The National Grid has warned of the possibility of power cuts this winter; the result of the invasion of Ukraine disrupting supply and the UK government’s decision to scrap gas storage facilities in 2017.
Some analysts have described the National Grid use of the word “unlikely” as over-optimistic when it comes to the likelihood of power cuts given current energy generating conditions.
And the government’s decision not to issue advice to businesses or households about energy conservation has come under fire from opposition parties. On 31 August, while campaigning to be prime minister, Liz Truss ruled out the need to ration energy this winter, after being told by LBC’s Nick Ferrari during hustings that France and Germany were introducing conservation schemes.
Employers, meanwhile, have been left to work out what the effect of regular power cuts could be on productivity, workforce wellbeing and use of offices.
Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the CIPD said businesses needed to consider what power cuts would mean for workplaces and workers. He said: “A key issue for employers is how much notice they will have of power cuts and their duration so they can plan and prepare as far as it is possible to do so. Employers are likely to need to send staff home early if they are unable to work due to power cuts or if power cuts result in a health and safety issue such as a lack of light for people to work safely.”
The employer would normally be required to continue to pay workers their normal pay in these circumstances, he added, “unless there was a specific clause on short-time working, for example, which allows for a reduction in pay where the organisation is not able to provide work”.
Willmott warned: “Employers and workers will need to be flexible as significant power cuts may require changes to working hours for both workers on-site and those working from home, to work around any power cuts and loss of internet access. This could involve a switch to short-hour days or bringing in a mix of shorter and longer days as needed.
“It would be important for employers to consult and work with employees to find the right solution bearing in mind the need for fairness, flexibility and recognising commitments people may have outside of their usual working hours.”
For employment law specialist Brigitte Weaver, senior associate at law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, the situation has some similarities with the early days of the Covid pandemic in that “we need to be prepared”, but the route forward less clear.
She said the advent of planned power cuts could “encourage people to come into the office with the railways not being affected” – although there are strikes.
Business continuity and hybrid working
Weaver said that businesses should avoid being too prescriptive about where people work if power cuts occur: “Telling people what to do is not going to work for employers. A carrot approach is much better – employees need to know we’ve got a warm space that’s good for learning and social interaction.”
She said that subsidising people’s transport was a good idea for companies with the requisite resources, say, the City of London. “Subsidising is a powerful tool. Employers have got to focus on enabling – trying to make things as easy as possible.
“However, childcare will be a massive issue so many will have to stay at home.”
Business continuity planning should ensure that people have access to mobile phones, battery-powered desk lights, and mobile chargers, Weaver said.
Employers had to be aware that there would be less time for working in the event of power outages. This was “bound to add to people’s sense of anxiety” around their work and their jobs. Also, people would feel protective of their homes during power cuts and worried about freezers defrosting and disruption to other gadgets on timers.
The National Grid envisage three-hour cuts in power across different regions at different times using a system of “rota disconnection”. Certain businesses can apply for, or will already have, protected site status to avoid disconnection. Manufacturers, such as iron and steel, where a power outage would cause physical damage, and businesses that would suffer “significant financial damage” will not be disconnected. Similarly, important infrastructure such as telecoms sites, hospitals, water treatment plants, railways, airports and armed forces bases will continue to operate without restriction.
A voluntary scheme will be launched by National Grid next month offering financial incentives to domestic customers with smart meters and businesses to reduce electricity usage during peak hours.
The decision in 2017 to close Centrica’s Rough storage facility, which provided 70% of the UK’s gas storage capacity for more than 30 years, is coming under fresh scrutiny. It shut down after the government refused to subsidise costly repairs. In addition, France’s nuclear reactors have not been able to generate as much power as normal this year because of water shortages and maintenance issues, and the country may not be in a position to export electricity.
This adds to concerns over EU member states’ ability to supply the UK with energy if they are facing the same weather conditions.
“Is this likely when Europe is very short of gas themselves in cold weather?” said Niall Trimble, managing director of consultancy the Energy Contract Company.
Kathryn Porter, an analyst at Watt-Logic, told the Financial Times that National Grid’s assessment looked “unreasonably optimistic”, adding that while the company “now acknowledged some chance of supply disruption, it still appeared to be understating the risks”.
‘We’re not a nanny state’
But the climate minister Graham Stuart has said the government would not be issuing guidance, adding: “We’re not a nanny state government.” No 10 has reportedly blocked a public information campaign to encourage people to consume less.
He added: “We think that we’ve got a diverse, strong supply and in all the central scenarios we’re going to be fine but we plan for everything.”
The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon criticised the government for a lack of communications and planning over the issue. “There needs to be candid advice over energy usage as there was for Covid,” she told Radio 4.
Ed Miliband, shadow climate secretary, said the warning showed the government had left the country vulnerable to an energy shock. “Banning onshore wind, slashing investment in energy efficiency, stalling nuclear and closing gas storage have led to higher bills and reliance on gas imports, leaving us more exposed to the impact of Putin’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon.”
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