The Observer view on Britain’s blackout | Observer editorial

Last week’s widespread disruption illuminated the brittle nature of our infrastructure

Nearly a million people without power; parts of the rail network crippled; Newcastle airport plunged into darkness; a hospital temporarily without power. Friday’s power cut caused chaos across much of Britain’s transport network, leaving people stranded at stations for hours and causing traffic light failures across parts of the country.

The National Grid has pointed out that this was caused by a highly unusual event: two simultaneous power station failures, one at a gas-fired power station in Cambridgeshire, the other at an offshore wind farm in the North Sea. It also said the system operated “as planned” in reaction to the resulting fall in power frequency, by disconnecting “an isolated portion of electricity demand”, allowing power to be restored quickly. A cyber attack or wind power supply problems – which critics of renewable energy have been quick to try to pin the disruption on – have been ruled out.

We will need to wait for a full technical investigation to understand what exactly happened and whether the two generator failures were connected in some way. But the energy regulator, Ofgem, is right that this incident raises immediate and serious questions about the resilience of the UK’s energy systems. Why did what experts say would have amounted to around a 5% decrease in energy capacity for 90 or so minutes cause so much chaos across essential infrastructure?

Given that the National Grid said an isolated portion of electricity demand was affected, why were hospital power supplies, traffic systems and the railways so affected?

And while a multiple generator failure may be a rare event, it is far from unheard of – the last was in 2008. Britain’s energy network should be able to cope with a once-in-a-decade event without causing so much potentially dangerous disruption. Even though the culprit in this instance was not a cyber attack, it illustrates just how vulnerable we may be to a malign attack of this nature.

This should ring alarm bells about the resilience of British infrastructure to rare but far from unprecedented events. Resilience planning requires a joint effort by industry and government. But because Whitehall has been so consumed by Brexit in recent years, resilience planning – alongside many other big policy challenges facing the country, like a solution to the social care crisis – appears to have fallen by the wayside. What other vulnerabilities are there in the system that could be exploited by our enemies?

Now we find ourselves in the extraordinary situation where the no-deal Brexit that much of Whitehall is engaged in planning for could cause a series of self-imposed shocks to vital services – not just energy, but to food and medical supplies and air travel, to name just a few – that could make Friday’s power supply disruption look like a relatively minor event.

The disruption comes in the context of serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of Britain’s energy supply. As we rightly move away from coal-fired power generation, there will need to be a big increase in nuclear and renewable capacity in the next 20 years. But the climate change committee has said that current government policy simply will not deliver the additional low-carbon energy capacity required by 2030.

The government’s policy on nuclear energy is in a complete mess in the wake of the hugely expensive subsidy deal it struck over Hinkley Point, which the National Audit Office has criticised as terrible value for money for taxpayers. An energy white paper was supposed to have been published to provide some sorely needed direction over long-term energy, but has been delayed as a result of Brexit. If Britain crashes out without a deal on 31 October, who knows when the government will have the capacity needed to ensure the sustainability of our energy supply?

The power outage should function as a rude awakening to the brittleness of core parts of British infrastructure to cope with events that should not be debilitating. Is this really a country ready for the huge strain a no-deal Brexit would probably place on essential services? It hardly looks like it.


Observer editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Observer view on Britain’s urgent need to commit to nuclear power | Observer editorial
The government denied wavering over the future of Sizewell C, but it needs to come up with an energy plan – and quickly

Observer editorial

06, Nov, 2022 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Observer view on Hinkley Point | Observer editorial
Delaying a decision on the planned nuclear plant has done more than merely ruffle diplomatic feathers

Observer editorial

30, Jul, 2016 @11:07 PM

Article image
The Observer view: the Hitachi fiasco confirms that our energy policy is in ruins | Observer editorial
Ministers must act quickly to make up for the firm’s decision to axe its Wylfa nuclear power plant

Observer editorial

20, Jan, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
It’s not just these new pylons that blight our land | Catherine Bennett
T-pylons are a victory for the overground cable cabal and the Tories’ cavalier attitude to our countryside

Catherine Bennett

11, Apr, 2015 @11:03 PM

Article image
The Observer view on Britain’s climate crisis targets | Observer editorial
The UK’s green energy initiatives are failing just at the moment when we hold the leadership of Cop26

Observer editorial

02, Jan, 2022 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Observer view on Britain’s dire economic outlook | Observer editorial
The true cost of Brexit is becoming painfully clearer by the day

Observer editorial

12, Jun, 2022 @7:28 AM

Article image
Electric cars will fuel huge demand for power, says National Grid
Increase in peak electricity demand could be more than capacity of planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power station by 2030

Adam Vaughan

13, Jul, 2017 @9:50 AM

Article image
Does Hitachi decision mean the end of UK's nuclear ambitions?
Despite recent scrapping of three plants, experts still feel the energy has stake in future

Adam Vaughan

17, Jan, 2019 @11:23 AM

Article image
The Observer view on fracking fissures obscuring the need to embrace green technologies | Observer editorial
Even as we argue about the controversial drilling, we risk overlooking the urgent need for new sources of energy

Observer editorial

07, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Britain was promised a bold and visionary energy plan. But we’ve been sold a dud | Jim Watson
One of Britain’s top scientists says the new power security strategy does little to help people or the planet

Jim Watson

09, Apr, 2022 @6:00 PM