National Grid has warned there could be blackouts of up to three hours at a time this winter if supplies run out

Will there be power outages this winter, and how can customers prepare?

Millions of UK households are expected to struggle with their energy bills this winter.

Gas supply problems have been well-documented over the past year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Higher energy prices have started to be felt across the country, also with the introduction of the energy price guarantee.

When this was reviewed in March, energy consultancy Cornwall Insight predicted the average consumer would pay £3,702 a year.

Unfortunately, that’s not where the problems end. Supply problems are starting to grow ahead of a cold winter, leading to fears that the UK could face blackouts this winter and bringing back memories of the 1970s.

National Grid has warned there could be blackouts of up to three hours at a time this winter if supplies run out

Why is the UK at risk of blackouts this winter?

National Grid has warned that households could lose power for up to three hours at a time this winter if supply gets really low.

This is mainly due to the emergency measures taken after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While the UK is less dependent on Russian gas than Continental Europe, pressure on supplies will begin to intensify pressure on the UK grid due to the lack of gas storage.

Although the UK has been exporting gas since late spring to help European countries, the continued lack of gas storage means it is reliant on imports during the colder months.

Gareth Kloet, energy spokesperson for GoCompare says: ‘Around a third of our electricity supply has previously come from burning gas. So when it is limited, as it is now, it becomes very expensive.

“We certainly have an electricity problem because we will struggle to meet our periods of high demand. I don’t want to sound overly alarmist… at this time of year it’s not a problem, but when we get a real peak it could be problematic This is why people talk about blackouts.

Gas is not the only source of energy as the UK also has offshore wind capacity, but relying on the weather makes forecasting much more difficult.

“If the demand exceeds the supply, you will start to see blackouts. Then the question is how quickly you can get the supply back to give enough people their energy,” says Kloet.

“If we have a very cold winter, it will put huge demands on the system… Many people are still working from home, people will want to heat their homes much more than before the pandemic. There is a lot of demand… [but] this will only happen for real if we have a very cold winter.

“The perfect storm would be a Monday morning on a cold day. You’d have lots of demand from offices coming online, people at home turning on the heat, lots of businesses running and it’s cold. I think you could have problems with the energy supply .

“If it just happened to be a particularly non-windy day across the country, so you lost wind capacity, that would be a problem.”

National Grid's flexibility service will see energy providers such as Octopus pay households to reduce energy use

National Grid’s flexibility service will see energy providers such as Octopus pay households to reduce energy use

How likely are power outages and how long can they last?

A milder October has helped reduce demand and allow storage to fill up, meaning there is less pressure on the system.

While we may not see a public campaign encouraging people to reduce their use, the National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) will run a “Demand Flexibility Service” until March 2023.

This will pay households to reduce their use during peak times of the day to avoid blackouts across the UK

When does the energy bill start to drop?

Gas prices have started to fall in recent weeks. The spot price of gas has fallen from record levels and is now similar to where it was 18 months ago.

The energy companies “protect” by buying gas and electricity well in advance of when it is needed. Suppliers will buy a certain amount of energy in advance to lock in the price and reduce the risk of adverse price movements.

This means that our monthly bills do not reflect today’s prices, but rather the wholesale cost from when the supplier first paid for the energy.

Cornwall Insight expects gas prices to remain high and volatile for quite some time and it will be highly dependent on developments in the Russia-Ukraine war, international gas markets, LNG prices and prevailing weather conditions.

“Drivers are currently emphasizing that gas prices are expected to remain high and volatile for the foreseeable future,” the consultancy said this week.

Under a similar scheme launched last week, Ovo customers will be rewarded with up to £100 – £20 a month if they reduce their energy use during peak hours. Ovo has narrowed its peak demand to between 4pm and 7pm, as its data shows the average household uses 19 percent of its daily total usage during those times.

“Natioal Grid has developed many programs over time to prevent these blackouts from happening,” said Guillaume Proost, founder of climate technology startup OakTree Power.

“I think we’re certainly less at risk than other nations from that point of view. There’s always a risk because of intermittent renewables. We’re increasingly reliant on wind in the UK in particular.

“There is always a risk of power outages, but I suspect those risks are being managed extremely well and hopefully there will be increasing participation from electricity consumers across the board, which will help National Grid maintain stability.”

Energy consultancy Cornwall Insight has said the base case for now is that there will be enough power over the winter, and ESO predicts demand will be lower than previously forecast.

This is largely due to prices continuing to be high given ongoing storage issues.

The demand flexibility service was developed to encourage customers to reduce their usage and give the National Grid a bit more leeway at times of high demand. In the base case scenario, this service would be used for between 0 and 5 days according to Cornwall Insight.

If there is not enough gas due to a lack of imports from France, the Netherlands and Belgium, contingency measures are in place, although Cornwall says a scenario where these would need to be called upon is “highly unlikely”.

ESO has also agreed contracts with Drax, EDF and Uniper to extend the use of coal-fired power stations this winter until the end of March 2023.

Cornwall Insight says these units will not be contracted to the open market and “are only intended to be used when all commercial options have been exhausted.”

cost of living

However, it warns that without sufficient use of the flexibility service, especially during cold periods, some customers may well experience interruptions in their deliveries.

Another scenario could see negative supply surplus in the new year, which would lead to more significant outages. It could see the temporary implementation of something called “root load shedding” to control or reduce demand for electricity, although ESO sees this as unlikely.

Rota load shedding, also called a rolling blackout, would mean that some customers could be without power for pre-defined periods during a day, usually in three-hour blocks.

Businesses and emergency services will have backup generators to ensure minimal disruption.

How can consumers prepare for power outages?

The message seems to be that the lights are unlikely to go out, but consumers will still need to play their part in preventing blackouts.

The ‘Demand Flexibility Service’ was launched earlier this month and consumers can sign up through their energy supplier to receive cash in return for reducing usage between 4pm and 7pm.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility to understand how these markets work and to participate… there are many benefits to that,” says Proost. “We will ultimately reduce electricity consumption and therefore reduce our overall electricity bill and reduce our carbon footprint.”

For more information on how to lower your energy costs, check out our essential guide which covers how your bills are calculated, what help is available and how to save energy.

Ten energy saving tips

The Energy Savings Fund has listed these ten tips, along with how much they could save a typical household on energy and water costs per year. Read more about the energy saving tips here.

1. Switch off appliances in standby mode: £55

2. Draft proof shutters: £45

3. Switch off the lights: £20

4. Wash at 30 degrees and reduce use to once a week: £28

5. Avoid using the tumble dryer: £60

6. Limit showers to four minutes: £70

7. Exchange a bath a week for a shower: £12

8. Don’t overfill the kettle and fit a tap aerator: £36

9. Reduce your dishwasher use by once a week: £14

10. Insulate your hot water tank: £35

Source: Energy Saving Trust, based on a typical gas-heated three-bedroom house in the UK, with price ceiling prices for April 2022

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