It happened at 4am on Saturday 2nd April. A BMW, stolen perhaps, was driven too fast and failed to take the corner. As a result it crashed into the telephone junction box, sending it flying for several yards, and smashing its contents to smithereens.
Approximately 400 households woke up later that morning to discover that they lacked a landline telephone connection, and also lacked the internet service supplied in the same way. They woke up the next day to find that both services were still lacking; and did so again on the Monday, and the Tuesday, and each day that followed, until service was finally restored late in the afternoon on Tuesday 12th April, almost 11 days after the initial outage.
It may seem a small matter, and of course in many ways it is – especially against the backdrop of a brutal war in Ukraine, a cost of living crisis, an energy emergency, and so many other global problems. So why do I bother mentioning it here?
I do so because lessons should be learned. In my case, perhaps the lesson I should learn is to join the 21st century, cease sharing a smartphone with my wife, pay for one each, and make sure that each one has a generous monthly data allowance. Had that been the case when the BMW hit the junction box, life in the Hodgson household might have gone on as before – I could have learned from the kind advice offered to me about setting up a wi-fi hotspot from my smartphone and using Bluetooth to connect my laptop to it. As it is, however, I was receiving texts from my smartphone provider after a few short days telling me that I was getting close to exceeding my monthly data allowance (though I was less than halfway through the month). Having learned how to set up the wi-fi hotspot, I discovered that there was no point doing so, since any use of the laptop in this way would rip through the small amount of smartphone data still available to me, in no time.
Perhaps I should also buy a TV licence (though the jury’s still out on that one). My wife and I haven’t missed mainstream TV at all, not least since there is so much to watch on You Tube. However, You Tube viewing is dependent on the internet, so when we lost the internet, we also lost our limited TV entertainment. Perhaps we have too many eggs in the internet basket.
So much for me. The bigger lessons should be learned by our politicians, and those who would dictate the UK’s energy policy. Fortunately, it was the telephone and internet that was denied to me (and to around 400 other households) for just over a week and a half, and not our electricity supply. However, as I pointed out in Capability Downi, the UK’s electricity supply is vulnerable to storms, and when it encounters problems, customers can be denied electricity for prolonged periods. When that happens, more than minor inconvenience is encountered. UK industry (what’s left of it) and other businesses can grind to a halt. Shops, with electronic tills, cease to be able to serve customers. Electric vehicles will be left powerless. Homeowners potentially find themselves left with no ability to heat their homes or to cook. People who rely on mobile ‘phones (an increasing proportion of the population), and who don’t use landlines, will soon find their ‘phones running out of charge. Of course, their internet connection will have failed, so they will have no ability to communicate with anyone other than their immediate neighbours (verbally), or by writing letters and resorting to the postal service again.
It isn’t just storms that can create havoc for the electricity network. Increasing reliance on offshore wind turbines leaves supply vulnerable to bad actors. If it takes BT Openreach eleven days to mend a broken junction box in good weather in an accessible urban location, how long might it take the authorities to mend a power cable linking offshore wind farms to the mainland, if the cable has been deliberately severed in several places by a hostile submarine? In the middle of winter? What of an attack (physical or in the form of cyber warfare) on the National Grid?
We shouldn’t pretend that such things are in the realm of fantasy.
On 22nd March 2022 an articleii appeared on the BBC website under the heading “The three Russian cyber-attacks the West most fears”. It told us that:
Ukraine is often described as the hacking playground of Russia, which has carried out attacks there seemingly to test techniques and tools.
In 2015 Ukraine’s electricity grid was disrupted by a cyber-attack called BlackEnergy, which caused a short-term blackout for 80,000 customers of a utility company in western Ukraine.
Nearly exactly a year later another cyber-attack known as Industroyer took out power for about one-fifth of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, for about an hour.
The US and EU named and blamed Russian military hackers for the attacks.
The article went on to try to reassure readers that:
…no cyber-attack against a power grid has resulted in an extended interruption of power supply. Executing cyber-attacks on complex engineering systems in a reliable way is extremely difficult and achieving a prolonged damaging effect is sometimes impossible due to in-built protections.
I hope that confidence is justified. Personally, I’m not entirely reassured.
A denial of electricity supply is problematic now. How much worse will it be when we are all forced to drive electric cars, to heat our homes using heat pumps, when gas cookers have been replaced by electric ones, and when coal fires and multi-fuel stoves (aka log burners) have been banned?
No doubt the Government would insist that they are already onto this issue, and that the recent publication of “British Energy Security Strategy”iii shows that they are taking the issue seriously. A 38 page document, which contains perhaps 25 pages of “hard” policy planning (some of which strikes me as borderline fantasy), doesn’t convince me either. Yes, the Government will argue that they are seeking to diversify our energy sources – new nuclear, offshore wind, low carbon hydrogen (yeah, right), “jet zero and green ships”, carbon capture (yeah, right) to allow us to utilise our own oil and gas. However, this really misses the point. Everything is aimed at diversifying the sources of energy that will create the electricity we are all to rely on for pretty much everything. It’s a strange type of diversification that still puts all the eggs in one basket – electricity in this case.
Just as I now need to think long and hard about how I might ensure continued telephone and internet service next time a BMW takes out the local junction box, the powers that be need to wake up, grow up, and think much more seriously about energy security in the UK. How will our lives be if the National Grid fails us, especially if it does so in the middle of winter? It doesn’t matter if such a failure is caused by accident or on purpose. If we don’t have electricity, and we need electricity for pretty much everything, then we’re right royally stuffed.