The four-day blackout in Lancashire caused by widespread flooding in December shows how vulnerable modern-day society has become due to its dependence on electricity - a situation only bound to get worse unless communities better prepare for it, a new report has concluded.
The Royal Academy of Engineering together with the IET and Lancaster University ran a workshop exploring the consequences of Storm Desmond, which disrupted power supplies to 61,000 properties between 5-8 December 2015. The conclusions of the workshop have been described in a report 'Living without electricity - one city’s experience of coping with loss of power', which was published today.
A few decades ago, a disruption to power supplies would mostly mean the loss of electrical lighting and the rotting of food in unpowered, thawing freezers. With the increasing reliance on electricity-powered technologies, a blackout of this size affects virtually every aspect of the community’s functions.
“This one very difficult event provided us with a unique opportunity to see just how reliant we all are on electricity and the services it supports,” said Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University’s Engineering Department, lead author of the report.
“In the event, engineers worked tirelessly to rescue the situation and fortunately there were no serious consequences. But it is up to us all now to learn the lessons.”
The number one lesson learned from the Storm Desmond blackout was about the vulnerability of communications technologies. The flooding of the main electricity sub-station in Lancashire cut power supplies to mobile phone base stations and transmitters in the region, resulting in a complete loss of signal and inability to make and receive calls and text messages. Mobile data services were also lost. In some cases, cable-based internet was available but the majority of people were not able to connect as their home routers required a stable electricity supply.
Old-fashioned landlines stayed operational, but only for those who hadn't replaced their handsets with fancier cordless devices. Digital radio as well as TV broadcasting were down, leaving people with almost zero access to information about the situation.
FM radio worked, but only for those with battery-powered receivers. Even new reporters experienced serious difficulties in reporting their findings. Local radio station The Bay was praised for providing the best service, although it was only able to do so by having one reporter based outside the affected area, searching for information online and phoning it back via an old-fashioned landline.
In Lancashire, ATM machines, card payment terminals and electronic tills were all down, as well as the computer systems of retailers, hospitals and public institutions.
“Each individual action – for example, doctors replacing paper files by computer systems, a government department ceasing production of hard-copy leaflets and moving to online information systems or the banks phasing out cheque books and introducing contactless cards – sounds like a good idea at the time,” the report stated. “However, each such action moves society inexorably towards a greater dependency on the continual availability of the internet.”
Other systems such as heating were also frequently affected, despite not appearing to be so obviously vulnerable. Modern gas-fired central heating systems use electricity-powered control systems and pumps. Once electricity is down, so is the heating. Similarly, gas stations were frequently unable to serve their customers, as they rely on electrical-powered pumps.
The workshop participants discussed possible alternatives to prevent such mayhem from happening again in future. Their number one concern was for the communications services to be able to operate, at least to a limited extent.
The experts mostly rejected the idea for Ofcom to require mobile phone operators to make sure they are able to provide services in case of extensive power cuts. Most existing mobile phone base stations and transmitters require power from the electricity network. Some may be equipped with batteries that would cover them for a period of several hours. To be able to survive a blackout of several days, the stations would have to be equipped with more powerful batteries. As natural events such as the Storm Desmond flooding are rare and the precise location of such a storm's effects cannot be reliably predicted, the cost would be too high to make such a solution sustainable.
Alternatively, the engineers proposed establishing a rapid response mobile back-up system that would provide basic communications services over the critical period.
The situation in Lancashire was further exacerbated by the difficulties to provide back-up generators in a timely manner. Fortunately, the local hospital was able to function as normal, having back-up diesel generators.