In trader for almost 40 years, James Daunt has had to deal with numerous power cuts. “Sometimes there’s a flood or a huge JCB excavator has gone through your power supply,” says the founder of Daunt Books and managing director of Waterstones. “You can run the guy next door’s current, or sometimes you’re literally walking around with a torch picking up books for customers in the dark.”
But this winter could present a very different challenge. If the gas supply becomes too low, the government has emergency plans for a series of continuous three-hour power cuts, with regions of the UK darkening in turn. This week, the guardian revealed that officials also dusted off the Yarrow program, which would kick in if there was a complete nationwide blackout. It’s about prioritizing food, water and shelter for young and old, and looking at how to communicate with the public. Only hospitals, oil refineries and certain other critical services would be protected.
A die last major power outages, in August 2019, affected the electricity supply of one million customers and caused chaos for rail, road and air commuters. Store checkouts froze, computer systems crashed and factories closed.
Thousands of bosses across the country are scrambling to prepare their businesses for worst-case scenarios.
In retail, ensuring stores can still trade is a priority. Waterstones checkout systems are backed up by uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units, which can operate offline. “When the power comes back, all the money flows,” says Daunt. “Inverters can’t supply enough power for adequate lighting, but you keep going in the dark – customers are very tolerant.” At other stores without these safeguards, transactions become nearly impossible in an increasingly cashless economy.
As the threatened three-hour blackouts are designed to be spread evenly across the country, Daunt thinks it could be “swings and roundabouts” for its 300 stores nationwide, according to the where and when the cuts will fall.
For supermarkets – with huge supply chains, coolers and lighting needs – energy is a huge resource. Sainsbury’s said this week it could control ventilation and lighting in stores and could be “very nimble” in responding to problems, although it did not stock generators for every store. Waitrose says ‘the vast majority of our main buildings have secondary power supplies’. Iceland boss Richard Walker says the retailer is “mapping our future energy needs” and installing solar panels in its stores and warehouses. He admits, however, that nationwide power cuts would make it difficult to keep stores open.
In the City, where lost trading time could cost millions of pounds, disaster protocols are being considered. London banks can use locations beyond the Square Mile, mainly in Essex and Surrey, which have been strained during the pandemic. JPMorgan said it has contingency plans for all of its locations and may even move staff between offices in different countries.
Trade body UK Finance says companies are “making sure their ducks are lined up” and are looking at precedents in markets such as South Africa, where power cuts are commonplace. Typically, city businesses have at least 72 hours of backup generator power, as well as on-site engineers.
Industries where being efficient over time is crucial are particularly vulnerable to power outages. A senior The newspaper’s director says he has an empty ‘Mary Celeste’ style office away from his central London newsroom to ensure he can keep publishing in an emergency on tight deadlines . The site has a capacity of approximately 30 senior writers and production staff.
“The office is intended for use in the event of a disaster. It has a backup generator, which is tested regularly,” he says. “Technological improvements allowing people to work from home have made it a little less important – the key is to have remote access to your main system and protect your server.”
Working from home will depend on robust telecommunications, but this is an industry accustomed to outages, usually caused by issues such as storms and falling trees hitting overhead lines.
BT operates 6,000 exchanges in the UK, each with a backup generator. Simon Lowth, BT’s chief financial officer, said this week he had held talks with the government about the potential use of the generators for wider public use “to help cope with peak demand”. Its ubiquitous green cabinets, seen on British street corners, which provide broadband connections, have four hours of backup power.
English Gas Owner Centrica advises businesses that rather than protecting an entire site from power loss at huge cost, they should prioritize critical systems.
Some industries simply cannot operate in the dark: power cuts in the West End in 2016 forced the abandonment of performances at some of the country’s best-known venues.
Some consumers have started contingency planning. Request airfryers, electric blankets and energy monitors had already soared as shoppers sought to lower their bills. Now, Google Trends data shows a surge in searches for portable power supplies and torches.
The slightly apocalyptic scenario has also piqued the interest of survivalists, or “preparers”, who proactively prepare for emergencies. A Reddit discussion among preppers on the prospect of UK blackouts shows users encouraging each other to buy bioethanol fireplaces, USB-powered electric blankets, pre-packaged dry meals, water filters and plumbing supplies in case the pipes freeze.
A senior energy executive says, “The further away your home is, or the more critical a service your company provides, the stronger your power loss plans need to be.”