Power resilience

Hearing this morning of the major fire at the Didcot B Power Station, and learning that due to several other problems on the UK grid, we are already likely to have problems if there is a cold spell in January, I thought it was time to stop trying to change the mind of our deluded politicians who never listen to anyone but themselves and instead it’s now time to prepare.
So, I would welcome feedback on the following – particularly comments in [square brackets]:-

 Warning – Now is the time to prepare for Electricity Power cuts


The evidence strongly suggests that a large part of Scotland has already experienced a wind related power outage. So the growing level of wind is likely to be the key factor triggering a large power outage. So, the most likely time will be when wind is a problem to the network. This occurs in two scenarios:

  1. High pressure/low wind: When the wind is not blowing and it is cold, dark and everyone is trying to cook the demand may at some point exceed available supply- so about 6pm typically on a Saturday during high pressure (sunny, frosty).
  2. Low Pressure/high wind: From my analysis of the previous wind power outage. This is most likely to occur when the wind is scheduled to be strong and conventional power stations are shut down to cope with the excess electricity from wind. As these conventional power stations stabilise the grid, the grid becomes progressively less stable. Then even a modest problem or a sudden mismatch of wind supply and power demand could cascade through the grid causing it to effectively crash. Last time this occurred at 8:40pm on a windy night as the power demand dropped forcing more and more of the “base-load” to come from unstable wind leading to instability.

This means Scotland has a “reasonable” chance [I guess 50:50] of at least one major conurbation facing an evening without power typically in January – March.
However, there are now suggestions that: Winter 2014 set to be ‘coldest for century’ Britain faces ARCTIC FREEZE in just weeks if these are true, then I would suggest that there is a strong chance of [75% ?] of at least one major conurbation facing an evening without power, perhaps [50%] of most of Scotland being without power and perhaps [50%] of remoter areas being without power for several days and perhaps [33%] chance of some major conurbations being without power for more than 24hours.

Therefore all of us face the potential of being without power for days.

Enhanced risk

The main reason these potential power outages are such a high risk, is that any power outage is likely to occur as a result of other severe weather such as prolonged cold or high winds. So, e.g. people may already be struggling to heat their homes, and shops & shoppers may be struggling on difficult roads to get food.
And in today’s society, we expect to be able to go down the supermarket whenever we want. But in a power outage – almost all shops will be closed!
Also, to avoid multiple problems make sure you take the normal precautions for winter – lag pipes, turn off outside taps, know where your mains water shut-off valve is (under sink?) Locate the fuses, etc.

High risk groups

Most fit people can cope with power outages if we take a few precautions. However before suggesting the simple actions we can all take, I must point out that power outages will kill many people. Even in a normal winter the UK sees about 23,000 extra deaths. These are the people green groups & governments don’t care about as they boast about increasing winter fuel bills. So, don’t think government will help them! If you know anyone who is elderly or infirm, then please try to help.
Danger for hisk risk groups
The biggest danger for high risk groups is that if they lose power:

  • There is a massively increased risk of falls and potentially serious injury
  • That phones & call devices powered from mains will not work, so they will be unable to seek assistance
  • And the heating will go off leading to hypothermia and death
  • That inappropriate lighting and heating will be used (e.g. candles) leading to fires.

Preparation for power outages (for all)

  1. Have an emergency Torch and know where it is (by feel).
    If you are reading this in the house (or as soon as you get in), close your eyes tightly and go and find a torch. If you do not immediately lay your hand on one, you will struggle to find one when all the lights go out in your neighbourhood and it is pitch dark. Now can your spouse do the same? If your children are left in the house even for a few minutes, can they find this torch?I was going to say ours in on top of the fuse box in the down stairs loo, so I know precisely where to look. However, when I checked it was not there! It was actually hanging next to the fuse box – but in the pitch dark that difference would be the difference between finding it and not. More importantly, it’s a wind-up torch. I don’t recommend wind up torches because usually they stop giving power for more than a minute after any use (and kids just love winding them and overcharging). However, since the emergency torch is only needed for a minute but it has to sit there for years on end without getting used, this is one instance where a wind-up torch will work. Another light that works well as an emergency torch is one that is recharged from the mains and then starts flashing if the mains goes off.Alternatively, there are some light fittings with battery backup – these are useful near stairs – but you will need some form of portable light in that lit area.
  2. Adequate non-mains Lighting
    Ensure you have several torches and that you have enough batteries for 24hours of use. The most common injuries in a power outage will be falls particularly in rooms like the bathroom where water makes slippery conditions.So ideally you should have enough devices to light:

    • any stairs
    • any outside steps
    • kitchen (or where cooking or using hot water)
    • bathroom
    • anywhere where you use steps to work at height (pantry?)

    If you are going to buy a torch or lamp from my camping experience I suggest:

    • LED headtorches – the batteries seem to last forever and they direct the light to where you are working.
    • Fluorescent lamps – don’t last long (2-4hours), but they provide the best all round lights.
    • LED lamps – I’ve never taken to them – but they (can) last much longer.

    I do not recommend wind up lamps as general lights. In theory they are a great idea, but a reasonable one costs a small fortune and so they cut corners which means the ones people buy always seem to end up being over-wound and having a very short battery life. But they are a very reliable sources for a few minutes.

  3. Non mains telephone
    In my experience, most mobile and land-line operators seem to have power backup for their equipment so the networks should function [but they may not]. However if your mobile is out of battery from all the calls you make (and what else do you do in a power cut?) and you have a mains powered phone – and someone trips on the poorly lit stairs and you have to call an ambulance …And get a car charger for your phone and/or a car mains converter!Also, remember everyone else will suddenly find they can’t watch TV, can’t go on the internet, don’t have enough light to read and so they will be trying to use their mobile (or going to bed) … so the phone network will be stretched.
  4. Get those necessary provisions
    Even when snow-storms block the roads, many shops seem to stay open. However, the one time almost all shops will be shut is during a power outage. Also even if hospitals are open, there will be many more people turning up to be treated as the number of accidents escalate, and most doctors surgeries and pharmacists will be shut. So:-

    • Stock the cupboard with essential food and sanitary items for at least 48 hours power outage
    • Ensure you have the basic first-aid & health provisions you need.
    • Get salt for paths [& shoe grips?] – because without street lighting you will not see any icy patch.
  5. Non mains radio
    Even if you have internet access on your phone, bear in mind the phone network will be stretched to its limits if the power goes out. So, get a battery powered radio.
  6. Heating
    The power is most likely to go off when it is already very cold and people are needing a lot of power to keep warm andMOST CENTRAL HEATING NEEDS ELECTRICITY TO WORK

    So most people will be without heating (unless like us you have a fire which works without electric)  and those with instantaneous hot water will be without hot water. This situation could be life threatening to the old and infirm. But it can also be a problem to those who try to heat using inappropriate means (like using gas inside or trying to light a fire in an old fireplace where the chimney has become blocked.)
  7. Cooking
    I have probably left this to last because we have a gas cooker and camping stoves and with teenage kids with have shelves packed full of cereals and instant cook meals.However I have a friend in London who only buys one meal at a time.The obvious thing to do is “call for a takeaway” – but if you have no power, the takeaway will have no power (and probably no phone as our local one uses a wireless phone). You could go down to the local store – because it will only be 6pm – but without light they will be shut.You could try to eat that mysterious tin at the back of the cupboard that you’ve always wondered what it might taste like …Or you could buy something just in case. I recommend something like tinned beans and sausages – it will keep for years – is easy to cook but in the extreme can be eaten from the tin. And if you don’t fancy cold beans or someone in your family does not – remember the saying – the difference between what you will and will not eat is about 24 hours.
  8. Freezer
    One of the biggest problem we are going to face with any prolonged power outage is the freezer because once the power goes off, your fridge and freezer will start to warm up. So avoid opening them and letting the heat in. Fortunately (for the contents) your house will be cooling and modern fridges & freezers are well insulated so there is unlikely to be any problem if the power is out for less than four hours.If you know there is a high risk of power outage, you could put bottles of water in the fridge 24hours before hand or “ice-cube” trays in the freezer. However, if the power goes of suddenly, there is not much you can do except to keep the doors shut – or if the fridge/freezer is light and you have enough people and can light the way so it’s safe and  – move it to a cold garage or outside (out of rain).The problem is not so much that items will defrost, but that a full freezer can take days to refreeze from room temperature. To illustrate why, Freezing 1kg of water from 20c to -20 requires 0.14KWH of heat to be taken out of which the vast bulk (~80%) is for the actual process of freezing. And freezers are not very efficient, so a modest unit of 200W with an efficiency of 35%, will take 2hours/kg.  Surprisingly, when I measured a not very full draw, it weighed 9kg. So, it would take our 2.5 drawer freezer some 48hours to freeze.Longer outages: Because power outages are most likely in colder weather, after four hours, it might be worth taking things out of the fridge and putting them outside in a rodent-proof box. However, DON’T TAKE THINGS OUT OF THE FREEZER, because frozen things will take much longer than fridge items to warm up, and all you can really do with unfrozen things is to cook them within 24hours[?] – which will be difficult without power.Be careful:  because the defrosting fridge may need draining and/or cause a slippery puddle from leaking water.Check freezer when power comes on: when the power comes on,  check the frozen items in the freezer. The big problem is getting the temperature down again if it has begun to defrost.

    • Still white frost and no sign of water [<1-2hour?]
      put the freezer on boost – it will quickly get to frozen.
    • Still frozen but frosted items are dull on surface (partly water) [1-4hours?]
      Contamination risk + try to reduce freezer load.If you have any meat in the freezer in bags and this has defrosted at all, throw away anything which is open and you might use without cooking (e.g. open fruit in bags). Remove all drinks-ice and anything that doesn’t need to be in there (cool packs?) – if clean, put in fridge as this will help cool fridge!. Turn freezer on boost. Next day, open up again and mark everything with a waterproof marker and ensure you cook and eat everything promptly.
    • Ice on surfaces but water droplets present [??4-24hours??].
      There is now a major danger of contaminants from any meet products. And the freezer will now take as much as two days to refreeze. So, take everything out, throw away anything you eat uncooked unless you are sure it is sealed and/or was above meat products. So throw away ice, ice-cream, cakes, fruits.Any vegetables, fruits which have defrosted will likely turn to mush if refrozen – so put these in the fridge and treat like meat and COOK within 24hours or throw out.Now check if anything says “use within 48hours of defrosting” and shellfish and treat it as defrosting meat and put it in the fridge and COOK.In my inexpert view, most other food will be biologically safe if refrozen quickly after defrosting but most fridges will struggle if full and you must now use and cook it like meet (unless you are certain it cannot have been contaminated from meet products.) So, get out your water-proof marker, put a huge permanent mark on everything else and put only what you must back in the freezer and put it on boost for 48hours.Then ideally COOK everything within a week so the freezer is bare, give it a proper defrost and clean it to decontaminate from any dripping meat.Note, everything will have a reduced shelf life. This can be calculated as follows:
      look at the “use within … of defrosting” if this is “D” and the shelf life when frozen is “F”. Then the new “use within of frosting” is D-2, and the new shelf life when frozen is “F x (D-2)/D”.  In other words, if it says “use within 48hours of defrosting” … then do not refreeze.
    • Water droplets and no ice present [12+hours].
      Throw away all items eaten without cooking.Treat everything else as having been defrosting since the power went off  and if too long then throw out.Eat or cook everything else.Remember once thoroughly cooked meats can be refrozen, but if you are trying to save a lot of food this way, by for example doing a batch in the oven, remember your oven will struggle to cook a large load, so use a thermometer to check the meat is thoroughly cooked. And your freezer will struggle to freeze large quantities of warm food. So don’t put anything else in the freezer (and if a joint unit fridge unit, don’t open the fridge door or put anything not thoroughly cold in it). Put freezer on boost and pre-chill the meat (by putting it in a sealed bag in clean cold running water until thoroughly cold – NOT IN THE FRIDGE SECTION). Even so, chilling can at best reduce the time by about 10%, so  you will have to cut down the quantity to around 10kg for a 200w freezer (only stock one drawer in three) for the first 48hours.
  9. Battery alarm Clock
    If you wake up to the latest mains-powered electronic gadget – perhaps its worth having a simpler backup!
  10. Outdoor torch & fluorescent jackets (including in car)
    Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that the most dangerous place for any of us is the road. This will be much worse in areas where the street lights go out. Several times I’ve not seen pedestrians walking in ordinary street light who have dark clothing. So the normal advice is even more sensible: anyone who ventures out after dark in a power cut without street lighting should take a torch & phone and wear clothing with fluorescent strips.


We have a box of candles and several candlesticks. However, my children regularly light fires and they’ve all learnt how to put out candles safely. Therefore there’s a good chance that if a candle fell over and a fire resulted, that they would not panic and would know what to do.
But I know many families are so petrified of fire that their kids have not even held a match and who I would not recommend having any kind of candle or device with a naked flame which they might try to use in a blackout.

Typical Shopping list

  1. Emergency torch (wind-up or long life battery) – ideally with fluorescent markings that glow in dark or one that is mains charged and starts flashing when mains goes off.
  2. Water proof marker pen (to mark freezer contents if partly defrozen)
  3. Light + shelf or other ways to light the stairs (+any steps to house) as this is the most dangerous place in the dark.
  4. Salt and non-slip footwear – as outage is likely in cold weather and slippery paths will be all the more treacherous without any street lighting.
  5. Light for the loo/bathroom (water tends to be splashed around even with subdued lighting. This makes the floor wet and slippery making the hard sinks and loo are dangerous)
  6. Car chargers and/or car mains converter to charge mobiles & other devices
  7. 2x Outdoor torch and fluorescent clothing, one for in the house and the other in the car in case you break down.


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1 Response to Power resilience

  1. Pingback: I said there would be powers cuts this winter – and we’ve just had one! | Scottish Sceptic

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