Is The UK Heading For 1970s-Style Organised Blackouts?

The government is reportedly planning for the lights to be turned off for several days this winter.
Four women working in an office in London during the power cuts of 1973 and 1974. They work for Slumberdown and are able to wrap themselves in Slumberdown quilts to keep warm.
Four women working in an office in London during the power cuts of 1973 and 1974. They work for Slumberdown and are able to wrap themselves in Slumberdown quilts to keep warm.
Evening Standard via Getty Images

The UK is facing a perfect storm of cold weather and gas shortages that could mean organised blackouts in January, a report has suggested.

Homes and businesses being asked by the government to curb their energy use is the latest sign the UK is being dragged into a 1970s-style malaise, alongside soaring inflation, political turmoil, economic uncertainty and industrial unrest.

What could happen this winter?

According to Bloomberg, the UK could be in line for four days of power cuts and blackouts in January as part of an emergency winter contingency plan.

The government’s “reasonable worst-case scenario” plan shows that the UK could face an electricity capacity shortfall totalling about a sixth of peak demand.

The shortage would occur even after emergency coal plants have been fired up, according to the news outlet.

Under the plans, colder temperatures and reduced electricity imports from Norway – which this week warned it would be reducing exports – could result in Britain needing to trigger emergency measures to conserve gas for four days, with industry and even households hit.

The government responded by saying the report was “wilfully misleading” and “households, businesses and industry can be confident they will get the electricity and gas they need”.

What was the three-day week?

Talk of planned blackouts has echoes of 1974′s three-day week, one of the great post-war crises in Britain. It was introduced for two months in response to energy shortages caused by striking coal miners.

The enforced shorter working week, brought in by Edward Heath’s Conservative government, saw businesses and public services being limited to three consecutive days of power each week.

Essential services – such as hospitals and supermarkets – continued, but pubs and restaurants were closed on the quiet days, and television channels were barred from broadcasting past 10.30pm.

“People worked by candlelight and torchlight, wrapped themselves in blankets and duvets to keep warm and boiled water to wash in,” the HistoryHit website notes.

The rationing of electricity began on January 1 and lasted until March 7.

The three-day week was a harbinger of bleak things to come throughout the decade. The winter of discontent between November 1978 and February 1979 saw widespread strikes cause rubbish to lie uncollected in the streets and bodies to go unburied.

Fuel rationing signs in Birmingham in December 1973.
Fuel rationing signs in Birmingham in December 1973.
Mirrorpix via Getty Images

How is this different?

Unlike in the early 1970s, the UK is now far less dependent on domestic coal and has a much more diverse supply of energy. As well as imports from countries such as Norway, the UK has its own North Sea gas reserves and the second largest liquid natural gas port infrastructure in Europe.

Still, it is likely to be a troubled winter. Currently the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that brings Russian gas to Europe is only running at 20% of its maximum capacity. Russian flows to Europe have been reduced since the country launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

It has led some to worry about whether there will be enough gas to go around this winter. Much of the UK’s electricity comes from gas, so any serious hit to gas supplies could impact the availability of electricity.

Will bills still be high if less energy is used?

Yes. Energy bills could top £4,200 in the new year, and limited supply and further demand – particularly during a cold winter – is only likely to push prices up further. On Tuesday, the influential Cornwall Insight forecast said average bills could hit about £3,582 in October, from £1,971 today, before rising further in January.

A combination of blackouts, sky-high bills and massive energy company profits are only likely to make the public even more angry. While energy companies were not long ago losing billions, and no-one was offering to subsidise their losses, pressure on politicians to address the disconnect is likely to grow.

The government has introduced a package of measures to help people with energy bills, such as a £400 discount, and ministers announced in May that oil and gas firms would pay an extra 25% on profits made in the UK.

Tory leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak has suggested he could offer hundreds of pounds in extra support to those shouldering the rising cost-of-living burden.

Liz Truss, his rival and frontrunner, refused to commit to extra support for families struggling with the cost of living, again insisting her priority was driving through tax cuts to kick-start the economy.

What are politicians saying?

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow secretary for climate change and net zero, warned of “catastrophic power cuts this winter”.

He said: “This is a complete disgrace to a British public already struggling at the hands of an absent government that has left our economy in tatters.

“What we are faced with is the result of 12 years of Tory government which has failed to prepare and refused to invest, leaving bills higher and our country less secure.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “This is wilfully misleading and not something we expect to happen.

“We are not dependent on Russian energy imports unlike Europe, with access to our own North Sea gas reserves, steady imports from reliable partners, the second largest LNG port infrastructure in Europe, and a gas supply underpinned by robust legal contracts, meaning households, businesses and industry can be confident they will get the electricity and gas they need.”


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