When are the UK blackouts? And how can you easily prepare your business?

Les Roberts, Senior Content Manager at Bionic
By Les Roberts, Senior Content Manager

The ongoing energy crisis means gas and electricity could be in short supply when the worst of the winter weather hits. Although the chances of us experiencing power outages are slim – the National Grid has said energy supplies are ‘adequate’ - if demand increases then we could be hit with temporary blackouts to ease pressure and save power.

Let’s take a look at how we got to this point and what blackouts will mean for your business.

A battery powered desktop lamp lights up a desk and laptop during a blackout power cut

Why is the UK facing blackouts?

It’s all to do with the ongoing energy crisis. Supply and demand are among the main reasons why energy prices are currently so high – a hangover from the pandemic is pushing up demand, while the war in Ukraine is limiting supplies - but if the weather takes a turn for the worse in January, this will place even more pressure on energy supplies and the National Grid.

The grid works by balancing the amount of energy coming into it from power plants, wind farms, and other sources with the amount being taken out by households and businesses. If this balance tips too far one way or the other – too much supply or too much demand – this could cause a breakdown that could take days to repair. Power cuts are one way to avoid this happening.

But why are power cuts a possibility this winter?

About half of the energy on the grid comes from gas. If demand for heat and light increases during the cold, dark winter months, then there might not be enough gas coming in from Europe to meet the needs of homes and businesses. 

The UK usually imports power from France to meet increased demand during the winter months. But France is currently struggling to meet its own growing demand as more than half of the reactors run by EDF Energy are closed because of technical problems and maintenance issues.

Added to the fact that the UK has a lack of gas storage capacity - equivalent to just nine days of reserves compared to Germany’s 89 days, France’s 103 days and the Netherlands’ 123 days - then power cuts might be necessary as an energy-saving measure.

Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, has reopened the Rough gas storage facility to help store more reserves. The facility, which sits off the north Yorkshire coast, was closed down in 2017 when the government refused Centrica’s request for repairs to be subsidised. 

Although it’s now been reopened, the facility is operating at 20% of its capacity, and so further energy saving measures, such as blackouts, may still be needed.

When was the last time the UK had a blackout?

Although talk of blackouts usually leads to talk of the three-day week – in 1973, electricity usage for non-essential services was limited to three days a week – there have been several power cuts since then, including in:

  • 2015 - When Storm Frank caused major flooding between Christmas and New Year, leaving 40,000 homes in England and Ireland without power.
  • 2013 - When storms in October and December caused blackouts.
  • 2003 - When a rare summer power cut saw parts of London and Kent without power for two hours, affecting about half-a-million people.
  • 1987 - When the UK was hit with the biggest storm it had faced in 300 years. As well as leaving hundreds of thousands of homes in southeast England without power, it levelled 15 million trees and caused 18 deaths.

If we have blackouts this winter, they will be the first organised ones since the 1970s. In addition to the three-day week power cuts in 1973, a miner’s strike in 1972 saw homes and businesses go without electricity for up to nine hours a day.

When are the blackouts set to happen?

If the energy supply can’t meet demand this winter, then the government might put rolling blackouts in place. If the power cuts go ahead, it will likely be during January and February or when the worst of the winter weather hits. They are scheduled to last for three hours but the day and time of the power cuts will depend upon where you’re based and the power block you live in.

If you’re not familiar with power blocks, they work like a postcode but for energy supply. Each power block is given a letter from A to U (but letters F, I and O are not used). 

Each power block will be given one of eight time slots for power cuts. And each power block will have three power cuts a week. 

The eight power block power cut time slots work as below:

  • Period 1 – 12:30 am to 3:30 am
  • Period 2 – 3:30 am to 6:30 am
  • Period 3 – 6:30 am to 9:30 am
  • Period 4 – 9:30 am to 12:30 pm
  • Period 5 – 12:30 pm to 3:30 pm
  • Period 6 – 3:30 pm to 6:30 pm
  • Period 7 – 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm
  • Period 8 – 9:30 pm to 12:30pm

How to find out what power block your business is in

If you don’t know what power block you’re in, you can contact your energy supplier to find out. Details of your power block might also be included on your energy bill.

 It’s still unclear whether power cuts will just affect domestic premises, but it’s better to be prepared for power cuts at your business too. 

The first thing to do is find out when your area will be affected by power cuts and make sure that your staff and customers know whether or not you'll be trading when the lights go out. Here are some more things to consider when preparing your business for blackouts:

  • If you’re planning on working through the blackouts, you might need to use an independently powered generator to keep things running. If you do this, make sure the generator is fit for the purpose and environment you’re using it in. 
  • If employees are staying on-site during the blackouts, make sure there is sufficient emergency lighting for them to find their way around if it’s dark. You’ll also need to make sure your premises are warm enough to work in and that any other facilities that need power sources — such as toilets and kitchens —  still work.
  • Make sure all alarm systems, including fire alarms, are working and bear in mind that they might be set off if they detect a loss in power. If you do disable any alarms, keep a checklist to make sure they’re all reconnected when the power comes back on.
  • If your business is dependent on a good WiFi connection, speak to your provider about a mobile solution that could be used if there’s no power to the usual router you use.
  • Create an emergency toolkit for staff. This should outline all they need to know about what will happen in the event of a power cut.

How to support your staff during power cuts

Working through a power cut will be difficult for everyone, so take these steps to make sure all employees are safe and can do their jobs as effectively as possible during the power cuts.

Make sure staff are safe

Employee safety should always be your number one priority. Make sure there is adequate lighting and heating and that employees have all the necessary tools and equipment they need to do their job.

Even if you’ve fully prepared for the power cuts, accidents can still happen. Check the terms of any public liability and employers’ liability insurance policies to make sure you’re covered should staff become injured.

Keep staff updated

Communication is key, particularly when dealing with situations that are out of the ordinary. Keep staff fully informed about when power cuts are due to take place and how your business plans to deal with any outages. 

It might also be worth changing working hours or patterns around the time of the cuts to minimise any disruption and make sure time is used as effectively and as efficiently as possible.

Are any businesses exempt from power cuts?

Some businesses and critical services are exempt from power cuts. Exemption depends on meeting one of the following three criteria:

  • National or regional critical needs – Airports, railways, ports, docks, communication networks, and utilities.
  • Public health and safety issues – Hospitals, emergency services, armed forces, major food manufacturing and storage.
  • The potential for catastrophic damage – Essential financial services and industrial sites where shutdowns could cause major financial issues.

What is the government doing to avoid blackouts?

Power cuts are considered a last resort to conserve energy and protect the grid. To try and avoid pulling the plug on everyone, National Grid has been trialling a voluntary blackout scheme. Known as the Demand Flexibility Service (DFS), the scheme involves households being paid for not using appliances like ovens, dishwashers, washing machines, and tumble dryers between certain hours.

Camilla Potter, Senior Customer Marketing Manager at Bionic, has been taking part in the trial. 

Here’s what she said about the scheme: “It’s a voluntary scheme that I was invited to join by Octopus Energy. It consists of 10 energy-saving windows over the winter.

“I get an email 24 hours before each session inviting me to join, I then opt-in online if I want to participate. The sessions so far have been from 5 pm to 6 pm and 5.30 pm to 6.30 pm on Tuesday nights, and the goal is to reduce my energy consumption as much as possible, rather than being a complete blackout. 

“The idea is that you leave the essentials on – like the fridge and the freezer - but then reduce as much else as possible. I usually plan to be out during these periods so that all of my lights are off, and make sure appliances such as the dishwasher and washing machine aren’t running. 

 “For every kilowatt hour of energy saved, I get £2.25 off my bill and entered into a couple of different chances to win £500.”

Octopus Energy is the energy supplier that has been most active in the DFS. It has released figures that show how customers on the scheme have helped to cut demand by more than 100 megawatts. That equates to 100,000-kilowatt hours of energy - enough to power about ten micro businesses for a year.

There were plans to roll the scheme out across the country, but National Grid has decided against any wider implementation. 

Aside from rolling blackouts, one other option is power rationing. This would see non-critical factories shut down during certain hours.

Are there other countries that impose blackouts?

Several other countries across the globe regularly impose blackouts.

South Africa regularly imposes what is known as ‘load shedding’ to ease pressure on the grid when the demand for electricity is too high. This is a controlled way of distributing power and works much like the DFS - households and businesses are usually told of the cuts in advance and services are usually interrupted for no more than two hours. 

But the use of load shedding has been steadily rising in South Africa. There were 54 days of load shedding in 2020, which increased to 75 in 2021. But this has doubled to more than 150 days in 2022.

Other countries that have turned to blackouts in the last few years include Zambia, Rwanda, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Belgium, and Malta.

Can the blackouts be a good thing in the long term?

If the blackouts avoid causing serious damage to the National Grid, then they can be considered a good thing in both the long and short term. Although they will inconvenience many, the alternative of unplanned blackouts and severe power shortages is much worse.

Hopefully, we’ll not have to suffer through any power cuts – planned or unplanned – but it’s always best to be prepared for the worst. This includes having adequate business insurance in place to protect your business against the unexpected. 

To find quality cover for your business, give the team at Bionic a call now on 0808 253 6040.