The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a report aiming to assess the possible impact of widespread power outages on the UK economy, saying losses could run into billions of pounds.
While no major blackout has struck the UK for the past 40 years, the report argues, the effects of such a scenario on today’s technology- and electricity-dependent society would be enormous.
The report, 'Counting the cost: the economic and social costs of electricity shortfalls in the UK', was prepared for the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology by a group of the Academy’s leading experts.
"A nationwide blackout lasting for longer than 48 hours could have a severe impact on society,” said John Roberts CBE FREng, a member of the report working group.
“While this scenario is highly unlikely, we saw only last winter the impact of severe weather on the south of the country, with power cuts over Christmas.”
In the report, Roberts said, the working group tried to assess existing methods of economic risk quantification and related social impact evaluation.
Looking into conventional methods for examining costs of electricity shortfalls, such as the Value of Lost Load calculation, the research group concluded that results of such analyses are rather unreliable as they depend on the nature of the power outage, its location, time and the sector it affects.
The insecurities are further exacerbated by the fast pace of change in the society and the limited knowledge about the knock-on consequences that could occur across different sectors of the economy and society.
In the future, the academy said, the society’s reliance on electrical systems could be expected to increase even further as more users move towards electric vehicles or start using electricity-powered heating systems. Such shifts would further exacerbate any existing vulnerabilities.
The report looked into several recent real-life cases of major blackouts, including the 2001 capacity crisis in California, which brought about economic losses worth $40bn over a one-year period.
The report proposed several simple measures that could be implemented to reduce the cost of such events, including making better use of modern communication channels and improved planning of outages to avoid peak load times for various sectors.
“Current estimates show that we need to spend upwards of £200bn over the next decade to update and decarbonise our electricity supply infrastructure,” Roberts said. “We have not invested on that scale since the 1960s and we do not have a good yardstick to compare the potential cost of infrastructure investment with the cost to society of major power outages.”