People in England, Scotland and Wales are bracing for the possibility of power outages this winter after a warning from National Grid on Thursday. The electricity and gas system operator has said households could face a series of three-hour blackouts if Vladimir Putin cuts off gas from Russia and Britain experiences a cold snap akin to the “beast from the east” of 2018.
While National Grid has labeled the scenario “unlikely,” the contingency plan has evoked memories of continued power outages in the 1970s and portrayed the process by which people are cut off.
What is rotational decoupling?
The system of rotating disconnection, or rotating load-shedding, is designed to equally distribute the available power in a country or region through strategic shutdowns. In Britain, consumers in various parts of the country would be informed a day in advance of a three-hour period during which they would lose power. Households in different areas would then be shut down at different times or days, with the frequency increasing depending on the severity of the supply shortage. The process is legislated under the Electricity Supply Emergency Code.
How would it work?
There are 14 licensed areas of the country; within these there are smaller areas on different circuits with a timetable for cutoffs. The goal is to reduce power consumption by about 5% through the three-hour interruptions. Consumers are usually notified via text message, similar to when there is a planned outage for maintenance work. An emergency education campaign by National Grid and the government would be deployed on radio, billboards and social media platforms to encourage people to use less energy. So far, Liz Truss has not heeded calls to ask people to use less energy.
What must be done to introduce cutoffs?
The basic principle in the energy sector is to prevent nuisance for consumers as long as it is safe to do so. With this in mind, the corporate department spent months discussing usage with companies, including major power-hungry manufacturers, about how to change their shifts outside times of peak demand. Households are now getting involved, too, through a new “demand flexibility service” that encourages consumers not to turn on devices when demand is high, such as during the early evenings.
However, if demand continues to stretch after this intervention and standby coal-fired power plants are up and running, consumers may begin to experience “brownouts”, where electrical voltage drops. For households, this means that lamps may flicker more. At that point, rotational decoupling could be applied.
Why would the king be involved?
The secretive legislation shows that the process cannot be carried out until the monarch gives his approval. An order in council would have to be approved by King Charles, on the advice of his secret council, upon a recommendation from the company secretary.
Who would get priority?
Businesses can request the status of a secure site to avoid disconnection. Certain manufacturers, such as steel mills where coal-fired blast furnaces run constantly, are already exempt if three-hour shutdowns would cause “significant financial damage”. Other designated locations with exemptions include hospitals, oil refineries, gas terminals, electricity generators, water treatment plants, military bases, and telecom sites. Transport would also be supported so that airports, railways and ports can run smoothly.