Ministers have ‘war gamed’ emergency plans to cope with week-long blackouts this winter, it has emerged.
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 fears that Russian aggression in Ukraine has sparked an energy crisis this winter.
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.
Programme Yarrow prepares for a situation more severe than that outlined by National Grid last month, which warned of three-hour rolling blackouts.
The plans envisage that 60% of electricity demand will be met ‘between day 2 and day 7’ when households and businesses will be given ‘intermittent access’ to ration supply. Households businesses will be given 24 hours’ notice of a planned outage, and the plan could be published up to a week ahead on a rolling basis.
Ministers have ‘war gamed’ emergency plans to cope with week-long blackouts this winter (stock image)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Downing Street. 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
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
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 ‘rota disconnection plan’ is designed to cut power evenly across the country, according to documents seen by The Guardian. The power cuts should initially only take place once a day for three hours, although it could take up to an hour to reconnect after that – though the frequency of cuts will depend on the severity of the crisis.
And under Programme Yarrow’s worst-case scenario, only analogue FM radios would work, with just BBC Radio 2 and 4 broadcasting.
One Whitehall source told the paper: ‘We need to think about how we can help people in advance. The fact they’re talking about it now means they have a real concern it could happen.’
A Government spokesperson said: ‘As a responsible government, it is right that we plan for all potential scenarios and work with industry to prepare and exercise robust contingency plans. This work is ongoing continuously and is an important strand of our national resilience planning.
‘Local and national exercises are a part of this ongoing work and ensure we are able to effectively respond to any of a wide range of scenarios, no matter how unlikely they may be.’
Last month the National Grid had warned that Britain faces blackouts this winter if Russia shuts off gas supplies to Europe and a cold winter hits.
In what it called an ‘unlikely’ scenario, the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) said that households and businesses might face planned three-hour outages to ensure that the grid does not collapse.
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.
It comes as Britons are being told to brace for blackouts this winter if energy supplies run low – while weather experts warn of the potential for a colder-than-usual winter.
UK energy bosses warn short rolling power cuts are a possibility this winter, as Putin’s tactical tightening of gas pipelines in Europe starts to bite.
The warning comes from John Pettigrew, the boss of the National Grid, who also believes British households will find the upcoming winter ‘financially very, very hard’.
In one sign of hope, Mr Pettigrew attempted to calm fears the UK could run out of gas and electricity this winter.
He said it was the National Grid’s ‘base case’ assumption was that the UK would have enough energy supplies to meet heating and lighting demand this winter.
But he added that short rolling power cuts were a possibility. Speaking to the BBC, he said: ‘There could be energy shortfalls in the UK and we will manage that very carefully.’
However he said it was ‘not time for people to panic’, adding: ‘What we’re doing is making sure that the infrastructure that we have and the networks are robust and ready for the winter, and I’ve got thousands of engineers making sure that the network is ready for whatever weather we see over the winter.’
Mr Pettigrew said the National Grid was working on a number of emergency plans to protect the UK against an energy shortfall from Europe.
Gas supplies had already been disrupted post-Covid lockdowns, as countries battled to resupply for the big restart, leading to a huge increase demand and subsequently prices.
And this has been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with gas supplies from Russia being limited to Europe.
Although the UK gets much of its gas from other countries, and gets nearly 40 per cent of its energy from gas, it is still impacted by the disruption to the European energy price market.
Mr Pettigrew told the BBC that one emergency option to help power Britain this winter if fuel supplies drop is to restart mothballed coal-fired power stations.
The Met Office also warns of a higher possibility of a slightly calmer winter in terms of wind – also by around 1.3 times
Mr Pettigrew told the BBC that one emergency option to help power Britain this winter if fuel supplies drop is to restart mothballed coal-fired power stations. Pictured: Library image of a coal fired power station in Lincolnshire
The UK is already looking at delaying the closure of part of a coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire due to fears about energy.
Mr Pettigrew added: ‘The next step would be to pay households and businesses to reduce consumption during peak times, with short rolling regional outages a last resort.
‘If we saw that shortfall coming, the most effective way to manage the rest of the network is to ask the distribution companies to reduce demand and they would do that over that rolling period of around 4 to 7pm.’
It comes as the Met Office has published its latest three-month long forecast – which covers this month, December and January.
The Met Office warns that the chance of a colder three month period overall is ‘slightly greater than normal’ – by around 1.3 times.
It means there is a 60 per cent chance of a normal winter, a 25 per cent chance of a cold winter and a 15 per cent chance of a mild winter.
The Met Office also warns of a higher possibility of a slightly calmer winter in terms of wind – also by around 1.3 times.
A calmer winter in terms of wind could impact on the ability to fill energy shortfalls with extra wind power capacity.
The prediction comes from the Met Office’s three-month forecast, which is used for emergency planning.
The forecast itself does not look at day to day weather or spells, but at the weather overall over three month period.
According to the Met Office, its prediction of a higher possibility of a slightly colder winter comes from its tracking of global weather patterns, including El Nina.
It says the weather phenomenon this year could bring colder spells, particularly when combined with other long term patterns over the Indian Ocean.