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Power blackouts could become a matter of life and death

The Energy Networks Association says it isn’t possible to keep power on for one house in a block affected by blackouts. Why?

James Moore
Tuesday 31 January 2023 15:21 GMT
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Sometimes it takes just one conversation to bring the horrifying reality of a story home. I had that regarding the rolling energy blackouts Britain is still at risk of when I spoke to a fellow parent about his disabled daughter.

The alarm bells first started ringing when an email from UK Power Networks arrived, urging my family to “make a plan for power cuts this winter”. This was sent to people who, for reasons of disability or other vulnerabilities, are on the “priority customers” list. As it turns out, we aren’t really any sort of priority.

The email kicked off with the standard (and not entirely convincing) line that the National Grid (who conceded three-hour outages were a “possibility” if gas imports fall short of demand) thinks we’ll scrape through the winter without the need for “power sharing” – a euphemistic way of avoiding the phrase “rolling blackouts”. They, we are told, will only be used as a very last resort. But if that happens – and why email if this isn’t a very real possibility? – “being on the priority services register does not offer you any protection”.

My family is on the register; not because we’re after special treatment, but because I was run over by a cement truck some years ago. And no, I’m not kidding. My body doesn’t work like it used to. A rolling series of power cuts could be quite dangerous for me.

That’s not to say we aren’t prepared – we have a ready supply of blankets, candles and dynamo-powered torches. We could (hopefully) manage a repeat of the power cut we recently experienced, and used as a dry run. But the letter got me thinking: there will be people with bigger problems than me on the register. People who might not manage at all. They might not have family around to provide assistance (as I do). They might not be able to afford the cold weather kits we’ve spent liberally on. They may even require electricity to stay alive. How will this affect them?

Dan White had some answers; not because he is, appropriately enough, the head of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK, but because he lives at the sharp end of this. He told me that his daughter requires a ventilator at night. Without it, there’s a risk that she could stop breathing. Her equipment has a back-up battery, but it’s good for about an hour – not a repeated series of three-hour shutdowns. Because of her condition, the family also has to run the heating all night.

If the power does cut out, there’s an alarm. Dan and his wife would have to wake their daughter, wrap her in blankets and then try desperately to keep her both awake – and warm. These blackouts would likely only happen in the middle of a “beast from the east” style freeze. So you can see the problem there. In extremis, their only recourse would be the hospital. And, lest we forget, we are in the middle of an NHS crisis and widespread strikes: by ambulance crews, paramedics, doctors, nurses.

Yes, power cuts do happen. A worker might, for example, clip the wrong wire or flip the wrong switch. But a one-off is survivable. Rolling blackouts of three hours, twice a day, would put vulnerable consumers at substantial risk. How are hospitals, already pushed to their limits, supposed to cope with a sudden rush of people bringing their loved ones in because the ventilator has stopped working and there’s no way of keeping warm enough? What about if there’s no one around to call the hospital for the disabled or elderly person living on their own, and struggling in the face of a dysfunctional social care system?

There is a whole spectrum of possibilities for “priority” customers who, in between my family’s issues – which are unpleasant, but certainly survivable – and Dan’s, which are significantly more dangerous.

The Energy Networks Association says it isn’t possible to keep power on for one house in a “block” affected by blackouts. Perhaps it’s time to look into that. Perhaps it’s time for the government, which administers the Electricity Supply Emergency Code network operators have to comply with, to think about this.

Are there really only a handful of us feeling a wave of silent fury at people potentially being left to die? I hope not. I recognise that this is a problem that does not lend itself to simple solutions. But it is clear to me that it is scarcely even being addressed. Is it possible to put Dan White’s family on a special circuit? If not, why not? What needs to change for that to happen? What else could be done to address his situation, which to me is unconscionable? And those of the other Dan Whites?

It is the government’s job to solve problems. Get to it, then.

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