Blackouts warning as experienced staff resign

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The Independent Online

London could suffer a repeat of the devastating power failure that blacked out a large part of the capital and closed down the Tube system last August, because of a lack of experienced electricity board staff, it was claimed yesterday.

London could suffer a repeat of the devastating power failure that blacked out a large part of the capital and closed down the Tube system last August, because of a lack of experienced electricity board staff, it was claimed yesterday.

Industry sources say there has been an exodus of long-serving control room engineers from EdF Energy, the French company which is responsible for supplying the capital, since the London and Eastern electricity networks were merged three years ago.

Following the merger to create a new company called 24/7, control of the London electricity network was moved to Ipswich. Since then, nine of the 13 control room engineers who relocated have quit the company. Between them they had 150 years of experience.

Industry sources say the lack of experience among 24/7 staff has been compounded by the fact that the two local grids run on different systems - in Eastern, the cables are strung overhead, in London they are underground.

On the day of the blackout last August, a substation in south-west London tripped, cutting off all power to the Underground network. Failsafe procedures should have meant that the Tube system was reconnected almost immediately to substations to the north of the capital. Although EdF says it notified London Underground after 10 minutes that supply would be back on in a further 10 minutes, this was too late to prevent the shutdown and evacuation of the Tube system.

"There are grave concerns about what has been going on in the control room in Ispwich and there still are," said one source. "The experience is just not there any longer."

The Department of Trade and Industry was heavily criticised last week for refusing to make public the results of an investigation into the London blackout carried out by its engineering directorate. The Energy Minister, Stephen Timms, said the report, which also covered another power failure in Birmingham a week later, was being kept secret because it was "commercially sensitive". Copies of the report's findings and recommendations have, however, been sent to the companies involved, including EdF and National Grid Transco.

The energy regulator Ofgem is also carrying out an investigation to establish whether any of the companies breached their statutory duties - an offence which carries a fine equivalent to 10 per cent of turnover.

A spokesman for EdF Energy insisted there were sufficient numbers of experienced staff on duty on the day of the blackout last August and that the company had followed procedures correctly. He also maintained that although a large number of experienced staff had left, EdF had drawn engineers in from other parts of the London network. The experienced control room engineers who were left were also involved in vetting and supervising the new engineers brought in as replacements.

Fears about the London power network come as the country is braced for a severe cold snap which will test the ability of National Grid Transco to keep the lights burning. A report from the Grid last autumn warned that in certain circumstances the safety margin of generating capacity over and above peak demand could shrink to as low as 2 per cent. In an extreme case, the report warned that this slender margin could disappear altogether if there was a prolonged spell of cold weather and the interconnectors from Scotland and France which help boost power supplies to England and Wales were unable to respond.

Ofgem and the DTI insist, however, that there is no threat to supplies and that the recent increase in wholesale prices has encouraged some generators to bring mothballed capacity back on line.

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