The ongoing energy crisis has sparked nationwide concern that we may experience blackouts this winter. Here we take a look at what blackouts are and whether we should expect them later this year.
What is an electricity blackout?
A blackout is the most serious form of electricity outage.
It is a total crash of the electricity grid due to a mismatch between power generation and power consumption and usually results in power loss to a large region.
Blackouts are different to the types of outages that might occur during a storm, for example, when strong winds might knock down an electricity pole near your home and a repair crew arrives to fix the damage. In these cases, the power outage is confined to a small part of the overall electricity grid.
Why are we at risk?
The demand for electricity in Ireland has grown hugely over the past few years. The reasons are manifold:
- A growing population
- An increase in the number of data centres
- A growing economy
- Increase in the number of electric cars
- Increase in the number of heat pumps, which run on electricity
- The electrification of our public transport system
- Lack of investment in the national grid
At the same time as our demand for electricity has been growing, we’ve struggled to keep up with supply.
Although wind output is growing, it's highly volatile and on some calm days it can provide less than 10% of our electricity generation. There has also been a lack of investment in off-shore wind and other renewables such as solar.
This means we still need to rely heavily on gas, coal and oil-powered generators for when the wind doesn’t blow on land.
However many of these generators are ageing and are set to close down over the coming years. And some have aged quicker than expected as they have had to be turned on and off regularly in recent years depending on when the wind is or isn't blowing (which they weren't designed to do).
Meanwhile the closure of the last two peat-operated plants in 2020 restricted supply further.
On top of this, the war in Ukraine has pushed gas prices to record highs and placed pressure and uncertainty around its supply.
Realising things were getting tight, Ireland's energy regulator (CRU) tried to procure some emergency temporary electricity generation last year but it wasn't a success. Many developers felt the terms on offer weren't competitive so didn't bother bidding to build new generators, while some of those who did agree to develop new electricity generation facilities pulled out at the last minute due to supply issues.
It means as we head into this autumn and winter when energy demand usually shoots up, the CRU has major concerns around blackouts as supply struggles to match demand.
Will a blackout occur?
It depends and no one can say for certain whether it will or won’t happen.
It’s important to remember that the job of Eirgrid, the operator of the country's national electricity grid, and the CRU is to prepare for worst-case scenarios - “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” as they say.
So just because Eirgrid and the CRU are warning about possible outages, it doesn't mean they’re likely to occur.
However, the risk is higher than it has been for years. Reflecting this is the big increase in the number of system alerts that Eirgid has had to issue in recent years.
An alert is not necessarily an unusual event. When the buffer between electricity supply and demand is tighter than Eirgrid would like, Eirgrid issues an alert to the electricity sector. A System Alert (previously known as an Amber Alert) is the lowest level alert, followed by A System Emergency (previously known as a Red Alert).
Between 2010 and 2019, there were 13 amber alerts in Ireland.
If blackouts occur this winter it’s highly likely that they’ll occur during a very cold spell in December or January, during calm weather when there is little wind output, and between the peak hours of 5pm and 7pm when energy demand is usually at its highest.
This is why the Government is urgently looking at ways to encourage households to use more of their energy at off-peak hours. However, electricity supply has never been tighter so it’s possible we could see blackouts outside of these times.
In December 2022, electricity usage hit a record high in Ireland, at 5,504 megawatts, beating the previous record of 5,363 megawatts set in December 2021, with engineers coming close to issuing an amber alert or systems alert. The Government has stataed that if supply becomes critical, major industrial users will be instructed to reduce activities first to ensure that essential services and households are spared any interruption.
A complicating matter is that Ireland can't rely on imports from the UK as much as it used to.
The East-West Interconnector is a deep undersea electricity cable that runs between Ireland and North Wales allowing Ireland to export electricity to the UK during times of high supply and import electricity from the UK during times when demand is high. However the UK, like most countries, has been going through its own energy crisis of late and hasn't been able to export as much electricity to us as it usually can.
Increasing electricity demand and tightening margins around electricity supply means we are having more System Alerts. Pressure on supply has been heightened by increased electricity demand; a delay in new generators coming onto the grid; the withdrawal of some planned generators by developers; decreased availability of existing generators as they age, and; the need for essential maintenance on other generators. This maintenance work was considerably delayed due to complications arising from Covid-19 restrictions, which prevented specialist engineers from travelling to Ireland.
The war in Ukraine
There has been much talk about a potential shortage in gas supplies this winter due to the war in Ukraine.
Ireland uses gas to generate around 50% of our electricity so a shortage in gas would have an impact on the supply of electricity and increase the risk of blackouts.
But what people need to remember is that the greatest threat of a blackout this winter isn't from a disruption in gas supply due to the war (besides, none of our gas comes from Russia).
As mentioned, we simply don't have enough generators. Even if we had all the gas in the world, we'd still have a heightened risk of blackouts.
As former head of ESB International Don Moore has said: "I think it's important that people understand that we don't have one crisis, we actually have two. One crisis, the public are very familiar with and that's because very high gas prices are feeding into very, very high electricity prices, and that's directly as a result of the war in the Ukraine. But there is another crisis, which is entirely homegrown, and that is insufficient gas-fired generation on the system."
What happens in a blackout?
In short, the electricity over a wide area goes out.
Eirgrid will try to manage a blackout so that it only impacts households as a last resort.
If the electricity grid comes under severe pressure, large electricity users will first be asked to stop using electricity (many will have their own back-up generators). The expectation is that this intervention will be enough to protect households and smaller businesses from blackouts this winter.
Strategic users such as ports, airports, hospitals, water installations and prisons will also be protected as much as possible.
However if all the stars badly align and we have very cold weather for a prolonged period of time coupled with little to no wind output and no imports available from the UK, households could ultimately find themselves in the dark for a while also.
However it's unlikely a blackout will last for more than an hour or two at a time.
How to prepare for electricity blackouts
Although the risk of blackouts this winter is still quite small, it’s greater than it's been in recent decades.
To help prepare:
- Keep a small supply of candles and matches to hand - though be mindful of fire safety. Invest in a few torches with batteries too.
- If you have a spare phone, keep it fully charged (but off) and placed somewhere easy to find.
- Remember to keep any power banks you have fully charged. This way, you'll be able to charge your phone in the event of a blackout.
- Investing in flasks so you can store boiled water and keep it hot is a good idea. Drinking hot water, tea or coffee is a way to keep warm if the heating goes off.
- Our increasing reliance on smartphones and devices means many of us don't know our friends and family's phone numbers by heart. So keep your key contacts written down in an easily accessible place in case your phone runs out of battery.
- Your Wi-Fi and TV will be down. So no harm in having a few shows downloaded on the laptop or a good book to keep you occupied! However your broadband and phone should still work.
- ATM machines may also be affected while payment systems may go down so having a small amount of cash on you is not a bad idea. However most shops are unlikely to sell you anything if their tills aren't working.
During a blackout:
- Keep your fridge and freezer closed. Your appliance should keep cold for a few hours at least. However, place a towel underneath your freezer just in case.
- Turn off any appliances that were on to prevent a surge when the electricity comes back - but you can keep the odd light on so that you know immediately when electricity has been restored.
- Stay at home and don’t venture out if possible. It’s likely street lights and traffic lights will be out of action, making travelling more dangerous.
You can find out everything you need to know about preparing for a power cut or blackout in this article.
Discover more energy-related articles
If you found this article helpful, some of our other recent energy articles may also be of benefit to you:
- There's been much talk of the Government introducing an energy price cap. Take a look at this article to find out whether an energy price cap is a good idea.
- Read all about the recent measures announced by the CRU for energy customers for this winter.
- Looking for ways to use less electricity? Here are our top tips on how you can reduce your electricity consumption and save money.
You can stay up to date with the latest energy-related news and saving tips on our blog and guide pages.
Switch supplier to save on your winter energy bills
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Let's hear from you
Are you concerned about blackouts this winter? Do you have any other tips to help people prepare? We'd love to hear from you!