The resilience of the energy system is changing, bringing new risks of disruptions, and our dependency on energy is higher than ever. But what happens in society when the power goes out? This Working Paper reviews the current state of knowledge.

By Dr Emily Cox, Cardiff University

The resilience of the UK energy system is changing. New technologies, vital to meet decarbonisation objectives, are being introduced at a rapid pace; information technology is changing the way systems operate; and patterns of energy demand are changing.  New risks are also emerging, such as extreme weather caused by climate change, and the possibility of a damaging cyber-attacks.

With our growing dependence on energy, particularly electricity, now more than ever we need to plan and prepare for disruptions. This means increasing the resilience of systems and society: preventing disruptions from occurring, but also containing and recovering from the disruptions which do occur. What happens during the disruption is also important: we need to understand how individuals, communities, businesses, and economies experience the event, how they act, and what measures can be taken to reduce the overall impacts.

This Working Paper reviews the literature on the societal impacts of a lengthy, widespread disruption to energy supply, particularly electricity supply. It summarises existing knowledge and identifies knowledge gaps and an agenda for future research.

Overview of findings

Impacts on individuals and households

Energy disruptions often create societal cohesion: people tend to cooperate and perform altruistic acts, and panic is unlikely. Yet the response depends on the context: in cases where the social context was characterised by poverty, inequality or racial tension, then disruptions have been associated with violence and crime. Disruptions of all kinds tend to magnify existing vulnerabilities, as we have seen with Covid-19. Much of our knowledge comes from the USA, where large energy disruptions are relatively common, and from places with severe winter weather such as Scandinavia. Many of the findings can be extended to the UK; however, dependency on gas for space heating in the UK means that the gas sector requires special attention, with many people unaware that their gas heating relies on electricity.

Critical infrastructure

An important factor in understanding societal impacts is the behaviour of critical infrastructure. Systems are becoming more tightly coupled, and there could be major ‘tipping points’ when key sectors such as water or telecoms run out of backup power and cease to operate. Historical case studies help us to understand where these interdependencies lie, but they are often incomplete because the incident in question was short or fairly localised, allowing supplies to be brought in from outside the affected area.

We know that water, gas, and communications have major two-way interdependencies – in other words, they may not be able to operate due to a loss of power, which in turn could cause further problems in the electricity system. Other sectors appear to be relatively understudied, particularly regarding shortages of labour and skills, which could be caused by disruption to transport systems, healthcare and education. We need a better understanding of how interdependencies between critical infrastructures impact on end users such as households.

Reducing the impact

Impacts can be reduced via good communication and preparedness. Unplanned disruptions are difficult to prepare for, but the existence of good community amenities helps to mitigate the impacts. Many health consequences could be avoided via better community provision, particularly by diverting non-emergency problems away from the hospital.

Communication is key for reducing both anxiety and strain on public services: people’s first need in a crisis is to know why it is happening, how long it is expected to last, and to be able to check that loved ones are safe. Communication during an outage may be increasingly problematic as digital technology advances, yet this is a major gap in the literature: we need to know more about the likely availability of mobile phones and the internet in the event of a prolonged outage.