National Grid power cut warning: was there a blackout alert - could it happen again in UK?

Electricity and gas supplies are set to be tighter this winter, with Martin Lewis urging people to avoid using wet appliances at peak times

The UK’s energy supply network has faced its first proper test of the winter, after issuing a power cut alert on Tuesday (22 November).

It comes after months of warnings about UK energy security. Blackouts at peak times have been predicted by industry figures as a result of Russia cutting much of Europe off from its gas supplies over the war in Ukraine, as well as the apparent sabotage of underwater pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

This situation has led to a rush to secure supplies from alternative international sources - activity that has driven up the global price of energy, and which has been reflected in soaring UK energy bills that have significantly contributed to the cost of living crisis.

But it has also squeezed power supplies. Despite being urged to introduce a national campaign to get people to reduce their energy usage, both Liz Truss and her successor as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have opted not to implement one.

It comes as Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis has urged people to avoid doing their washing at peak times, while the National Grid has launched a trial scheme to incentivise people to use energy at off-peak times - an idea that is also being trialled by energy suppliers.

So, why was there a blackout warning - and could more be on their way? Here’s what you need to know.

The UK could be on course for power cuts this winter (image: AFP/Getty Images)
The UK could be on course for power cuts this winter (image: AFP/Getty Images)
The UK could be on course for power cuts this winter (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Why was there a National Grid power cuts warning?

On Tuesday, the National Grid’s Energy Systems Operator (ESO) warned electricity supplies might be tight during that evening’s peak hours from 7pm. But, just under half an hour later, the company cancelled the warning.

Alerts go out when the difference between electricity supplies and demand for them becomes small enough that a sudden, unexpected surge in demand could cause power outages.

These warnings tend to be made several times a year and are often dropped rapidly. They “don’t mean that electricity supply is at risk,” the National Grid says on its website.

In a Twitter thread, National Grid ESO said it felt there was “sufficient” supply. It added that the warning was based on information in the public domain, suggesting that the actual situation was not as bad as the alert suggested.

Could blackouts be on their way?

The blackout warning has come as the UK faces a winter in which power cuts are deemed to be likely at some point. The National Grid has floated the possibility of planned outages to make sure there is enough power for critical infrastructure and services (e.g. hospitals).

In an interview with NationalWorld, Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow at policy think tank Chatham House, said any power cuts would be unlikely to come on suddenly, with industry likely to lose power first and 24 hours’ notice set to be given by the National Grid ESO if any additional domestic outages are required.

Supplies are likely to be on course for a squeeze given the UK’s temperatures have begun to drop. October and the start of November were unseasonably warm, but the mercury has moved closer to the average for the time of year in the weeks since then. It means demand for heating is likely to have risen.

The various governments we’ve had over the last few months have faced repeated calls to introduce an energy saving campaign to encourage people to reduce their energy consumption. However, their reluctance to follow this advice appears to be as a result of their political stance - i.e. small state conservatism.

While reporting by current affairs magazine Private Eye found UK electricity consumption fell 2.5% in October compared to the same month last year, countries in Europe managed to get their populations to cut back by 10% as a result of campaigns. These campaigns have included Covid-style national addresses by politicians, public information campaigns and TV advertising slots.