The future depends on what we do in the present – Mahatma Gandhi

Are blackouts here to stay?

This past winter, several European countries came close to an electrical blackout situation. In the end, all the lights stayed on… But was that pure luck − linked to the mild temperatures − or is this situation going to repeat itself in the winters to come?

For decades, countries like Belgium have never questioned the availability of electricity. Until last winter, when all of a sudden major nuclear units went down due to technical reasons, and the possibility of blackouts was announced months before the first cold was felt. After almost a century, the extremely reliable electricity system appeared to be incapable of meeting peak demand − which, in Europe, typically occurs in mid-winter, whereas warmer parts of the world experience this in the summer when the airco units are on. Moreover, on dark days (no solar power) and calm days (no wind power), demand tends to peak simultaneously in neighboring countries, which means that power imports are not an option. And even if power can be imported, there might not be enough capacity available, as power lines have not been upgraded sufficiently. Finally, when the general public hears that brand-new gas-generated power plants have been ‘moth-balled’, the crisis of trust is complete. At first sight, the potential winter blackouts seem to have a technical, accidental origin − but they are actually rooted in the national energy policy of recent years … or rather, the lack of one.

A Third World power system

In fact, ‘blackout’ is not really the right word in this case. A genuine blackout is when a large region or country is suddenly without power, unexpectedly. To remedy the situation, an advanced load-shedding scheme is applied, with public announcements made ahead of time concerning the likelihood of such operations. The power cuts do not last very long (at the most, one to two hours per region), and normally they do not affect critical loads (supplying hospitals, for example), although these may experience a short interruption when the distribution grids are switched off. In any case, emergency generators should make up for any shortages, assuming they themselves do not fail.

In residential grids, such a power outage may be a nuisance, but it shouldn’t hurt very much. Unfortunately, the most critical hours tend to be early in the evening when people are cooking (which is hard to do without power). Preserving food should be no problem, as most modern freezers and refrigerators stay cold enough for up to 24 hours. Water pressure will not drop immediately either. The heating will stop though, even when it’s gas-generated, as the pumping power cuts off. That doesn’t mean our houses will become igloos right away, but keeping a sweater around might be a good idea. Note that the power circulated from roof-top solar panels is cut off as well.

Unfortunately, telecommunications become impossible very quickly: classical landlines are powered, but we now use fancy (cordless) house phones that are plugged into the wall. Broadband networks will stop functioning, so internet and VoIP are also out of the question. Cell phones will work for a while, as the masts have some backup power, but not for long. An underestimated problem is the ability to make payments: assuming the shops will not be closed completely for security reasons, they will only be able to accept cash payments.

In brief, a short outage does not hurt a lot, but it’s annoying. One may hope that this will create ‘power-awareness’ and people will begin to lead more energy-efficient lives − but judging by California’s experience a decade ago, within a year all consumption levels go back up to normal. This indicates once again that energy efficiency is achieved through modern technology first of all. In this respect, new smart grid technologies, such as advanced (transparent) demand control and distributed storage, may help − their potential has been proven in several living lab projects.

In companies, the situation is potentially worse, but they are generally better prepared. Critical processes are identified and protected, but production loss is still unavoidable. There is, in fact, a hidden feedback mechanism triggered by announcements about possible power outages: companies and services such as railways tend to shift their production and related power consumption, thereby solving the underlying problem. In the agricultural sector, typically located in less critical power supply areas, the consequences could be worse: without power, animals in badly ventilated stables are in danger of dying.

The economic damages due to a sudden blackout are known, but the damages to image are potentially higher − certainly when the national reputation plummets from ‘most reliable power system in Europe’ to ‘the power system of a Third World country’, which is not appealing to investors.

One thing seems certain

The question now is: what can be done to get out of this deadlock, as no new power plants are coming online any time soon. In fact, the situation is even worse than that: in the coming months and years, (fossil) power plants will be regularly taken off the grid due to economic or environmental reasons. The nuclear units are being phased out or face long-term technical problems. This directly affects the market’s liquidity and, on top of that, ‘strategic reserves’ are being tendered and contracted. The intent is to ‘re-activate’ the moth-balled gas power plants, but in practice they don’t actually re-enter the market, and other units are employed to fill up the reserves. Furthermore, permissions are not granted to power lines offering increased import capacity.

In sum, a consistent and visionary energy policy − across all levels of government and regulators − is urgently required. This is an absolute necessity due to the long natural time lags linked to implementing transitions in the energy system. Regrettably, the legal and political battles among interest groups and between governmental levels that take place with every proposed project have become almost standard operating procedure. So, it seems rather certain that the risk of blackout will be with us again next winter. And the winter thereafter, and…

Author: Johan Driesen was born in 1973 in Belgium. He received the M.Sc. degree in 1996 as Electrotechnical Engineer from the K.U. Leuven, Belgium. He received the Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering at K.U.Leuven in 2000. Currently he is a full professor at the K.U.Leuven and teaches power electronics, renewables and drives. In 2000-2001 he was a visiting researcher in the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London, UK. In 2002 he was working at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. Currently he conducts research on distributed energy resources, including renewable energy systems, power electronics and its applications, for instance in renewable energy and electric vehicles.

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