After Dudley, Eunice and Franklin… why electricity needs rethinking now

Our fragile supply lines are at risk from storms. Photo credit: Ian Cairns

The phrase “keeping the lights on” reflects a time, now long past, when electricity meant little more than that to most people. But when storm Eunice this year left 22,000 people in Sussex without power, the phrase – political shorthand for the main aim of energy policy – gained extra resonance.

Apart from Sussex, UK Power Networks reports that nearly 700,000 homes were impacted across the UK. What made this so much worse was that many thousands of households waited five or more days before they saw power restored. Most lost heating and some, incredibly, lost their water supply for days. 

There have been two common media responses to the extraordinary scale and duration of these recent power supply issues: first, that this is something to do with rare weather events and second, that utility companies bear the liability for the ensuing supply failures and the hardship they caused. But there is a bigger policy failure that these events point to.

These events are only going to get worse

Firstly, storms and high winds aren’t rare. What was rare about Eunice was its UK-wide impact. Had it been more local, the impact on those affected would have been no different and just as unacceptable. Moreover we know these events are going to get worse and more common, and we knew this one was coming days in advance. 

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy openly acknowledged the problem of worsening weather, expressing their view in 2019 that “amongst many changes in the climate, we are seeing more extreme weather events”. Notably, though, their focus was on increased rainfall rather than stronger winds. So this is not a rare weather issue, but framing it is such allows us to continue to do nothing about it. 

The fact is that our supply mostly relies on wooden posts stuck in the ground with cables draped across them. They fail in windy weather. If you believe stronger winds are on their way, it follows that more frequent, more widespread and longer power outages are on their way too.

What is the plan to localise green supply rather than rely on a vast, fragile grid of poles and wire? Or at least improve the resilience of the overhead network? And in these recent events keeping the lights on wasn’t the half of it. Why did these electricity outages result in so many going so long without basic necessities like heating and hot water? 

Water companies don’t have back-up generators

In Bexhill and Battle, hundreds suffered prolonged water supply failures. Their MP, Huw Merriman, has already asked in the House of Commons why water companies don’t have back-up generators so there isn’t also loss of water to compound people’s misery.

But why should it be that existing gas and oil and other heating systems need grid-provided electricity to keep working?  

As we adopt more and more digital solutions for all aspects of our lives, from working to banking to shopping, it begins to feel that we are placing all of our eggs in an increasingly fragile basket. 

As for liability, well yes, utility providers have much to do, but this is about national infrastructure. For nearly 100 years the design and technology that get electricity to our homes haven’t really changed. Short-term profit has for too long been the result of policy in the UK, so there is no long-term plan despite known and increasing risks. 

Even steel pylons have been known to be blown down in storms. Photo credit: Ian Cairns

In 2008-9, the average power cut in the UK was around 60 minutes and was due, not to high-voltage generation issues, but low-voltage distribution to our homes. Given it took just an hour or so, the strategy has always been to wait for the failure and, when the weather allows, stick the poles and wire back together. With severe, multiple, sustained weather events first causing the failure and then hampering the repair, as we saw last week, this wait-and-repair strategy now takes days not hours. How long before it takes weeks?  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared its belief that some of the effects of global warming are now irreversible. It won’t be enough to adopt green electricity generation to mitigate climate change. So we need to urgently rethink how we store and distribute electricity and what we do when supply fails. 

Why home solar panels aren’t widely adopted

There are three obvious areas of focus for government policy makers: decoupling the risks, making grid distribution more robust and increasing non-grid, green generation.

For example, water companies must be compelled to have back-up generators wherever needed to ensure continuity of supply. And also the investment in maintaining the overhead network should be diverted to burying cables wherever possible and where it is not, more robust poles installed to withstand stronger winds. 

Most importantly, intervention is needed in the solar panel market. Home panels aren’t widely adopted because they don’t pay back in the short term. Massively ramp up production and costs would come down. It should be policy now that every new home is not just insulated but has a solar roof. 

There is a clear role for central government to provide the vision, investment and leadership needed to prevent us from sleepwalking into a bad weather future with nothing but wooden poles and wire to keep us warm, in light and connected.

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