Lancaster turbulance and the need for better infrastructure security

IN a society that relied so heavily on electricity contingency planning is unacceptable, says Professor Roger Kemp MBE FREng, University of Lancaster

On 5 December 2015, Storm Desmond caused unprecedented flooding in north Lancashire and Cumbria. In Lancaster, the main electricity sub-station was flooded, cutting electricity supply to 61,000 properties.

The loss of power was bad enough in itself, but it soon became apparent that it was affecting many other services that we all take for granted. Most mobile phone coverage and text messaging was lost within an hour; this meant that Lancaster University, where I teach, had no way of communicating with its 7,000 students. Internet, television, and DAB radio were all knocked out. Electronic tills and most ATM machines stopped working which, along with non-functioning freezers, meant that many shops could not do business. Gas-fired central heating did not work because control systems and pumps need electricity. Homes with all-electric cooking were unable to heat food. High-rise buildings lost power for their lifts and upper floors lost water supplies. 

Traffic lights stopped working and garages could not sell fuel from their electric pumps. The railway line was working as it is powered from outside the affected area but the station was closed at 4pm for safety reasons as there was no platform lighting. 

The local hospital, which has back-up diesel generators, was able to function as normal but vulnerable people in their homes and homeless people on the street were more seriously affected.

Gaps in local emergency leadership emerged as the crisis unfolded: the Gold Command was communicating with the local emergency services but no one was communicating with the general public; the only functioning supermarket had to close its doors to queues of customers because of Sunday trading laws that no-one apparently had the authority to overturn.

These ‘cascade failures’ were the subject of a recent workshop and report by Lancaster University, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) to explore what lessons could be learned from the city’s experience. Attended by local and national service providers and government representatives, the workshop considered how the UK should prepare for such serious events in a society that is becoming more and more reliant on electronic and digital infrastructure that is reliant on electricity supply.

The most important lesson is that Lancaster's experience could happen anywhere and the situation can change very quickly. There is no doubt that as a society we are becoming far more dependent on electricity and we should regularly review the situation in future. The Lancaster power cut was caused by flooding but there are various other possible causes. There is no single risk to the network - and the industry tends to be conservative and risk averse - but, with increasing complexity of generation and of usage, there are likely to be some combinations of events (including obscure issues like space weather or cyber terrorism) that take us by surprise.   

In future, the electricity grid will be more complex: consumers will play a more active part with smart meters, intelligent home energy computers, Wi-Fi controlled thermostats, community energy networks and other ‘smart’ systems. Rather than the grid being a passive system that carries electrical power only in one direction, it will be an active bi-directional network. 

The electricity supply system in Great Britain is generally very reliable. Lancaster's experience was noteworthy because of the number of people affected and the duration. Most British consumers experience power cuts of no more than a few hours per year, if any. In cities like Lagos or Baghdad, where 12 hours of power cuts per day are not uncommon, it is not difficult for consumers to make a case for investing in standby generation. In Britain, few people are prepared to pay for equipment that is likely to be unused for years on end. It is clear that additional resilience is needed; but where it should be located in the overall system requires more analysis.

Lancaster coped because it was manageable in size. The network operator brought in 75 generators from as far away as the West Country and Northern Ireland.  Had the events happened to Birmingham, roughly 10 times the size, that solution would have been impossible. Storm Desmond's impact is a wake-up call to all organisations involved in the supply and regulation of infrastructure services.