The great blackout of 2019


Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in recent weeks, taking an extended pre-Brexit continental summer holiday or live in a self-sustaining off-grid community, you can’t have missed the recent blackout that affected 1.1 million properties, stranded trains and countless more commuters during Friday rush hour.

Unsurprisingly, the finger-pointing began almost immediately.  National Grid had three blackout ‘near-misses’ in 3 months and had been aware of this risk “for years”.  The Distribution Network Operators who own the cables that bring power to our homes and businesses had made poor decisions about cutting off hospitals and airports.  The train manufacturers had not delivered trains that were resilient to blackouts.  And so on.

John Pettigrew, National Grid’s Chief Executive defended their response on LinkedIn, saying “there is never a good time for a power cut”.  Many agree.

Speculation over the cause has been rife.  Was it the increasing proportion of renewable energy supply into our grid?  Is the grid resilient enough?  Was it a cyber-attack?  Or simply a coincidence?

The reality is probably much more boring.  In their interim technical report, National Grid ESO have confirmed that lightning struck the grid north of London, potentially triggering the safety systems of two power stations to independently go offline.  As the supply of electricity reduced, the frequency of the grid (a measure of the stability of our electricity system) dropped.  A cascade of pre-programmed decisions were made by national safety systems, cutting-off supply to around 5% of the national demand.  Battery storage was requested to release its energy at maximum to make-up for the gap.  The Grid was restored fairly quickly but the systems and properties reliant on it took much longer to bounce back.

It’ll take about 3 months to get the full picture of what exactly happened.  Questions will be asked about the linkage between the 2 power stations going offline.  National Grid will need to re-evaluate whether it needs to have more rapid-response emergency supply to counter-act future incidents like this.  Ipswich hospital, Newcastle Airport, Transport for London and others will no-doubt be examining their business resilience plans to see why their users were plunged into darkness.

At the end of the day, when all is said and done, people will want to know what our Government and the organisations it uses will do to ensure that the lights stay on as the level of low-carbon generation in our country continues to grow with the well-documented variability that comes from wind and sun.

But perhaps there is an alternative view that challenges this traditional analysis?

What if the country becomes reliant on multiple small-scale generators on household roofs and in business parks?  What if the growth of distributed energy sources continues and eventually all major power stations shut?  Does this eliminate these single (or double!) points of failure and spread the risk more evenly?  What if every electric vehicle can act as a mobile storage solution that can charge when there is power available but also release its energy if or when the grid needs, as the battery storage did in early August, balancing and securing our national infrastructure.

The E-flex project is looking to explore exactly this last question.  Electric Vehicles will remain primarily for transportation but cars spend nearly 95% of their lifetime stationary.  When they are plugged in, they can charge when there is spare electricity or discharge when there is a need for more.  We are exploring how this can save costs for fleets up and down the country, but there are potential ways to earn money by being paid to be available when the next blackout looms, as well as providing power for your property if the grid does go down.

Just 190,000 EVs connected to an E-flex charger could have provided all the power needed to prevent the blackout 2 weeks ago.  That might sound like a lot but it’s under 1% of all cars in the UK and around double the number of EVs on our roads today.

Find out more about how E-Flex is preparing to power tomorrow here.