Are we prepared for a blackout?

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    A new report asks: what would happen if the whole of the UK was plunged into darkness by a nationwide electricity blackout?

    A new report explores the likelihood of a nationwide electricity grid failure in the UK. In June, this year, a massive power failure across virtually all of Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay left nearly 50 million people without electricity. The Blackout Report, an investigation by Riello UPS, reveals that official government risk assessments state there is a 1-in-200 chance of the UK power grid experiencing a similar complete shutdown in the next five years.

    The report explores the most likely causes of such an incident, from the increased threat of extreme weather including flooding or gales knocking out the network infrastructure, to terrorism, industrial accidents, and geomagnetic space weather storms that play havoc with satellite systems.

    For example, the Committee on Climate Change predicts the number of faults on the electricity transmission and distribution network caused by lightning alone could rise by 36% by the 2080s (Committee on Climate Change, 2017).

    The Blackout Report also considers whether the shift towards ‘smart’ energy grids is heightening our vulnerability to cyber-attacks. In 2015, Russian hackers shut down 30 substations in Ukraine, leaving 250,000 people without electricity. 

    In fact, state-sponsored hackers are said to have already infiltrated the UK grid on 8 June, 2017 – the day of the General Election – while there are growing fears of an escalating ‘Cyber Cold War’ where countries including the US insert high-grade malware inside energy networks that could be used to turn off entire electricity supplies at a moment’s notice.

     The report comments that the UK’s power supply has been concentrated in a relatively small number of large-scale power plants. These old-style power stations have strong physical security, use strict industry protocols and do not tend to be connected to many outside networks, making them difficult for even experienced hackers to compromise.

    This means that most attempts to penetrate the grid’s defences are likely to take place further down the supply chain – the various generation, transmission and distribution systems where defences might be easier to breach.

    The report states: “Our ongoing shift towards renewables-led, decentralised smart grids, combined with an increasingly internet-driven way of life, unquestionably offers potential hackers more opportunities to try and expose any vulnerabilities.”

    Despite the highlighted risks, the report points out that only about half of UK organisations (54%) are confident that they have an up-to-date business continuity plan that they can fall back on if the worst was to happen. 

    The Blackout Report goes on to examine the process for rebooting the electricity network if a complete system failure ever occurs. Known as a ‘Black Start’, worst-case contingency planning is that it could take up to seven days for power to be fully restored. 

    Such an incident is likely to be accompanied by rota disconnections, which basically ration power by cutting off electricity for blocks of three hours at a time. This was last seen on a widescale basis in the UK back in the 1970s, notably during the infamous ‘Three-Day Week’. 

    The report also investigates the catastrophic consequences of a world without power: mobile phone coverage lost within a couple of hours; transport systems grinding to a halt; hospitals and care homes overwhelmed as electrical devices stop working; and businesses crippled as electronic payment systems go offline. It highlights the well-known MI5 mantra that the UK is only ever “four meals away from anarchy” and predicts law and order would quickly break down as panic spreads.

    Leo Craig, Riello

    Riello UPS general manager Leo Craig comments: “We’ve never been as reliant on the internet and interconnectivity, but without the electricity to power this digital world, our whole way of life falls apart at the seams. 

    “Many will look at the recent blackout across South America and think ‘that could never happen here’. It’s not necessarily complacency, more perhaps the belief that our infrastructure is more robust and that we’ve committed enough resource towards planning for the worst. 

    The Blackout Report investigates whether these assumptions are true. By thinking the unthinkable, it also poses some critical questions for the government, the power industry and wider society, such as whether we’re truly prepared for the ever-changing threats to our electricity supply.” l

    Download the Blackout Report at www.theblackoutreport.co.uk

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