Weathering the storm
Gale force winds and a deluge of rain have battered the UK over the past few weeks but thanks to the efforts of staff across the utilities sector, power interruptions have been limited. Paul Fidler, director of operations at the Energy Networks Association, highlights how joined up working has kept the lights on in very difficult conditions.
Over the last few weeks the country has been battered by two storms: Ciara and Dennis. Both have brought with them horrendous weather – gale force winds and incredible amounts of rain. We can understand the scale of the impact when we see people whose homes and businesses have been devastated by flooding. Some commentators have described these storms as the worst since 2013.
For our electricity networks, overall performance during the storms has significantly improved since privatisation in 1990, largely thanks to investment. While nearly one million customers were affected by a power outage caused by the storm at some point, virtually everyone had their power restored within 24 hours – and for many, much faster than that.
As far as engineering challenges go, this was exceptional and credit needs to be given to all those involved. Firstly, to the brave engineers, technicians and tree cutters who were out in dreadful weather walking the lines, cutting back trees and making vital repairs to get customers back on as quickly and – critically – as safely as possible.
Secondly, to all the people delivering the best possible customer service – you only had to look at social media to see how appreciated companies’ communications were received. This included regular updates on social media, phone calls and providing a detailed summary of events on their websites. Innovation in customer service has improved significantly over the years and, even in spite of bad weather, hard work and investment made by the networks is resulting in customer service scores averaging nearly nine out of 10.
We also need to remember how important this is for customers living in vulnerable situations for whom electricity is critical. It is why the importance of Priority Services Registers cannot be underestimated – being able to identify and support customers is critical.
Thirdly, to the staff involved with planning for the storms. Network companies invest millions of pounds to build a resilient electricity network capable of securing electricity supplies and sustaining the challenges faced by increased demand and adverse weather. They also carry out year-round tree trimming programmes to reduce the impact of trees and debris on the overhead line network.
Preparation in earnest begins days before the storms would even hit. Teams are mobilised. Warehouses are prepared and ready to provide the materials needed to carry out repairs should the weather strike. Decisions are made about strategy, ensuring readiness and providing the ability for the network companies to respond locally to what is happening in their operating areas. This includes establishing availability and cover ‘in the field’ and ensuring that the fleet, which includes specialist vehicles, is ready to be deployed.
Along with increasing the number of operational staff on standby, additional cover is also arranged in contact centres. Dispatch and network control teams and many other supporting functions across the network companies are also ready with additional personnel.
All the investment and preparation and hard work has resulted in the electricity networks restoring power very quickly and very safely in the face of exceptionally bad weather. This is in addition to their investment which has helped to reduce the customer interruptions by 14 per cent and their duration of interruptions by 10 per cent since 2015.
Britain’s energy network companies have a universal obligation of service to customers across the country. They are considered to be some of the best in the world in terms of their performance for the public – not just in terms of operational performance but in fulfilling their social obligations. As we move to net zero, we need to build on that track record and work with government, industry stakeholders and the regulator to deliver a regulatory regime that prioritises investment and innovation, allowing the network companies to invest to continue to deliver the best possible service for the public.