Energy companies urged to prioritise at-risk consumers, including those on dialysis, as National Grid warns of rolling blackouts
Rolling power cuts enforced this winter if gas supplies run extremely low could endanger thousands of people who use life-saving machines at home, health leaders have warned.
They spoke out after National Grid warned on Thursday that households could experience a series of three-hour electricity outages this winter to manage extreme gas shortages, for example if Vladimir Putin shuts off supplies from Russia and cold weather sends demand soaring.
Such an event would mean consumers in different parts of the country being notified a day in advance of three-hour blocks of time during which their power would be cut off.
The government has resisted calls for a public information campaign to encourage consumers to cut back on electricity and gas. However, the Guardian understands that after the National Grid announcement, it will direct people to trusted sites where they can get energy-saving information and tips. It was also reported that the National Grid could pay some businesses and consumers up to £10 a day to use electricity outside of peak hours.
The prospect of rolling power outages caused alarm among some health groups, with particular concerns for the thousands of vulnerable patients who rely on electrical devices to keep themselves alive and healthy.
Laurie Cuthbert, a director of Kidney Care UK, a health charity, said thousands of adults and children depended on a constant source of power to provide life-saving dialysis at home.
“This is very energy intensive … as for some people this treatment takes place several times every day for shorter periods, and for some this takes place every day, or overnight, for up to eight to 10 hours a time,” he said. “Any interruption to the power supply would put the treatment itself at risk, and if people on dialysis miss too many sessions in a row then their lives will be at risk.”
Andy Fletcher, the chief executive of Together for Short Lives, which advocates for the UK’s 99,000 seriously ill children and their families, said: “For seriously ill children a three-hour blackout could deprive them of vital life-saving equipment such as ventilators, oxygen and temperature control. Families would be forced to decide whether to admit their child to hospital, which would be extremely disruptive and distressing.”
Key sites including hospitals, airports and water treatment works would not be disconnected under the proposals, unless there was a total blackout in energy supply.
Rory Deighton, the director of the NHS Confederation’s acute network, said: “The NHS has robust emergency planning in place in the event of blackouts so we would expect the risk to safety to be well managed.”
The director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, Miriam Deakin, added: “The cold weather can bring increased respiratory problems and falls, often affecting the most vulnerable people, including those who can’t keep their homes warm.
“Power cuts would only make matters worse, adding to pressures on the NHS at a time when it is already severely stretched.”
Charities called on energy companies to identify and prioritise vulnerable customers put at risk by power cuts, including people with chronic health conditions and those dependent on equipment.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “It is essential that the National Grid prioritises vulnerable households and completely exempts them from any planned outage.”
Each energy supplier operates a priority service register, which flags up vulnerable customers and ensures they are given advance warning of power cuts, are at the front of the queue when electricity is reconnected, and in some cases are eligible for portable generators, hot meals and drinks, and alternative accommodation.
The register is open to people with a disability or chronic health conditions, as well as the over-60s and pregnant women or parents with children under five. About 6 million people in Great Britain are on priority service registers, according to Ofgem.
Ministers have so far opposed the idea of an official drive to encourage households to save energy, despite discussing the idea with the industry and National Grid. The Guardian understands the government does not plan a formal campaign, but will instead “signpost” trusted sites like energy regulator Ofgem where the public can get advice.
Government insiders denied the decision is due to an aversion to “nanny state” interventions but said it is because previous experience of running campaigns suggests people listen more to information from third parties.
The government has faced criticism for a lack of commitment to renewable power projects and failing to launch a drive to encourage the public to insulate their homes.
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Jess Ralston, a senior analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “We didn’t need to be here. Had investment in energy efficiency and onshore wind gone ahead over the past few years, we’d be much more certain about meeting demand. Every spin of a wind turbine and loft lagged means less gas we need to try to buy.”
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has called for a “national mission” to insulate millions of homes, accusing the “zombie government” of ignoring the issue.
National Grid said that in order for the power cuts to be brought in, there would have to be reduced electricity imports from Europe and insufficient gas supply to power stations.
Due to archaic rules, the emergency plans to disconnect customers would need to be approved by King Charles III, after advice from his privy council, on the recommendation of the business secretary.
National Grid has worked on a series of initiatives to attempt to manage supply and demand this winter. It is ready to call into action five coal-fired power plants, which can generate up to 2 gigawatts of power.
It will also launch a “demand flexibility service” on 1 November that will encourage businesses and consumers to use power outside peak demand periods, including early evenings on weekdays. Consumers with smart meters will be notified the day before and will be paid for using power outside these time periods, with reports saying that payments could be as high as £10 a day. The initiative was trialled by Octopus Energy earlier this year.
National Grid hopes this service will free up an extra 2GW, enough to power about 600,000 homes, if enough companies and households participate.
Greg Jackson, the chief executive of Octopus, said: “Of course, blackouts are unlikely but we could eliminate them altogether. Instead of cutting off whole chunks of the country if we are short of gas, we can reward people who choose to use less energy at times of peak demand.
“After all, some people have critical needs – for example when using electrical medical equipment – whilst others are happy to watch Netflix on a laptop for a while.”
Ovo, the third-largest energy supplier in the UK, said it would pay customers a total of £100 to move their non-essential energy use to times when the demand was lower. It said that households used 19% of their daily usage between 4pm and 7pm, when pressure on the grid was at its highest.
Regulators hope long-term to align energy supplies more closely with demand to help the switch towards renewable energy, which becomes less reliable in times of low wind. Work is already under way to delink the price of electricity from gas and build an energy system.
Asked on a visit to Prague on Thursday about the guarantee she made during her leadership campaign that there would be no electricity blackouts this winter, Liz Truss said: “We do have a good supply of energy in the UK, we’re in a much better position than many other countries, but of course there’s always more we can do, and that’s why I’m here working with our partners, making sure we do have a secure energy supply into the future.”