Storms, cyberattacks and solar eruptions: Jim Watson features on BBC Radio 4’s The Stress Test

05 Jun 2019

The year is 2030. The UK has decarbonised. Unexpected events challenge our energy system. Are we ready? This was the question posed to Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, on Wednesday on the BBC Radio 4’s The Stress Test, alongside Keith Anderson, Chief Executive of Scottish Power; Simon Virley, Head of Energy in the UK government between 2009 and 2015, now partner and head of energy at KPMG; and Fintan Slye, Director of the System Operator at National Grid.

A “stress test” is designed to check if organisations have everything they need in place to ensure they can withstand shock, explains resilience expert Dr Sandra Bell, who was tasked with assessing the performance of the panel.

Scenario 1 – storms-a-brewing

In scenario 1, a big storm forces wind turbines offline, as too much wind damages their components. Demand is high for heat. Where can we find power?

Not to worry – our crack team of experts is on the case. They brief the government’s crisis committee COBRA and ensure interconnectors (power lines between countries) are online.

But wait – the public are kicking off about renewable policy costs. They say the lights going out is the final straw. Jim Watson says this shows how we need to bring the public with us and focus on a “just transition”. Our own research discusses options for Funding a Low-Carbon Energy System in more detail.

Marks for the panel? Very good, says Dr Bell.

Scenario 2 – signs of a cyberattack

Cyberattacks bombard the UK’s networks – a likely and potentially high-impact scenario, according to the Government’s own risk register. The first consequence is that nuclear power plants shut down for safety. When systems are being brought back, the rulebook fails to give the due result – it’s like they’re being second-guessed by sophisticated attackers. Our panel focus on securing the core systems.

Judge’s opinion: some good work, but the panel could have focused more on communicating with the public during an unsettling blackout. Dr Bell suggests traditional FM radio would be an important channel in such a scenario.

Scenario 3 – solar eruption shocks energy grid

The third and final stress test is a solar flare, or dramatically, “eruption”. Such a cosmic event took the telegraph system offline in 1859, and in 1989 gave Quebec a 9-hour blackout. Scientists say it’s a question of when – not if – the next flare occurs.

Fortunately modern systems can withstand solar extreme weather like the 1800s case. The well-tested “black start” process outlined by the panel is certainly reassuring. Finally, the panel would even bring systems online to spread the excess current – countering the notion citizens should disconnect their television sets to protect them from a surge.

The panel did well, says our resilience expert.

Reflection: How much should we prepare for rare shocks?

Rapid changes in the UK’s energy infrastructure make this an apt topic for a stress test. These three cases naturally prompted the question of how much we should pay for preparedness for rare events such as these. The panel agreed that open and honest debate is needed. And that the timing is right, with public opinion increasingly in favour of action towards achieving net zero and preventing a deepening of the climate crisis.

LISTEN: The Stress Test, BBC Sounds here.

Do you agree the UK energy system is resilient enough? Are we taking the right steps to keep the UK powered when shock events happen? Join the discussion on Twitter.