‘Risk of UK blackouts has tripled in a year, Ofgem warns’, declared the Telegraph. ‘NHS hospitals asked to generate own power amid blackouts fears’, reported the Guardian. Scary stuff. Is Britain heading for a dark age?
As is often the case, the headlines don’t do justice to the facts. A considerable slice of the UK’s energy-generating capacity - chiefly older coal-powered plants - is going to be taken offline soon due to EU rules on carbon emissions. The shortfall will come because replacement plants have not yet been built. But the gloomy predictions come from a scenario in which the UK has a peak in energy demand at a point where imports are unavailable through the connector to mainland Europe. Even in this situation, energy regulator Ofgem’s analysis suggests a once-in-12-year risk of some customers being deprived of power because we don’t produce enough to meet high demand.
As Ofgem’s report notes, these transient shortfalls are manageable and will have much less impact than the normal blackouts as a result of power-supply problems caused, for example, by bad weather knocking out powerlines. ‘The most likely implications are small, occasional shortfalls which could be dealt with by National Grid through demand-side action, with little or no impact on customers. The annual loss of supplies arising from transmission and distribution outages is typically more than three times this amount.’
If the government and energy companies pull their collective fingers out, even the risk described above by Ofgem need only exist over the period 2015 to 2017. After that, new power supplies will come on-stream, and the nation’s spare capacity will rise again.
However, we should not even be talking about such scenarios. It is blindingly obvious that a modern, developed country like the UK should be able to cope with a very broad range of energy demand and have plenty of spare capacity. Without that availability, large electricity users will start to resort to creating their own back-up supplies at considerable expense or even have to reduce their energy demand - and, as a result, their production, whether that is churning out aluminium or operating on patients.