Britain’s blackout warnings ‘do not reflect reality’

Headlines warning that the lights will go out thanks to power station closures and the increasing use of renewable energy are 'largely unfounded', a new report from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has claimed.

The report analysed statistics and trends in power outages in the past decade and found only one known example of a UK power cut related to problems with generation.

It pointed out that the experience of other countries shows that increasing use of renewables does not necessarily mean greater risk of power cuts going forward.

Dr Robert Gross, director of the Centre for Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College London, said: “Concerns that increasing use of renewable energy will undermine security of supply in the UK simply don’t reflect reality.

“The experience of countries like Denmark and Germany, where renewables deployment is much higher than in the UK, shows that as long as policies are in place to support appropriate investment the UK can have reliable networks.

“We need to understand that power networks are moving towards increasingly decentralised, flexible systems and that demand response, interconnectors and storage will play an important role as key components of tomorrow’s energy mix.”

Crying wolf

The analysis comes ahead of National Grid’s Winter Outlook report, which will set out measures to ensure security of supply in the UK.

The ECIU said that mainstream UK newspapers have carried nearly 500 articles over the last decade warning that the lights would go out imminently – which has not matched reality. 

“This analysis shows that generation-related outages are vanishingly rare – almost all power cuts are down to issues with distribution of power, not generation,” said ECIU director Richard Black. “So the persistence of the ‘Blackout Britain’ story during a decade without blackouts raises questions – notably, whether journalism is at times allowing itself to be played.

 “We need to have a serious conversation about security of supply, but it also needs to involve the other objectives of energy policy – keeping bills down and reducing carbon emissions – and 10 years of crying ‘wolf’ on power cuts has probably served only to confuse the public who will be entirely aware that their lights have stayed on.”

The forthcoming winter is expected to see especially tight capacity margins thanks to the recent closure of three coal-fired power stations, but the ECIU said the National Grid had a range of tools to keep the lights on, including retaining one or more of the coal plants as backup, and bringing mothballed gas-fired power stations back into service.

Brad Allen

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