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Could there be blackouts?

Could there be blackouts?

Prices have been frozen but Britain could still experience energy shortages. How likely is it that we’ll see blackouts this winter?

“We are limiting the use of electricity by almost all factories, shops and offices to three days a week.”

Ted Heath, UK Prime Minister 1970-1974

The Three Day Week. In a different context it might sound appealing. But back in 1974 they weren’t too happy about it. 

That was the last time Britain experienced organised blackouts. Strikes by coal miners and railway workers meant that not enough electricity was being generated to keep the power on.

Businesses were ordered to limit electricity use to three consecutive days. Essential services, such as hospitals, supermarkets and newspaper printers, were exempt. The restrictions lasted for 66 days.

Now, Britain’s facing another energy crisis and with it, the prospect of the lights going off this winter.

“A perfect storm of cold weather and gas shortages could lead to the necessity of organised blackouts.”

TalkTV

Under the government’s latest “reasonable worst-case scenario” officials say that the UK could experience four days of intermittent power. But that’s dependent on several things not going our way.

One is the weather. Here’s David Jenkins, an energy expert at Heriot Watt University:

“If we have a very cold winter, with generally very low wind speeds, and then we have the escalation of problems in Russia, it’s the combination of all these factors. And that’s why it’s so difficult to predict.”

Professor David Jenkins, Heriot Watt University

A cold winter would strain gas supplies because 80 per cent of UK homes are heated using the fuel, while a lack of wind would mean less of Britain’s power is generated from renewables. That would mean burning even more gas to generate enough electricity. A problem is gas supplies are limited. 

The other factor is Europe. Throughout this year the UK has been shipping record amounts of gas to the continent on the understanding that countries will return the favour when it starts to get cold.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has kicked off an intense, worldwide competition for natural gas shipments, and some countries, for example Norway, are already looking at ways to limit power exports this winter.

it’s important to say though, that even if we have an extreme winter, complete blackouts aren’t expected. Here’s Professor Jim Watson, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources:

“They may need to do some kind of what they call demand management. It might be certain customers or certain areas, probably industry first, rather than households, that would be asked to reduce their demand. But the idea of a blackout where nobody has electricity, I think would be very, very unlikely.”

Professor Jim Watson, University College London

In other words, any blackouts would likely be organised, not random. The government would have to decide who gets energy, and when. And industry would probably be forced to take a hit.

It’s yet another item on the new prime minister’s list of problems.

And experts say that Liz Truss’s decision to freeze everyone’s energy bills could make blackouts more likely.

That’s because some people will be less likely to reduce their energy use, because they know their bills will be fixed once they reach a certain amount. And that could mean more shortages.

So what more can the government do?

***

During her campaign to become Conservative Party leader Liz Truss said she was against the idea of energy rationing in the UK this winter.

Here she is at a hustings hosted by LBC presenter Nick Ferrari:

Nick Ferrari: “You’ll be aware in France they’ve talked about the possibility of energy rationing, can you rule that out Liz Truss?”

Liz Truss: “I do rule that out, yes.”

Conservative leadership hustings

But in recent days, there are rumours that she has started drawing up plans for a public information campaign to encourage people to save energy.

Reducing consumption at peak times – typically from 4pm to 7pm – could mean asking people to turn down their thermostats or do their washing overnight. Just like it did in the 1970s, the government would be asking people to conserve what they can.

“You can get by with less. Switch off some power. Now.”

Government public information announcement, 1973

For ministers in Liz Truss’s government – many of whom are deeply wedded to the idea that the state shouldn’t interfere in people’s lives – it’s a big change.

But they may have no choice. In Europe, they’re already rolling out energy saving plans: the city of Cologne is dimming street lights by 30 per cent at night. In Normandy, schools are heating classrooms by burning wood in order to avoid using natural gas. 

Britain, if it wants to avoid that “worst case scenario” of four days without power, needs to do something similar.

Even if it means this government sacrificing ideology for energy.

Today’s episode was written by Barney Macintyre and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.