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Blackouts are coming. I'd rather be prepared than in the dark.

Blackouts weren't supposed to be happening to my generation of Britons. But it's increasingly likely we'll have hours of them this winter. Here is how people are stocking up. 

November 18 2022, 12.11pm
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For my generation of Britons - millennial and younger - major blackouts are a story handed down from the 1970’s, not a lived reality. I personally have been fortunate to never experience a major blackout, and certainly not to have to plan for one.  Some daytime power cuts have happened, sure. But since the summer, the prospect of planned three-hours blackouts has gone from inconceivable to highly plausible. How do you prep for that? 

When I tweeted out this very question last week, responses from strangers across the UK came thick and fast. Clearly, quite a few of us were listening to the National Grid. There had been a warning (with soothing caveats that this was an unlikely scenario) that households in England, Scotland and Wales could experience power cuts. The war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and scenarios about a decrease in gas supplies had all been factored into the National Grid ESO’s Winter Outlook document. A separate National Grid paper focusing on gas had also been published.  (The System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) has raised concerns about 2024 and 2025 but not this year, or next.)

Apparently, a lot of things must be in place before planned outages happen. This includes the government and King Charles III giving the go-ahead. All the stages are outlined in the Electricity Supply Emergency Code. Not all areas would be affected at the same time and by logging in and checking your postcode on www.powercut105.com, you’d have some advance notice of when it would be your turn. And it’s worth noting the National Grid ESO is launching a demand flexibility service from 1 November which involves encouraging businesses and people who already have smart meters installed, to use power outside of usual peak hours.

The Energy Networks Association, which represents companies responsible for delivering gas to those across the UK and Ireland, flagged up that procedures for emergency planned power cuts have existed for decades and are simulated in emergency exercises annually before the winter season hits. 

The Electricity Supply Emergency Code highlights that not everything will be hit by power cuts and protected critical infrastructure such as Air Traffic Control centres and major hospital A&E departments would be exempt.

Christine Bell from Leeds was among those who responded to my tweet, advising: “We had a 10-hour power cut on Xmas Eve. We were not prepared. Buy candles and batteries. Remember bike lights are torches. No Wi-Fi so download podcasts on phone. Have a power pack or two charged. Gas heating does not work as electric controls. Same for gas oven. We had gas hob.”

When I asked her for more details, she said the blackout had been caused by a fault in their street but having to go and do a panic shop to the local petrol station was not something her family wanted to go through again. She said now they have a box in the cupboard with candles, matches and batteries and, although they would prefer an electric hob for environmental reasons, the gas hob had been a life saver and so they would delay in replacing it until after the winter.

Ruth Kerr, who lives in a village in Hampshire, she flagged up the importance of having access to blankets, food and flasks, but most importantly remembering that while we’ve become reliant on mobile phones, it’s worth having a backup, should even those run out of power. She’s bought a  plug-in landline plug-in phone for that reason. She later tells me she also keeps a torch handy and thinks her camping stove could be useful in a power cut situation too. If any power cut was so bad it would affect her freezer, she said that she might wrap up her food in her sleeping bag.

She also highlighted the importance of the Priority Services Register. This gives additional support to those in need. The criteria’s quite wide, so it’s worth checking your eligibility, she advised.

Andy Stanley, of Walton-on-Thames, recalled his experiences of blackouts in the 1970s during the miners’ strikes and the oil crisis. He tweeted: “Well, in the 1970s, we’d just go out and walk until we found a pub with hand pumps and candles.”

On a call, he said people just got on with things then, adding: “I think we're more dependent on power now. The internet will go down and I’m dreading when it comes back on because loads of appliances will start blinking at me and I'll be trying to work out where they are. All fire alarms and things will start sounding off and it's just a lot more complicated. 

But during the power cut itself, if one happened, he said he would “turn on a battery-operated radio, open a can (non-alcoholic now), make a sandwich, read a book on Kindle and wait…”

Others advised stocking up on batteries, LED camping lights rather than candles due to safety concerns, power banks and portable heaters.Kantar released research suggesting sales of duvets and electric blankets had grown by 8% and candles by 9% in the last month, so it seems like the consumers in the UK are doing what they can to respond to the energy crisis but with these added scenarios in the mix, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on sales of all these other items.

As of the time of writing, the prospect of planned power cuts remains hypothetical. Still, I joined the crowd and stocked up on batteries and rechargeables, and checked all our torches were working. I’d rather be prepared than in the dark.