„Polish society is completely unprepared for a blackout. The citizens are not informed that such a risk exists. We don’t know anything about it – how to react, what can happen, what are the dangers, what not to do”, says Jakub Wiech, deputy editor-in-chief of Energetyka24.com, energy expert.
Martyna Kompała, EURACTIV.pl: Several of the European countries – including Spain, Austria and Germany – have warned their citizens about sudden electrical failures, which may occur in 2022, the so-called blackout. What are the causes of this appearance?
Jakub Wiech: Blackout, understood as a widespread and serious failure of the power grid, is de facto inscribed in the construction of the power system. The power system is a device like any other, which is subject to a certain degree of failure – it has faults which may grow with time and lead to unexpected events.
A blackout is a natural consequence of the existence of a non-ideal device such as a power grid. However, some networks are slightly more susceptible to this appearance.
What is happening in Europe is in a way a preparation, or perhaps a prelude to preparing the population for the power disturbances that may soon appear. Europe is currently conducting something of an experiment – it is changing the structure of its energy mix in order to reduce its carbon intensity.
This involves, among other things, removing stable sources, which have so far been treated as the basis of the mix. Not only are high-emission grids being removed – which is understandable for reasons of climate change – but also stable capacities in nuclear energy, which is no longer understandable for reasons of climate change.
In countries such as Germany and Belgium, there will be a significant decline in nuclear power. This is already visible in Germany. The Belgians want to close their nuclear power plants by 2025. In Spain, the authorities are trying to reduce their nuclear fleet. Some European countries are very anti-nuclear and do not want new nuclear units at home – Austria can be counted among them. There are particular risks associated with this in terms of the stability of the electricity system.
There is also an important role for the transmission networks, which have limited capacity in terms of energy transmission, but are also exposed to the effects of the weather, for example storms, gales, which, as we know, will increase due to climate change. This brings us to the conclusion that we are entering a phase of turbulence in Europe as far as the energy system is concerned.
We can also add to this the external political factors – the actions of Russia, which may cause the suspension of gas supplies. Here, we have to rely on our own storage facilities and decarbonisation.
Nevertheless, what can be seen in Europe is the preparation of citizens for certain events which may or may not occur. It is worth distinguishing blackout from a similar phenomenon, which is less dangerous, i.e. brownout – controlled shutdown of certain groups of customers by the operator in order to maintain stability of the system.
However, from the recipient’s perspective brownout does not differ much from blackout – in both situations we have no access to electricity. For the operator, these are two different situations.
The operator is in control of the brownout, it can supervise the process. Blackout is a situation in which the system slipped out of the operator’s hands. That is why preparations can also be extended to brownout.
The Government Centre for Security (RCB), in early December 2021, raised the issue by adding a post on Twitter, from which we could learn what to do in a blackout situation. It was emphasized that the post was mainly informative and Poland was not in danger. So is Poland in danger of a blackout or brownout?
Of course, Poland is threatened by both blackout and brownout. These are risks that always exist to a greater or lesser extent.
However, the post of the Government Centre for Security originated from media reports on preparations in Western European countries, but it also resulted from the internal situation. On 6th of December 2021, Polish Transmission System Operator (PSE) issued a communique stating that it had a problem with providing adequate system reserve. The operator PSE did not have enough available capacity to guarantee a certain level of security in the Polish system. It was very worrying, we had to reach for capacity from other countries. From Ukraine, from Sweden, from Germany – other operators came to our aid.
What could happen if this assistance was not provided? Then we would face the risk that any failure in the Polish power system may result in a blackout, i.e. failure of the Polish power system, which will not be able to cover its own demand with the installed capacity. Such failures appear in Poland more and more often.
In the last months we had a serious failure of a switching station at the Bełchatów power plant, which led to a system failure of 4 GW of power. A week later, this failure was followed by a fire in the conveyor belt of the same power plant, which extinguished the largest unit in the unit.
Two years ago, in June 2020, we had a flood at the same Bełchatów power plant. 3 GW went out of the system, on top of that there were several smaller failures in other power plants in the country. You could say it was a black Monday. Cumulatively, we lost 4 GW of power from the system then.
If such situations overlapped with a winter peak in demand, together with a moment when PSE is not able to provide us with this reserve, and in turn other operators, from Germany or Ukraine, were not able to come to our assistance, then we would probably have a serious problem, perhaps even a blackout.
The Polish energy system is very specific in this respect. We are based on big centralized units which, if something happens to them, are a big problem because a lot of power escapes from the system. We have a problem with distribution networks that are old and have a lot of power loss. The power that we generate does not fully reach the consumers.
Due to the fact that we have a shortage of power – we have less power plants than we should have. We may soon face big problems in this respect. However, it is difficult to say whether it will be a blackout or brownout – these are often random events.
This risk increases because the Polish energy system is outdated – 70 coal units in Poland are older than the period for which they were planned. As a result, their failure rate is increasing among the old equipment.
Is Poland ready for the blackout?
We are not ready at all. I mean, technically, we may wonder what kind of regulations and legislation we have and how developed our capacities or interconnectors are. But when it comes to the situation in which blackout already occurs, Polish society is completely unprepared for this situation.
The citizens are not informed that such a risk exists. We do not know anything about a blackout. We do not know what we are dealing with, how to react, what can happen, what are the safety precautions, what not to do.
This should be taught from the ground up, in the first stages of education. A vademecum on how to deal with a blackout should be placed on par with learning about emergency numbers.
An extensive blackout, which would be spread over several days, is for Poland at this point a risk of causing complete chaos. For example, we have an outage which lasts 5 days. Electronic payments, cell phones don’t work, in big cities there may be problems with access to drinking water, to food. Sanitation facilities, toilets may not work.
Communication may be hindered – between citizens, but also between the government and citizens, because the Internet, radio, television will not work. It may happen that people get stuck in elevators, in the subway. We have a lot of situations here that create potential risks of chaos. Especially for large metropolitan areas.
We’re not prepared for that, and it’s not difficult. From the individual’s point of view, it’s a matter of realizing that such a risk exists – of assembling the most basic supplies that can significantly help deal with such a situation and can often determine whether or not someone survives.
This issue is completely absent from the public debate at the government level. Only a few experts are working on it, but we generally lack the knowledge and mental, physical or material preparation to deal with a blackout.
Who is most vulnerable to a blackout and how do they behave in such a situation?
Each group is exposed in a different way. Residents of blocks of flats will be affected differently from those living in the countryside, who have different housing conditions and may sometimes have their own generators and rely on their own power supply.
Generalizing, it is worth remembering that the blackout will most affect those who are dependent on electrical devices that require charging. I’m talking about people who are ailing, who require the power of machines or apparatus, such as people in wheelchairs who need to be recharged or people who need to access certain rooms.
This is a certain category of people whose state of life and health in the first hours of a blackout may be dependent on the help of other people.
It is possible to distinguish a fraction of things that must be in every household. Such a „blackout-box” – it is necessary to compile an easily accessible shelf, where the first necessities will be gathered, so that you can get to it in the dark, that there are the most important things.
First of all – flashlights with a sufficiently large supply of batteries, medicines, first aid kit equipped with first aid supplies, painkillers and medicines for stomach problems, writing utensils, a small notebook, a whistle, powerbanks with universal cables, a penknife. Battery radio – this means of communication will be restored fairly quickly in a blackout situation so authorities can communicate with citizens.
It is also important to have a supply of cash, small sweets to be able to eat the first dose of energy. A map of the area – you will need it to meet at the assembly point, canteen or hospital, which may be located a few kilometers from you.
Candles and matches – these are the items we should use as a last resort, if the batteries run out, flashlights and chargers stop working – then we should reach for them. This is obviously related to the fire danger.
These are items that we should have on hand. We should also have larger items that may already be stored in various places in the home. A safe basis for survival for a longer period of time, that is a supply of water and food that does not require thermal processing, thermal clothing, blankets.
But also ice cubes – the first thing you do when you realize that you have a blackout should be to secure your surroundings, including appliances that can function without electricity, such as a refrigerator.
Keeping ice in the freezer allows us to keep the temperature in the refrigerator low for longer periods of time without electricity. With a stockpile of ice, we can cool our food longer, of course, more economically by opening the refrigerator and not letting the cold air escape.
We should also have things like gel compresses and ski hand warmers and a crowbar. It is a good tool that allows us to get through places and difficulties such as locked doors that work with an electric lock. In emergency situations where there would be a riot or other type of social turmoil, a crowbar is a good weapon. It can help to defend ourselves and our loved ones.
Also, this is such a home help kit – especially important is the „blackout-box”, which we should have in the most accessible place. With it, we will be prepared for a blackout situation at any time.
Niniejszy artykuł jest częścią publikacji na temat energii w ramach paneuropejskiego projektu badawczego „Pan-European system with an efficient coordinated use of flexibilities for the integration of a large share of RES” (EU-SysFlex).
Jest on współfinansowany ze środków unijnego programu badawczo-innowacyjnego Horyzont 2020 w ramach umowy o dofinansowanie nr 773505 Projekt realizowany jest w ramach konsorcjum 33 partnerów z 15 krajów.
Celem realizacji projektu jest opracowanie zasad zarządzania pracą systemu elektroenergetycznego w warunkach dużego udziału generacji OZE (głównie określenie wymagań w zakresie modyfikacji istniejących i wprowadzenia nowych usług systemowych) oraz dokonanie analizy rozwiązań rynkowych wymaganych dla zapewnienia możliwości efektywnego pozyskania nowych usług systemowych.