28 Dec 2013

Why the Christmas power cuts are a frightening wake-up call

So the newsman finds himself an extremely minor statistic in the numbers cut off from all power supply during the Christmas break.

In truth, we lost it at around 11pm on Christmas eve and, miraculously, it returned in time to cook the turkey.

And then it went again two days later – and never came back before I had to leave for work in the afternoon.

I divined the first power cut was triggered by trees falling on the line, and the second by flooding to the Newbury power station. I was perhaps seven miles west. When I walked to the top of the down, I could see most of the populated valley below in darkness.

It tells you how rarely we lose electric power and how catastrophic it is when it happens.

Storms And Floods Continue To Cause Disruption Throughout The UK

Everything except flushing the loo seems to depend on power. Even the wretched shower head has been penetrated by power, and electrical pumps seem now to be involved in getting hot water to an upper floor.

The landline shuts down because all our phones are now wireless, even if there are landlines. And, of course, charging anything is out of the question.

You scrabble for torches, of which you have too few; you scrabble for candles, of which you have even fewer; and you realise that absolutely no effort has been made by your household to provision for a rainy day.

Well, now we know what a rainy day feels like.

And the frightening wake-up call? We are repeatedly told that forward planning in Britain’s energy supply has been woefully inadequate.

We are repeatedly told that there will be power cuts unless we are blessed with very fair circumstances indeed. The balance between green and planet-destroying sources is still hopeless.

How soon will it be that people start to buy generators? Who knows? But would that we were Norwegian, and instead of frittering away our profits from North Sea oil and gas, had like them built a sovereign wealth plan capable of provisioning the whole country for a rainy day.

Follow @jonsnowC4 on Twitter

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

23 reader comments

  1. Nigel Harris says:

    Hi John – your points are well made. I live in Lincolnshire and am totally dependent on electricity bar an open fire in the lounge and a plentiful supply of logs. So in a spate of power cuts a few years ago, we cd keep warm but bored, blinking in candlelight. So I did buy a generator for me and one for my father. – and I wd recommend it. It gives real peace of mind. Now when power goes off I can yank it’s starter cord and there’s enough power for a couple of table lamps, TV and radio. A camping gas ring the size of a magazine means we can brew up and eat (if very basically) and sitting it out becomes tolerable. And I can charge my mobile. The cost? A mere £250 or so for a frame generator from Machine Mart. When you need it, you’ll never hv spent a better couple of hundred quid!

  2. Hugh says:

    Yes it is a shame about the oil revenues. Last time I checked Norway’s sovereign wealth fund was worth over half a trillion dollars and owned 1% of global equities.

    Meanwhile we’re still selling off assets like the Royal Mail on the cheap.

  3. David Lloyd says:

    We moved to Finland 8 years ago and live near the Russian border. Water comes from a well, firewood from the forest and we have a generator to keep homegrown veg and lamb from de-frosting when we lose power, which is part of life. Cables are now being moved underground to avoid falling trees. The Finns have the word ‘sisu’ for inner strength and self reliance. When we hear the news from the UK we do smile smugly and celebrate the decision to move! The limits of growth and the limits of the state are ideas I wrestle with a good deal out here on the edge of the EU!

  4. barbara says:

    Not only electricity, flooding is worse. Why have local authorities not made provision for flood defences in vulnerable areas.? Possibly because they are still having to pay high levels of benefits?. I do not know.
    . As a nation we need to start to consider the need for self sustainability and take responsibility for our own needs where problems are evident

    .Sump pumps are standardly installed in many Canadian houses where spring flooding can be extensive.

    Perhaps if benefits recipients were given an allotment they could be expected to grow their own vegetables, It would help motivate as well as provide.

    1. Michael says:

      Flooding is indeed a huge problem…… especially in parts of Somerset. The Environment Agency have not dredged the rivers for years or maintained the river banks. I believed that they have sold off all their dredging eqipment. How short sighted is that? Maybe less aid for wealthy countriers like China and India and a bit more spent sorting out our own country.

  5. Bob Milton says:

    You can of course get a standby telephone and connect it via an adapter at the main socket.

  6. barbara says:

    To continue.

    Another thought. if houses were built with a lower level area ie a basement, then surely any flood waters would flow down stairs.A sump pump would then deal with water problems. whether a water collection area could be built for currentl installations I do not know. but surely it would be worth looking into.

    Disadvantage sump pumps run on electricity so maybe generators would be necessary too

    1. Ian Sanderson says:

      Surely if the local authorities / govt. Agencies would stop granting consent to house-builders to build on flood plains the the flooding problems would not be so common?

  7. Gary says:

    What strikes me about the reporting of power failures is the regurgitation of the outpourings from the industry talking heads, without question. Why do we simply accept that a spell of bad weather should result in widespread supply failures? If a storm caused a plane to drop from the sky, we wouldn’t shrug shoulders and blame the weather. Does this say something about the management and maintenance of the network? Early on in privatisation the new owners said they didn’t need to invest because the system was ‘gold-plated’ under nationalisation. What type of plating does the system have today? Public or private, whoever owns the assets, the public always pays, so perhaps we should be asking some searching questions about what is being done with our money.

  8. Philip Edwards says:


    This is easily sorted.

    Just get the tories to privatise the weather. You might not get much electricity but they and their chums will make a pile of money…………that IS the objective isn’t it?

    It might even make a difference in the back-of-beyond where you live. Are they still eating their young out there?

  9. Jay Heaman says:

    A small amount of renewable energy combined with energy storage and efficiency can provide essential loads with power. We need to invest in public education and leverage sustainable energy practices to avoid these needless events. Central generators delivering power via kms of overhead conductor will eventually become obsolete.

  10. Julia Fox says:

    “Everything except flushing the loo seems to depend on power” ….. Think yourself lucky Jon! If we lose power here we can’t even flush the loo; our water comes from a borehole which relies on electricity to pump the water. Not that I’m complaining, I love where I live and I think people are far too quick to complain about a little inconvenience. However, I’ve long given up believing that our government has its people’s interests at heart, especially when it comes to longer term issues.

  11. Bob Hobden says:

    I was thinking about this the other day, being just 200yds fro m the Thames. We do have an old fashioned wired in phone as well as the wireless type so that should work but the router would go down so no e-mails or internet. We have a box of candles but how to find them in the dark? Have put a decent torch/lantern on the shopping list!

  12. sam says:

    Privitisation makes it so convenient for the government to abdicate their responsibility for how essential services are delivered. We’ve regressed to being the slaves of Dickensian like industrialists who couldn’t care less about the British people, just quick profits. I can’t believe how the British public will put up with just about anything rather than demand better. Maybe if more working people could travel to countries like the US/Canada we would be able to experience what a better quality of life many nationalities have over the UK.

  13. Tony says:

    Preparedness is the thing! Though I now live in London I grew up in a remote bit of Cumbria where in the winter neither an electricity or water supply could be relied upon. As a result I have a mindset that still instinctively has a shed stocked with candles, torches, a gas camping stove, gas fire and a couple of regularly charged power packs. Didn’t cost a lot, doesn’t mean I’m living like a survivalist just to me seems a sensible precaution and just required a bit of forward planning. Unless youre very elderly I don’t see how a loss of electricity for a few days is anything other than a frustrating inconvenience we should all be able to cope with!

  14. Robert Taggart says:

    GOOD !…
    Nothing personal Jonny, but, if this helps brings to your attention the woeful situation vis-à-vis Blighty’s electricity supply – can we expect you and your likes to make a fuss about this in future programmes ?
    Unlike us mere mortals – you be in a position to collar the corporate creeps and their political acolytes and press them for answers / solutions.
    We can always manage without gas, but, electricity and water (not together mind !) are absolutely essential to decent life – otherwise it be back to the round house mud huts of days of yore !

  15. John Ackers says:

    “We are repeatedly told that there will be power cuts unless we are blessed with very fair circumstances indeed. ” Not sure that electricity generation issues are related to local electricity distribution failures.

  16. Ray Turner says:

    Or does this show the inherent vulnerability of those overhead power lines…?

    Should more power cables be routed underground…?

  17. noel says:

    Wonder if mr snows’ xmas leftover turkey ruined by the power cuts?>

    Makes nio dfifernce if it were a gas oven; teh turkey coudl still ahev been cooked; Igbnote with matches.

  18. Meg Howarth/ @howarthm says:

    Moot point about the industry talking-heads, Gary – the same old blah, blah… that we get from most management-heads that rule our basically parasitic lives. What I find interesting about this episode – which isn’t over yet, it seems – is the sudden emergence of the (misleading) name ‘UK Power Networks’ whose Twitter bio boldly states that ‘We own the power lines in London, the South East & East of England’ – note the ‘own’. It’s an investment company, of course. Never having previously heard of the outfit, though it seems that’s where my ‘standing charge’ goes, I decided to check it out – via the electricity-dependent internet, of course – only to discover that it’s part of a Hong Kong-based investment biz, Cheung Kong Group. It seems the French-owned EDF flogged the power-lines to it in 2010 – as it tells us on its ‘history’ page


    The backstory of the sale/ownership of the UK’s utilities needs reprising fast.

    Meantime, the chief executive of UK Power Networks, Basil Scarsella – he has degrees in economics and accountancy – admits that the Xmas holidays meant the distributor of south-east/east England’s electricity supply was short of staff at the time the storm hit –


    We really couldn’t make it up.

    As for some of the detail in your blog, Jon

    – ditch the power-shower, however lovely they might be to wash under. You can use as much water as a bath by the time you’ve bathed. Water is a much-misused essential resource, and one we need to use much less of;

    – generators require fuel, usually diesel with its health-damaging particulates (PM 10s/2.5s) which can lead to irreversible reduced lung-capacity in children – even petrol contains particulates. Which only goes to remind us that there’s no such thing as a freebie.

    As a new year approaches, we need to ask ourselves what kind of a society we want and all the other fundamental questions that can’t be shirked if we’re to produce an harmonious and sustainable way of life. We need to end our parasitic dependence on others – starting with politicians – and start thinking for ourselves.

    1. Ian Sanderson says:

      A gas-powered generator is the answer. We had one installed recently due to frequent cuts in they ‘leccie supply. It runs our freezers, computers et all, although we haven’t as yet tried the oven so had Xmas dinner on the 24th and then again on the 25th as there were no power cuts in the area!

      The main problem for the supply companies has been that some landowners have refused access to allow the necessary tree-felling and as a consequence the lines come down. That apart I agree that the ‘burial’ of power lines should be the way forward, despite any increased costs – the companies are making lots of profits, so re-investment should come from them, we’ve been paying too much for far too long!

  19. Neil Craig says:

    Nothing to do with needing a sovereign wealth fund. We could easily have all the power we want (granted 18 months to 3 years from now not instantly) if the ruling class would allow it.

    There are enormous quantities of shale gas , enough to provide power for centuries, if only the politicians would get out of the way.

    There are literally billions of years of uranium which could provide power at probably less than 1/10th of current costs if the ruling class would allow it.

    Economic Freedom + Cheap Energy = Fast Growth

    We would also be out of recession and into world class growth if the political parasites weren’t actively preventing it.

    Every MP and journalist knows that. They also know it is a policy only UKIP support. Which is why it is censored from any media “debate”. Isn’t that right John?

  20. Meg Howarth/ @howarthm says:

Comments are closed.