Threat of blackouts grows as repairs on cross-channel cable is delayed

Threat of winter blackouts grows as National Grid pushes back repairs to electricity link from France to UK until New Year: Substation in Kent supplies energy to two million homes

  • National Grid warned gas shortages could lead to power cuts in some areas 
  • A key cable carrying electricity between France and UK is still not repaired
  • National Grid’s Interconnexion France-Angleterre (IFA) was damaged in 2021 

Concerns about averting winter blackouts in the current energy crisis have increased today after it was revealed that repairs on an electricity cable from France to the UK that supplies 2million homes has been delayed.

National Grid’s Interconnexion France-Angleterre (IFA) 44 mile cable under the Channel has not been running at full capacity for more than a year after a blaze at its Kent substation.

It brings in two megawatts per hour, enough to power 2million homes and more than the total amount generated by wind in the UK. 

Experts had hoped that it would go from half-capacity now to full capacity just before Christmas – but the works will not now be completed until mid-January, according to The Daily Telegraph.

The trouble came amid heightened fears over potential blackouts in the depths of winter due to the ongoing energy crisis.

National Grid’s electricity system operator (ESO) warned last month that if it cannot import enough electricity from Europe, and gas supplies run low, then it could be forced to cut energy supplies in some areas.

National Grid’s Interconnexion France-Angleterre (IFA) 44 mile cable under the Channel has not been running at full capacity for more than a year after a blaze at its Kent substation (pictured) 

This graphic shows how the Interconnexion France-Angleterre subsea electricity operation works between France and Kent

The IFA (thick line in green) is one of a series of electricity interconnectors between Britain and other parts of Europe

Earlier this month it emerged that ministers have ‘war gamed’ emergency plans to cope with week-long blackouts this winter, it has emerged.

The French connection: How electricity crosses the Channel

Two under-sea cables of the Interconnexion France-Angleterre (IFA) supply the UK with enough electricity to power three million homes – more than the total amount generated by British wind farms.

IFA 1 connects Kent and the Pas de Calais, while IFA 2 links Fareham in Hampshire and Caen in Normandy.

Their electricity interconnectors use  are high-voltage cables to connect the distribution  systems of neighbouring countries, and allow them to share excess power.

The landing point for IFA 1 is Folkestone, from where underground cables connect to the Sellindge converter station and then onto the UK’s transmission station. 

However, it was damaged by fire last month, causing a spike in electricity prices amid fears it will not be back to 100 per cent until next March. 

IFA 2 went live in January and could bring in 1.2 per cent of the UK’s energy. 

As well as the French connections there are also similar cables connecting the UK with Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Norway. 

Government documents marked ‘official sensitive’ warn that food and water supplies, transport and communications could all be severely disrupted for up to seven days in a ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ in the event of a national power outage.

Whitehall officials are stress-testing Programme Yarrow – the secret plan to cope with blackouts which includes prioritising getting food, water and shelter to the young and elderly, as well as those with caring responsibilities – amid an energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine.

The cross-government plan was first drawn up last year – before Vladimir Putin launched his barbaric invasion of Russia’s European neighbour – in a bid to improve planning and resilience in the event of a major fault on the National Grid, The Guardian reported.

It is understood that the type of technical fault envisaged under the plans includes an attack by a hostile foreign power on underwater power cables – following attacks against the Nord Stream energy pipelines in the Baltic Sea widely blamed on Moscow – as well as flood damage and thunderstorms.

It comes as the Met Office warns of an increased chance of a colder-than-usual winter this year which could put further pressure on gas and electricity supplies

Millions of Britons could get up to £240 off their energy bills this winter if they use their appliances at night after a scheme designed to help avoid blackouts was made more generous, MailOnline revealed in October.

Households could receive payments of up to £20-a-day if they don’t use washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers and even games consoles between 4pm and 7pm.

The National Grid’s Electricity Systems Operator (ESO), which manages supply and demand of energy in the UK, hopes at least 1million homes with smart meters will sign up to its so-called ‘demand flexibility service’ scheme, which is set to run between this month and March 2023.

And after listening to concerns from energy firms, National Grid is proposing to pay a rate of £3 per kwh saved instead of 52p to incentivise people to take part. But some experts have said it needs to be more like £6 if they want to get the public on side.

Households will be asked on 12 occasions to use less energy at peak times likely to be either 4pm until 7pm or 2pm until 9pm over then next five months. There may also be a test in the morning peak. 

They will be advised to use washing machines, tumble dryers, ovens, dishwashers and other appliances outside those periods so boffins can measure how much energy is saved on the grid when it is at its busiest. If the entire proposed £3 per kwh rebate if passed on to Britons by their supplier, over five months this could mean around £240 off their bills in total. 

This is what Britons could be paid back if they take part in a scheme that will ask them to limit energy use at peak times, 12 times in the 

Before she resigned Liz Truss said that there will be no energy rationing this winter but the National Grid scheme forms part of a worst-case scenario drawn up by the National Grid’s Electricity Systems Operator if the UK receives no imports of electricity from Europe this winter alongside a shortage of gas. 

Experts have predicted that turning off the lights on days when the wind doesn’t blow might also be suggested.

What are blackouts and why might they happen this winter?

National Grid has warned that there could be blackouts this winter if gas power plants are not able to keep running due to the energy crisis.

The electricity systems operator said it is still unlikely but winter could see the first planned blackouts, which the grid calls rota load shedding, since the 1970s.

But why might blackouts happen this year – who will be impacted and what can be done to avoid them?

Why would a grid ever plan blackouts?

Engineers working on the energy grid need to make sure it is ‘balanced’ at all times.

This means that the amount of electricity being put into the grid by power plants, wind farms and others should match the amount being taken out by households and businesses at any given time.

The grid plans for when it thinks demand can be high so it can ask generators to meet that demand.

But if there is ever an imbalance where demand is higher than supply or supply is higher than demand, it can cause major breakdowns in the grid.

That could cause actual physical damage to the grid that could take days to repair.

If the engineers know there will not be enough supply to match demand, sometimes they need to reduce demand by planned outages to avoid major damage.

Why might blackouts be necessary this winter?

Britain has one of the most reliable power networks in the world and unless cables are cut by storms or other accidents outages are rare.

But this winter, gas generators might not be able to get enough gas to keep running.

The grid said that if this happens, it still thinks that is ‘unlikely’, then it might have to cut power to some households and businesses.

Who will be impacted by blackouts and who gets cut off first?

If the grid realises that it has to cut off some parts of the country, it will issue a warning to the local and regional distributors saying how much demand needs to be cut.

It will be up to these so-called distribution network operators to decide who gets cut off and who does not.

But the DNOs have limited controls so most of the time it will be whole areas that are impacted.

How can we avoid blackouts?

If the blackouts are caused by a lack of supply, then the only way is to reduce demand at particular times.

Most demand happens during peak hours of between around 4pm and 7pm when people get home from work, put the kettle on, switch on their ovens and sit down to watch TV.

The overall amount of electricity that people use does not have to reduce if they just change their usage to other times of the day.

For instance, electric cars could be unplugged during these hours, switching the dishwasher could wait until 9pm and you could put the washing machine on earlier in the day or during the weekend.

The grid and energy suppliers will launch a new system in November to pay people if they change the time that they use energy.

The Government could also step in to ration peoples’ energy use or advise them to use less, similar to a hosepipe ban, but so far it has ruled this out.

 

The National Grid’s Electricity Systems Operator hope the ‘demand flexibility service’ scheme could save 2GW of electricity – equivalent to powering 1million homes – and will help the see how much energy use can be ‘shifted’ from peak times to manage supply and demand. They want as many people as possible to take part.

But the scheme relies on users having a controversial smart meter, a device which automatically transmits your energy usage to your provider.

So far around 29.5 million smart meters have been installed in homes and small businesses around the UK – which means that just under half do not have one.

There have been many complaints about the devices, ranging from them logging inaccurate readings that lead to inflated bills to stopping working altogether.

The roll out of smart meters has been plagued by an industry-wide supply problem – but hundreds of thousands of households are unable to get one because they live in high-rise flats, old properties with thick walls, or remote regions with poor signal.

Some critics have said that it should have been rolled out to all homes, regardless of whether they have a smart meter.

Planned blackouts hit the UK during the 1970s in response to the miners strikes and the oil crisis. There have also been major unplanned outages in storms, including in 1987 when over 1.5 million people were left in the dark.

But the lights will stay on this winter unless the gas-fired power plants that produced 43 per cent of Britain’s electricity over the last year cannot get enough gas to continue operating.

It is the most dire of three possible scenarios that the ESO laid out on Thursday for how Britain’s electricity grid might cope with the worst global energy crisis for decades.

In the other two scenarios, the operator hopes that by paying people to charge their electric cars at off-peak times and firing up backup coal plants it can offset the risk of blackouts.

The margins between peak demand and power supply are expected to be sufficient and similar to recent years in the National Grid Electricity System Operator’s (ESO) base case scenario for this winter.

But in the face of the ‘challenging’ winter facing European energy supplies following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the grid operator is also planning for what would happen if there were no imports of electricity from Europe and insufficient gas supplies.

To tackle a loss of imports from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, there are two gigawatts of coal-fired power plants on stand-by to fire up if needed to meet demand.

The National Grid Gas Transmission separately said that while gas demand will increase this winter, it expects Britain to be able to get enough gas to take it through a Beast from the East scenario or a long, cold winter. 

People are being encouraged to sign up with their electricity supplier to a scheme which will give them money back on their bills to shift their use of power away from times of high demand to help prevent blackouts.

Households tend to consume a fifth of their daily energy between 4pm and 7pm, according to data from Ovo Energy. The supplier on Thursday said its customers could save £100 if they signed up to use energy at off-peak times. 

That could mean putting on the dishwasher or washing machine overnight or charging an EV at off-peak times.

Earlier this year, The Times reported that the figure required to make the scheme work, and attractive to consumers, was £6 per kWh.

‘Customers should be properly incentivised to join up front — ie at least £1 to £2 per kWh,’ an Octopus representative warned National Grid at the briefing, The Times reported.

They added that customers were ‘expecting up to £6 per kWh’, the rate mooted in proposals reported in June by The Times.

A representative from Eon at the briefing said that payments need to be around £2 per kWh, arguing that the repayments are ‘not high enough to incentivise customers to take part’, The Times reported. 

Households will be encouraged to sign up to a ‘demand flexibility service’ that rewards them for using off-peak electricity. They could be paid for taking measures such as running appliances at night  – but they must have a smart meter

In addition, larger businesses will be paid for reducing demand, for example by shifting their times of energy use or switching to batteries or generators in peak times.

The ‘demand flexibility service’ will run from November to March, and it is expected to swing into action 12 times whatever happens to ensure people get rewarded for being part of the scheme — with additional use if needed to protect supplies.

In September, energy expert Kathryn Porter, from consultancy Watt-Logic, said it was possible all households could be asked not to use energy guzzling appliances at peak hours or eat their dinner at a different time if it is a very cold winter or Russia strangles supply of gas.

In the US tens of millions of people have been asked not to use washing machines, dishwashers and ovens between 2pm and 8pm because of the global energy crisis. Charging cars before 9pm is also not advised.

Away from the home, in Germany, street lights are being dimmed, traffic lights at quieter junctions are turned off, hot water and central heating is off in public buildings and monuments will no longer be lit overnight.

Ms Porter has said that it’s ‘very possible’ the UK will see plans for energy rationing, despite Liz Truss absolutely ruling it out.

She told BBC’s World at One: ‘Unfortunately, as each winter goes by, the risk of blackouts is increasing because we have been replacing thermal and nuclear generation with intermittent renewables. That makes us vulnerable in times when wind output is low.

‘We have had quite low wind output in July and August…Demand is a lot higher in the winter, so if we have those weather conditions in the winter, our system is going to get very tight and that raises a risk of blackouts.’

With similar schemes in California and Texas – Ms Porter expects that authorities could ask consumers to reduce their use of electricity during peak hours – although in the US all these schemes are not enforced in law.

‘It is possible we will see something similar here this winter,’ she said, adding: ‘I think it would be more an appeal or request for people to have their dinner earlier or later, or avoid using large appliances like washing machines during peak hours. I think it would be voluntary rather than compulsory’.

Where does Britain’s power come from and how does it get here? 

Traditionally Britain has depended on fossil fuels – gas, oil and coal – to power the nation. 

Coal was the UK’s primary source of energy in the early 1900s and up until the 1940s contributed to 90 per cent of Britain’s electricity generation. 

But the UK has in the last 80 years made huge strides away from the highly polluting fossil fuel and in 2016 for the first time went a whole day without burning coal.

Natural gas, nuclear power and most recently, renewable energy, have moved to the forefront of the UK’s electricity generation. 

According to Government documents, in 2019, 35 per cent of energy used in the UK was imported.

However this was down sharply from the 2014 level due to increases in indigenous oil and gas output and, more recently, renewables.

Typically, Norway has been one of the biggest suppliers of gas to the UK, and accounted for 57 per cent of UK gas imports in 2019.

The remaining 39 per cent came in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar and Russia.

Norway again is usually one of the biggest providers of crude oil products, along with Nigeria, Algeria and the US. 

Petrol products are typically sourced from the Middle East, via the Netherlands, to the UK. 

All of this makes the UK a net importer of fuel – meaning it imports more than it sends out – something it has been solidly since 2010.

The UK was a net exporter in the 1980s after the discovery of North Sea Oil. 

In mid-2021 the UK imported 6.1 Terawatt-hour (TWH). This accounted for 8.2 per cent of the total electricity supplied.

Since 2010 the trend has rapidly been away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy. 

In 2020, the UK’s renewable electricity outpaced its fossil fuel generation for the first time across a whole year, having only previously done so across one quarter in 2019.

Almost a quarter of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind turbines last year, double the share of wind power in 2015. The UK also utilises nuclear energy.

As a result, electricity from gas-fired power plants fell to a five-year low of 37 per cent of the UK’s electricity, while coal power plants made up just 2 per cent of the electricity mix. 

But the UK does still continue to import power, including through under-sea cables from France.  

The two under-sea cables of the Interconnexion France-Angleterre (IFA) supply the UK with enough electricity to power three million homes – more than the total amount generated by British wind farms.

IFA 1 connects Kent and the Pas de Calais, while IFA 2 links Fareham in Hampshire and Caen in Normandy.

Their electricity interconnectors use  are high-voltage cables to connect the distribution  systems of neighbouring countries, and allow them to share excess power.

In Quarter 2 this year, the UK – France interconnectors imported 4.7 TWh of electricity, which represented 66 per cent of the total electricity imports for the quarter.

The figure is an increase of 19 percentage points compared to the previous year.

According to Government data, the rise is said to be down to the opening of the IFA 2 link, which went live earlier this year. 

And it is said to have offset a drop in imports from the UK’s other interconnectors, such as those linking the UK with Norway and Denmark. 

A decrease in exports, which also happened over the same period, has also been attributed to lower generation by renewables, due to less favourable weather conditions, and an increase in demand from the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions.

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