhile industry insiders have already devised a series of calamitous scenarios for what might happen in the event of a terrorist strike on such installations.

But the bungling does not end there. Planning consent does exist to build seven massive gas-fired stations to help Britain through its electricity shortfall. Permission though expires next year and fears over the high price of natural gas as North Sea reserves dwindle means they may already have been written off.

Fittingly, the London blackout underlines just how ill-prepared the country remains should terrorists strike its power supply. How Britain provides electricity can only be viewed alongside the routine warnings of senior police chiefs, who claim that Britain should be braced for an inevitable attack. More than ever though, the fear persists that the capital of the fourth richest country in the world and whose streets were first illuminated by electricity in 1870 remains unable to secure something as fundamental as its electricity. It took 30 minutes for those in charge of the National Grid to inform Scotland Yard that the failure was a system fault and not the work of terrorists. Similarly no announcement was issued to quell the paranoia choking commuters like Davies. It was the first real test of London’s overhauled defence mechanism after the September 11 strikes. And it failed.

Likewise the ability of the emergency services to cope with an attack on our nuclear power stations or electricity supply remains a topic of considerable concern. So alarmed is the Emergency Planning Society that it has written to the Cabinet Office more than a dozen times since the Twin Towers atrocity, saying that funding shortfalls mean the country would not cope with a terror strike. Despite repeated demands to government, no advice has been issued to the public on how to react following an attack on a nearby nuclear or power plant. Nuclear sites remain a catastrophic, but vulnerable target as The Mirror newspaper revealed last year when a reporter crept into the supposedly watertight inner sanctum of Sizewell, which houses tons of plutonium waste.

That moonlight flit came amid government claims that British power stations are on heightened alert. Despite this no security guards were found patrolling the fences which were easily sliced with wire cutters, and there were no guard dogs or security lights. No alarms were heard. Elsewhere MI5 is reportedly investigating several attempted break-ins at electricity power stations amid fears that Al-Qaeda is planning an attack against large ‘soft’ infrastructure targets in southern England. When IRA safe houses were raided by police and intelligence officers, they stumbled across maps of the national power supply network. The threat to our energy supply takes other forms. An electronic attack by mainland operatives is also considered a bona fide risk, according to the Government’s advisor on computer security. Sabotaging software controlling the distribution of power would ensure chaos. All the same, experts agree that such a threat is miniscule compared to the impending reliance of overseas gas pipelines.

In reality, blame for the London blackouts fell on a group of electrical engineers working for a private contractor one early evening last September. The mistake appears simple enough: a £2,000 shoebox-sized one-amp fuse was installed instead of a five-amp alternative. An instant cut in the power supply ensured that repercussions were rapid and broad. A cataclysmic chain of reactions left 410,000 households in the dark, 270 sets of traffic lights misfiring and thousands like Davies ensnared in a subterranean hell.

Privatisation too played its role. London Underground’s decision to scrap its power station in Lots Road, Chelsea, as part of its modernising, guaranteed chaos would unfold. Before then, the Tube was immune to National Grid power failures. Again analysis of the manner in which the mistake was handled provides significant cause for concern, betraying further inherent failings with the way Britain’s power industry is being structured.

A consistent failure of privatisation has often been the lack of accountability in the aftermath of mistakes. And, as with the rail industry, so too the electricity network is accused of operating in a powerless vacuum. Noone took direct responsibility for the London blackout. No contracts were withdrawn. Disciplinary action was conspicuous by its absence. National Grid Transco is liable for fines totalling up to 10 per cent of its £1bn turnover if it is found to have breached conditions, yet escaped without losing a penny following the chaos. The fact that it occurred less than a year after two million homes were left powerless following violent October storms, suggested to many that lessons were not being learned.

All of which would more than enough to set alarm bells ringing. But the malaise gripping Britain’s future electricity supply again runs deeper. Analysts agree that Britain’s capacity for producing power is insufficient and that, during periods of peak demand, there is too little margin for error. Not long ago power stations were able to offer capacity 27 per cent greater than the amount typically required, an excess that has now dangerously slimmed down to just 16 per cent. Britain can produce a maximum of 65,000 megawatts. Surges have recently hit 54,000mw. Blame lies at the decision of power companies to mothball spare power stations in order to save running costs. Such a policy has shaved 3,400mw off emergency supplies – or the equivalent power required to make more than 333,200 thousand million cups of tea a year. Maybe it’s not surprising then that the National Grid itself has told the public to prepare for a risk of power failure in periods of heavy demand.

Once peak periods were confined to the frosty winter months of December and January: climate change has altered the picture dramatically. Global warming will soon call for an intensive all-year round supply of electricity. If the government’s drive for homeowners and business to improve energy efficiency remains unheeded, our lust for power will sharply increase at the precise point Britain’s ability to meet such demands ebbs away. To see what this might mean, one need look no further than the massive Italian blackouts, which affected 57 million people and all parts of the country except Sardinia. Blame has fallen, in part at least, on the huge demands caused by air conditioning systems during last summer’s heat wave. Climatologists described that same stretch of heat as a harbinger of future British summers. The Pentagon recently joined them in warning that Europe, more than any other continent, will be hit hardest by the effects of heat and violent storms. These issues have already been identified in Britain. The National Grid repeatedly dipped into emergency reserve supplies several times last summer. During that same sweaty period, no fewer than seven shortage warnings were issued to power producers.

The problems are compounded by under-investment in the UK’s £16bn transmission network, which was implicated in last year’s London blackout and days later when 200,000 homes in the West Midlands were left starved of electricity. The National Grid is replacing just one per cent of its network a year, a rate that would make the rail industry blush with shame. MPs recently questioned power companies about whether they were skimping on maintenance following reports the National Grid had cut maintenance staff by 60 per cent. In addition, there remains speculation that the London fiasco was caused by poor maintenance of the network. An unnamed engineer reportedly confessed that there were insufficient staff to carry out maintenance work, accusations denied by National Grid Transco, which says spending on repairs has increased to £300m from £80m. Whatever the truth, the hiccups keep coming. The latest occurred this April when a fault at a substation plunged 61,000 homes in Wiltshire into darkness.

 Naturally, the draining of North Sea gas reserves and persistent doubts over wind energy has resurrected demands for Britain to embark on a new age of building nuclear plants. If the potential offered by wind energy is not realised, the clamour for a return to nuclear power may well prove difficult to resist. The vast and well-connected nuclear lobby points to France to support their unswerving vision for a nuclear island state. They claim nuclear power has allowed France to become Europe’s powerhouse, able to produce more electricity than it needs and selling off the rest. Sir Alec Broers, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, is among the latest to rubbish the Government’s plans to generate 20 per cent from renewables by 2020 as unrealistic. Nuclear is the only option, he warns. Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor, and who believes climate change is the planet’s biggest threat, agrees nuclear provides a viable alternative.

The debate is bitter and the stakes are high. And not just for the pro-nuclear camp but environmentalists too, some of whom are accused of being more anti-nuclear than contemplating energy that does not exacerbate climate change. Yet the industry’s flaws remain as profound as ever. Concerns over the safety of Britain’s massive nuclear waste stockpile and the catastrophic failure to achieve financial viability remain persuasive arguments against. British Energy, which runs our imminently moribund nuclear plants, is virtually bankrupt, kept barely alive by colossal government loans. And even if a decision is taken in favour of nuclear power, the planning process for nuclear power is so torturous that it can take more than 12 years to build replacements.

Stephen Timms, the minister in charge, recently admitted that the question of new build won’t be addressed for years. Wind farms will it seems get their chance, but the political backing has to be cranked up and quickly according to the sector. Whatever the outcome, tough choices lie ahead – and not just in which candle-making companies to buy shares. Many like Davies have accepted that the Tube may never run on time. But when the lights start going out on the journey home, forgiveness may prove a great deal more elusive.

Mark Townsend is an award-winning environmental journalist


1. Where our power comes from

There are 202 power stations across the UK with more than 1MW capacity each, and many more smaller local sources producing less than 1MW each.

2. How it reaches us
Electricity is carried from these power stations by one of four transmission systems, two for Scotland, one for Northern Ireland and the largest one for England and Wales, known as the National Grid. These systems distribute electricity to the Regional Electricity Companies along a network of overhead lines, underground cables and sub-stations.

3. What are the problems with this system?
The further electricity has to travel, the more is wasted in transportation. At the moment, however, most of the power stations are in the North, although the highest demand comes from the South. For this reason alone, a proliferation of local power sources is preferable to relying on just a few large power stations dotted across the country. Furthermore, if we were less reliant upon a few big, polluting stations, we would be less vulnerable to any one of them suddenly going down, either through technical failure or terrorist attack.

4. How is demand met?
Every day, the National Grid Company predicts how much electricity will be needed, telling enough power stations to generate electricity to meet that demand and picking the cheapest first. Demand from industry is fairly uniform with factories often running all night as cheaper electricity during off peak hours encourages 24 hour working. Most of the variation in demand is due to changes in domestic and business use, affected by many factors aside from time of year and temperature.

Variations in daily demand
1am to 3am
Demand is higher than for the rest of the night as people take advantage of cheap rates to use their washing machines, storage heaters, etc on time clocks.

Demand increases as we wake up, and shops and businesses open.

Slight rise around lunchtime

The day's peak is reached. Many shops and businesses are still open, yet people are beginning to go home and turn on their heating and electrical appliances. In winter, lights start coming on all over the country.

Popular TV programmes cause surges in demand, known as 'TV-pick ups'. These are not caused by more sets being on, but by all the kettles and lights switched on at the end of the programme. These 'pick-ups' can demand as much power as one large power station can provide.

What happens if demand is not met?

If demand were not met, a number of steps would have to be taken, ranging from dropping the voltage slightly (causing lights to dim and electrical equipment to work less effectively) to, in the worst case, blackouts. Alternatively, if too much electricity were generated, then fuel would be wasted by power stations whose output was not required.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2004