UK electricity pylon against blue sky background

National Grid blackout report ‘fails to get to heart of problems’

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An interim report on causes of the power outage that caused disruption across large areas of England and Wales earlier this month has prompted a call from the IET for a new ‘whole-system’ approach to energy infrastructure and governance.

This week, National Grid attributed the events of 9 August to a lightning strike on the electricity network north of London that was followed seconds later by outages at Hornsea offshore windfarm and Little Barford gas power station. This created what it describes as “an extremely rare and unexpected event” in which the level of backup power available was insufficient and around five per cent of demand was disconnected.

The IET welcomed the report, but warned that it fails to get to the heart of problems that run much wider than the electricity grid alone. “This incident raises serious questions about the resilience of the UK’s energy and related infrastructure,” it said in a statement. “[It] highlights the desperate need for greater coordination across what are increasingly complex and interrelated energy, transport and communications systems.”

The IET and independent research group the Energy Systems Catapult have been highlighting what they see as a lack of ‘whole-system’ thinking within the power network through their Future Power Systems Architecture collaboration. The FPSA initiative, which is identifying new capabilities that will be needed in 2030, considers the traditional power system together with installations, appliances and devices on the customer side of the meter. It is also looking at how it interacts with other energy vectors such as transport and heat.

Commenting on the National Grid findings, the IET claimed that the electricity system has changed so much since existing governance procedures were established in the 1980s that they are no longer fit for purpose.

“We now have a highly complex system of which the National Grid is only one part, interconnected physically and through data and information flows to many other systems (such as the Network Rail system and subsystems within it),” it said. “The impact of this lack of whole systems thinking was highlighted by the large degree of disruption faced by rail passengers from what was a comparatively minor electrical incident, stranded because signalling systems and trains were not able to restart once power supplies had been returned to normal. This lack of understanding about impacts across other sectors and on individuals also meant hospitals, residents and business were all impacted.

“The technical governance of these complex systems requires a step change from today, it needs to be holistic, agile, flexible and embracing of the full range of system participants. Without that, we can expect to see more unexpected consequences across the whole system, as well as a failure to seize the benefits whole systems cooperation can bring, not just for major events on the National Grid, but also for the much more numerous power cuts experienced locally every day.”

Energy market regulator Ofgem has launched its own investigation, aimed at identifying what lessons can be learned to ensure and steps taken to further improve the resilience of Britain’s energy network.

As well as establishing whether any of the parties involved breached their licence conditions - focusing initially on National Grid’s requirements to hold sufficient back-up power to manage the loss of generation supplies and whether distribution network operators complied with their Low Frequency Demand Disconnection obligations – it will look at whether companies made the right decisions regarding the numbers and types of customers who were disconnected.

There will be discussions with the rail industry to understand why the drop in frequency on the energy network led to such significant disruption for passengers.

Jonathan Brearley, Ofgem’s executive director of systems and networks said it is important that the industry takes all possible steps to prevent a repeat of the events of 9 August: “Having now received National Grid ESO’s interim report, we believe there are still areas where we need to use our statutory powers to investigate these outages,” he said. “This will ensure the industry learns the relevant lessons and to clearly establish whether any firm breached their obligations to deliver secure power supplies to consumers.”

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