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Market failures could see Britain suffering five-day power cuts

March 14, 2019

By Paul Homewood



A worrying analysis from David Watson, a chartered electrical engineer:



Today’s electricity infrastructure, driven by commercial forces, will find it hard to cope when things go seriously wrong

Even in industrialised nations in the 21st century, the sort of electricity-grid system failure that’s been seen in parts of Australia in recent years is not uncommon. In the UK, the risk of total blackout or significant partial shutdown of the transmission network is increasing.

The rise in renewables is making failure more probable. Wind farm growth creates frequency-management issues arising from reduced system inertia, while declining network strength can cause longer, stability-risking, fault-clearance times. Then there are the challenges to match supply to demand following sudden variations in wind generation and the reduced one-hour notice of input variations from European interconnectors. Other risk factors include grid substation failure, lightning or overhead line faults and cyber attack.

For grid recovery following widespread collapse, a process known as ‘black starting’ is deployed where the UK is split into different areas. Being able to rapidly black-start the country is a public health priority and, rightly, a public expectation, but in Scotland, and probably London, it is unrealisable; it would take several days to re-establish networks. So serious has the issue become that I understand it has attracted the attention of the government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee.

Professional expectation for Scotland to black-start has now, I’ve been told, risen to five days, largely as a result of large-scale, dispatchable, on-demand generation being replaced with intermittent distributed renewables. London has experienced a similar progressive local reduction and will also take longer to recharge since much of its high-voltage grid uses cable and not overhead line transmission.

The Scottish Black Start Restoration Working Group reviewed its procedures in September 2018. These are based on local joint restoration plans that would see transmission operators powering up and stabilising local transmission islands, which would then have to be synchronised and progressively interconnected.

The group’s report warns that, following the 2016 closure of the Longannet coal-fired power station in Fife, there would be ‘severe delays’ to restoration. Peterhead gas-fired station, now Scotland’s only high-powered and high-inertia (essential to stabilise frequency) dispatchable power station, is seeking planning permission to install 31 diesel generators, capable of full power for seven days, to secure its restart. However, it has only half the capacity of Longannet and couldn’t restart all of Scotland without input from the pumped-storage capacity at Cruachan and Foyers and, crucially, from England, which arrangement is untested.

Nor would wind farms be able to black-start the grid. Main generator types in use need external power to start generating; some more recent designs are self-starting, but connecting to a dead grid via long offshore AC cable interconnections remains an unsolved problem as the turbines cannot provide enough reactive power to recharge what are, in effect, large capacitors. In any case, they wouldn’t be able to meet National Grid requirements for block loading, grid voltage or frequency control.

The first local joint grid-restoration activity is to disconnect all offshore generation. Onshore wind farms can be progressively reintroduced once the grid has been re-established, but only providing they are not frozen and there is wind. As with all nuclear stations, Scotland’s Hunterston and Torness could only be reconnected into a stable grid, this taking several days.

The new £2.4bn HVDC interlinks from Wales to the Hunterston area and from Moray Firth to Spittal have not been engineered to support black start as they do not include the latest voltage source converter (VSC) technology and cannot commutate into a dead network. Scotland is now literally at the end of the line and critical restart power would arrive only once the north of England grid had been re-established. Similarly, for London, the two HVDC interconnector links to France and the Netherlands cannot support black start.

National Grid confirmed in 2016 that the restoration strategy “must be adjusted” as “system strength and the number of black-start providers declines” and that black-start costs are “anticipated to increase by a 7-10 factor” over the next 10 years. While, like Ofgem, it favours the provision of up to seven new VSC interconnectors between Britain and the European mainland, these are not yet built and power availability from them would depend on market conditions. The UK is a net importer of electricity. And then there is Brexit…

The situation is clearly untenable. It exemplifies the need for proper governance of the UK electricity system to replace the present disparate, profit-driven weakening of the grid that ‘the market’ has caused.

Several of the engineering institutions are advocating change, including the IET, the IMechE and the Institution of Engineers in Scotland. We need to be heard.


The only thing I would take issue with is his claim that the problem lies with commercial forces.

In fact the opposite is the case. It is government interference in the market which is responsible for the explosion of intermittent wind power.

  1. Neil Mahony permalink
    March 14, 2019 4:30 pm

    Solution is easy. Mandate a standby generating plant for every wind or solar farm built. Mandate that it come on line instantly.

    • Joe Public permalink
      March 14, 2019 4:55 pm

      In other words, heed Professor Dieter Helm’s Key Findings and Recommendations #7 in his ‘Cost of Energy Review’ and implement a single Equivalent Firm Power (EFP) auction to better reflect costs associated with intermittency.

      Click to access Cost_of_Energy_Review.pdf

  2. John F. Hultquist permalink
    March 14, 2019 4:49 pm

    Mr. Watson says: “driven by commercial forces,”
    Paul says: “government interference in the market”

    Seems to me there is a bit of overlap between individual members of the UK government and those commercial forces.
    Perhaps that needs to get sorted out before much can be done about “going dark”, in the first place, and in the second place, getting a “black start” possible and shortened.

    We live where there are many big dams. So far there has not been enough unreliable power installed for your kind of issues to develop. We still have an occasional tree or drunk take out a line. Those get fixed in under 4 hours.

    • Curious George permalink
      March 15, 2019 3:19 pm

      Is the Venezuela power grid driven by commercial forces?

  3. March 14, 2019 4:56 pm

    There is no electricity market since the Government introduced subsidies for renewable energy generators. If there were a market, there would be coal and gas-fired power stations and no intermittent renewable generators, and thus there would be no problems.

  4. Chilli permalink
    March 14, 2019 5:02 pm

    > It exemplifies the need for proper governance of the UK electricity system
    > to replace the present disparate, profit-driven weakening of the grid that
    > ‘the market’ has caused.

    The weakening of the grid is entirely down to government obsession with subsidising non-solutions to the non-problem of non-existent man-made global warming. If energy generation was left to competitive market forces we’d be running on reliable coal and gas and paying half as much.

    > Several of the engineering institutions are advocating change, including the IET…
    > We need to be heard.

    In my experience the IET are among the worst climate alarmists and renewables shills – a complete dereliction of their professional responsibility to provide government with sound evidence-based engineering advice.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      March 14, 2019 7:41 pm

      Couldn’t agree more, Chilli. E&T reads like a technical supplement from the Guardian most months – full of complete drivel, an embarrassment to a real learned society. It says a lot that the best feature was a spoof column about a son of engineering parents. I quit at the end of last year and moved my Engineering Council registration to the IHE.

  5. Joe Public permalink
    March 14, 2019 5:04 pm

    Should Scotland suffer a prolonged blackout due to its overabundance of turbines being incapable of black-start, sassenachs south of the border would need to subdue senses of schadenfreude aimed squarely at windmills’ proponents, Greens and their tame politicians.

    • Nick Dekker permalink
      March 15, 2019 10:16 pm

      It is Westminster/Ofgem/National Grid who are in charge of all this in Scotland. How often have you to told this?

  6. March 14, 2019 5:55 pm

    For starters dump the Climate Change Act. It is a large spanner in the cogs of government.

  7. Athelstan. permalink
    March 14, 2019 7:11 pm

    no need to panic!

    In an act of supreme and arrogant idiocy, phil the spreader of sheets has deemed it that from 2025, in his infinite wisdom in new build housing gas fired CH and domestic cookers will be banned………….it’s gonna make all the difference1 SAVE the POLAR BEARS! by killing the British consumer and taxpayers!! WAY to go Phil!

    …………. and the law of unintended consequences – are you listening phil – no one is going to want a new house wiv no gas CH, Aye, ye twerps civil servants green loons and blockhead government ministers – it’s a recipe for disaster and phil is a walking catastrophe, as are all of the cabinet goons.

    • March 14, 2019 7:18 pm

      Hopefully just a consultation, until after the next election.

      • Gerry, England permalink
        March 14, 2019 7:45 pm

        I have seen some responses pointing out how many more power stations will be needed to supply the electric heating – assuming that people can afford it. At the moment gas will be supplied for cooking so it would be possible to fit gas water heating and CH later.

    • keith permalink
      March 14, 2019 8:11 pm

      Don’t expect the goons in the Business and Energy Departments, i.e. Clarke and Perry to listen to any of the aspects raised in this article. They will just continue blindly going on with their windmills and closing coal stations until everything shuts down. They don’t have the brains over Brexit so they certainly don’t have the brains to comprehend these issues.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 14, 2019 11:25 pm

      In order to be able to guarantee power supply when it’s most needed, there will need to be a lot more reliable capacity. That will likely be gas CCGT, which is at best about 60% efficient , but only 45% when used intermittently. Gas boilers are by law 95% efficient. So electricity will see more gas used to provide the same heat. This applies most particularly when it’s cold, and the fancy heat pumps no longer work effectively.

  8. Gamecock permalink
    March 14, 2019 7:15 pm

    Exactly, Paul. That is the comment I was going to make. Massive government meddling with the marketplace, and when it blows up, it is the marketplace’s fault.

  9. March 14, 2019 7:15 pm

    I think that two different types of fundamentalism are to blame, the “green” variety, but also the blind attachment to “free markets”. Some top-down central planning constraints are surely needed, to ensure system stability, and diversity of fuel types, but there is fat chance of this happening, as the govt simply panders to the vested interests of both sets of fundamentalists.

    • Chilli permalink
      March 14, 2019 9:48 pm

      In what way is the energy market ‘free’? Some green civil servant is dictating every decision the companies make – from the cost of the green indulgencies they must pay for their CO2 sins, to their customer tariffs to the proportion of logs they must burn from clear-cut ancient US forests. It’s all decided by politicans on the basis of competitive virtue signalling.

  10. David Porter permalink
    March 14, 2019 7:16 pm

    The electricity market is driven far more by what politicians want than by what the paying customers want. The ‘commercial forces’ have simply been responding to government, almost as a surrogate customer. But, the inducements – put in place by government and paid for by customers – have caused such imbalance in the market that virtually no electricity production can now be built without government support of some kind. So, it is likely that even bigger doses of government intervention will be proposed to fix the problem and, incidentally, the dreadful complexity, referred to in Dieter Helm’s review, will get even worse.

  11. Dave Ward permalink
    March 14, 2019 7:32 pm

    “So serious has the issue become that I understand it has attracted the attention of the government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee”

    So, FINALLY, it seems that the sheer folly of “our” rush to de-carbonise has reached the top! Of course, with the utter cock-up parliament have made of Brexit, it’s debatable whether any action will be taken in time…

    • keith permalink
      March 14, 2019 8:15 pm

      Well they certainly ignored Helm, so should we expect any change. I don’t think so. Our current politicians are very low grade.

  12. HotScot permalink
    March 14, 2019 8:14 pm

    The house I’m intending building for retirement will have the mother of all diesel generators as the first planning objective.

  13. HotScot permalink
    March 14, 2019 8:16 pm

    The hose I’m planning to build for retirement will have the mother of all diesel generators as a planning imperative.

    And if this post appears twice, it’s Word Presses fault!

    • HotScot permalink
      March 14, 2019 8:16 pm

      House! Dammit!

      • Joe Public permalink
        March 14, 2019 10:44 pm

        You got it right first time!

        Then you pushed your luck. 😉

    • March 15, 2019 12:06 am

      Scot, How about one of thes
      (the one I saw was about the size of a washing machine & very quiet).
      The micro CHP can be fired using a wide range of fuels including natural gas, propane, heating oil and biogas

  14. MrGrimNasty permalink
    March 14, 2019 8:29 pm

    The local news had an article on the first lamp post charger being installed in Portsmouth (with other people’s money).

    When you see this in reality the ludicrous impracticality really smacks you in the face.

    Crowded on street parking becomes less efficient, as any bays with a charging point have to be left clear. If a car is plugged in there is a cable half in the air, half snaking/coiled all over the pavement and road – just asking to be yanked by kids or subjected to malicious petty vandalism, being chewed by a fox, and tripping up pedestrians.

    It is bonkers.

    • Dave Ward permalink
      March 14, 2019 9:27 pm

      “And tripping up pedestrians”

      It’ll only take the “No Win, No Fee” lawyers & a “Compensayshun” claim, and the whole idea of on street charging will go out the window.

      • Emrys Jones permalink
        March 14, 2019 9:49 pm

        Local Authorities don’t pay claims for ‘un-even pavements’ unless it is more than 3 inches.

    • Gamecock permalink
      March 14, 2019 10:53 pm

      Vandelism is likely. If there are more electric cars than charges, people will take steps to discourage other users. Sratched paint, flattened tires. To start.

      • spetzer86 permalink
        March 15, 2019 3:54 pm

        Think of the copper in that there extension cord.

      • Gerry, England permalink
        March 16, 2019 4:41 pm

        When I saw a virtue signaller plugging in on the Brighton seafront, I thought what fun to wait until the moron had gone and unplug it.

      • GeoffM permalink
        March 16, 2019 5:24 pm

        Already happened in 2018 in Aberlour; a Cadbury’s cream egg was stuffed in the socket; took 3 months to fix and £800.

  15. sarastro92 permalink
    March 14, 2019 9:48 pm

    How else can a society learn anything without a little pain?

    • March 14, 2019 10:20 pm

      A few half hour blackouts would concentrate minds. Five days without power would lead to anarchy in the cities.

      • sarastro92 permalink
        March 15, 2019 4:17 am

        But that would be a definitive object lesson for the rest of the world, no? A small sacrifice I’d say… when reason and science don’t work let nature take its course.

      • GeoffM permalink
        March 16, 2019 5:29 pm

        The powers that be will never admit that the black out was caused by renewables, and the apathetic population will believe. And when the winds arrived again from the west it would be portrayed as “coming to the rescue”. The solution would be to build more windfarms.

  16. March 15, 2019 7:58 am

    Reblogged this on Wolsten and commented:
    At the same time as politicians are betraying the biggest democratic vote in our history, they have manipulated the energy market to breaking point. It’s difficult to see how we wouldn’t be better off without the lot of them.

  17. Malcolm Bell permalink
    March 15, 2019 8:14 am

    What a fabulous paper. I thought I had s grasp on the electricity situation. This is far worse than I knew.

  18. Coeur de Lion permalink
    March 15, 2019 9:49 am

    When we changed our electric cooker we found a little mouse fritzed between the terminals. Is there somewhere on the impending grid catastrophe that we can fix the dubious Lord Gummer to ponder his error before fritzment?

    • GeoffM permalink
      March 16, 2019 5:30 pm

      Tie them all to a wind turbine blade tip.

  19. Carbon500 permalink
    March 15, 2019 11:56 am

    It’s high time that the supply of our energy needs was left to the engineering profession, and not subject to the whims of ill-informed politicians, second-rate ‘climate scientists’ and all the other doomsday purveyors.
    Reliable energy is paramount, and if that means fossil fuel or nuclear sources, then so be it.
    This concerns me far more than fantasy predictions of climatic Armageddon based on trivial fraction of a degree temperature changes and all the other nonsense – millimetre changes in supposed global sea level, ocean acidification and all the other garbage we are endlessly subjected to.

  20. Gerry,England permalink
    March 15, 2019 1:58 pm

    Meanwhile, Jo Nova has a great piece on how well nationalisation of their electricity generation is working out. It is 6 days and counting but in the excellent contribution on how to restart black grids it suggests it will be 3 to 6 MONTHS before it is back up. Good to see what Corbyn’s anti-semites have in store for us.

    • It doesn't add up... permalink
      March 15, 2019 9:10 pm

      I read a Spanish language article that reported extensively on a press conference given by the president of AVIEM, the Venezuelan professional society for electrical engineers. He explained that only 2.5GW out of 16GW of thermal power stations were even potentially operational, and that many were having difficulty with supply of fuel from PdVSA. He also pointed out that the 765kV transmission line from the Guri hydro dam which supplies 70% of the nation’s power had suffered a fire from being overloaded that was the cause of the blackout. He thought that Corpoelec no longer had the engineers who knew how to fix it. Presumably Maduro flew in Russians or Chinese. He pointed out that the Venezuelan system is antiquated, and analogue, so the idea that the grid was brought down by hacking he regarded as fanciful.

      Power has allegedly been restored to much of the country, but doubtless it remains intermittent in order to share out the available capacity. The legacy is deaths and extensive looting.

  21. Daz permalink
    March 15, 2019 2:20 pm

    The simplest way is to change the contract length , contract wind farms / solar farms to supply a set ammount of electricity for a twenty four hour period with penalties if they fail to fulfill the contract , FORCE the renewable energy generators to ballance their supply against the vagaries of the weather making them invest in pumped storage / batteries / whatever to fulfill the contract period

  22. Dave Ward permalink
    March 15, 2019 2:34 pm

    It’s not just going for days without power – bad as that maybe. It’s how long it would take for “normal service” to resume afterwards. Without electricity garages can’t sell fuel (even what they already have in their tanks), and all bets would be off as to how national distribution would continue to operate (or not…). I doubt that any of our hospitals, or telecommunication & internet data centres have more than a weeks worth of fuel, so even if they do manage to get through it could be a long time before they get new supplies. So much of our economy operates on the “Just In Time” principle that even a 24 hour national blackout would be enough to cause significant problems. After a weeks loss of power, it would take a month (minimum) to get things back to where they were before.

    I’ll post this link again for anyone who hasn’t seen it:

    • Stuart Brown permalink
      March 15, 2019 3:11 pm

      Dave, interesting read, thank you. One quote struck me:

      ‘Lancaster’s diesel-powered bus service was sufficiently resilient to survive for several days without an electricity supply and the management approach was to keep the service going. It is unlikely that a fleet powered by electricity or hydrogen would have been quite so resilient.’

      Given that some of the buses were refuelled with hand pumps by torchlight, I’d say that’s a certainty.

  23. roger permalink
    March 15, 2019 3:52 pm

    Meanwhile the children are revolting and protesting in Scotland with one of the participants in Glasgow offering us this beauty
    ‘ Glasgow University student Marianne Mylchreest told the Press Association the weather proved action was needed.

    The 20-year-old said: “It was sunny five minutes ago and now it’s raining. If that doesn’t tell you something has to be done I don’t know what will. We’re in Scotland but that’s insane.’

    Not much chance of her ever earning enough to repay the grant monies that pay for her education.
    In further news there will no doubt be those of equal low intellect who will assert that uni is free in Scotland.

    • Dave Ward permalink
      March 15, 2019 8:02 pm

      “The children are revolting”

      Damn right they are. The little sh**s don’t seem bothered about trashing other peoples environment: (H/T Guido)

      Why should us “Horrible Oldies” be concerned about the environment, if that’s how the future custodians behave?

  24. rah permalink
    March 15, 2019 6:04 pm

    How much of Britain gets it heat from NG? Can you say “Stand By Generator”? That is what I’m going to do here in Indiana. NG powered diesel Stand By for the whole house. For me it’s not because I foresee a problem with the Grid in my area coming. It is just that I’m near the end of the line in a semi rural area and we lose power two or three times a year for one reason or another and I’m tired of it.

    • Dave Ward permalink
      March 15, 2019 6:31 pm

      “How much of Britain gets its heat from NG?”

      I would guess that around 75% of homes are heated by gas, and generally only rural properties (not on the mains gas network) have to use electricity, oil, LPG or solid fuels/wood. One of Paul’s previous posts covered “Peak Demand For Natural Gas”:

      “As the graph illustrates, whilst electricity demand currently peaks at around 50GW, gas demand frequently peaks at over 300GW”

      • rah permalink
        March 15, 2019 6:38 pm

        Thanks. I noticed the “guess” that NG would probably be priced out of the range for the average household if things keep going they way they are. They really are going to kill a bunch of people if that is the case.

    • March 15, 2019 10:22 pm

      I would say most get heating from gas.Domestic accounts for 60% of overall gas consumption

      • rah permalink
        March 16, 2019 3:09 pm

        NG fueled diesel. Knew someone would pick up on that. Feel better now?

    • Gamecock permalink
      March 16, 2019 12:49 pm

      “NG powered diesel” ???

  25. Sylvia permalink
    March 16, 2019 11:06 am

    We are steadily going backwards into the dark ages and despite all our “technology we cannot keep the lights on with any certainty !! Welcome to 1794.

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