Keeping the country running when the lights go out

The fragility of the UK’s ageing power generation network is widely recognised. However the loss of Didcot power station to fire in 2014 coming hard on the heels of decommissioning several nuclear power stations and the lack, as yet, of sufficient, cost effective and reliable renewables alternative is pushing the country to the brink. Andy Parfitt, sales director, Harland Simon UPS explains:

Despite the very real risk of power outages, a huge proportion of the critical UK infrastructure is still 100% reliant on the mains supply – leaving businesses and consumers extremely vulnerable should major outages occur. From traffic lights to railway crossings, utilities providers and data centres, the fact is in today’s joined up and Internet enabled society, every aspect of the infrastructure is reliant upon clean, reliable power supply. And for those tasked with delivering these services, contingency planning is not just about safeguarding the infrastructure; it is increasingly about safeguarding revenue. In today’s target driven and highly regulated society, any significant failure in rail or road networks, water or power utilities will result in fines, negative publicity and a drop in shareholder value. The lights may not go out – yet. But can any business afford to take the risk? Failing to safeguard that power supply could compromise both revenue and public safety.

Lights out

When the UK government takes out what is effectively a £1bn insurance policy against the lights going out, it is clearly time for the rest of the country to take note. With Britain facing a severe power generation crunch for the next two winters and Ofgem warning the margin — the spare capacity above peak demand — could fall to as low as 2% next winter, contingency plans are becoming important.

In addition to the recent controversial announcement regarding the proposed payment of £990m in subsidies to power plants to guarantee demand can be met from 2018, the government has also invested heavily in the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) and the Securities and Emergencies Measures Directive (SEMD), designed to protect critical sites against terrorist attack.

So not only does the UK have to contend with a power generation network still in transition, a loss of power may not just come from grid overload: there is a significant risk of terrorist activity compromising the power network. And that means there is a pressing need to safeguard not only the most obvious aspects of the nation’s infrastructure – the banks, the petrochemical plants, the power stations, and the government – but to also ensure that the air, road and rail networks are able to manage in the event of power outage; that water supplies are not affected and that emergency services can still communicate effectively.

Fragile society

The importance of such contingency planning is demonstrated on a nearly daily basis. When less than an hour’s downtime of the air traffic control system over London resulted in two days of chaos; or when a road closure can cause grid lock in the surrounding area for hours, the fragility of the UK infrastructure becomes very clear. How will the emergency services respond to problems caused by a power outage when the roads are gridlocked because the traffic lights are not working? When innovative technology enables controllers to turn all the lights green on a key route to support rapid emergency response – failing to protect the traffic lights against mains failure would appear somewhat shortsighted.

Furthermore this is not just about protecting against a full power outage – in reality just a small percentage of power problems are associated with complete failure. It is far more likely that individual components will be damaged as a result of a power spike, surge or dip. Protecting against these problems is also critical to keep the infrastructure working effectively and to minimise the additional costs associated with costly repair.

Of course, these are not standard environments. In addition to being typically unmanned, from traffic lights to water treatment plants, these are harsh environments subject to extremes of temperature, vibration, water ingress, dust and dirt. They are certainly not suitable for the standard uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) that are deployed in clean, temperature controlled offices and data centres to provide clean, reliable power supplies. Put these UPSs into the power plant and the life span will shrink from ten years plus to perhaps just months as a result of dust or shorting out due to water ingress. Place them in any environment subject to significant vibrations and failure will be rapid; while exposure to cold – or hot – temperature extremes will result in battery life plummeting.

Fit for purpose

These are critical locations that require protecting; but they are also often unmanned and organisations need equipment that is reliable and offers long term protection. While some manufacturers insist data centre and office UPSs need to be regularly tested (including monthly discharge tests) this is simply not a practical option for an out of the way, unmanned location. Demanding monthly maintenance activity creates an unjustifiable whole life cost in these harsh environments - the key here is to put in place a device that is ultra reliable and can both guarantee a long life and requires minimal on-going maintenance.

The solution is to provide a rugged protected UPS that is designed specifically to work reliably and for a long life within a harsh environment one that has been engineered, modified, ruggedised and tailored to fit within specific site and application space constraints: a 'protected UPS'. The UPS needs to be the correct Form-Fit-Function! With the right UPS in place, organisations can be assured that these critical aspects of the national infrastructure will keep running irrespective of power outages or glitches. Quite simply, put a UPS on a key traffic light intersection and the traffic continues flowing, the emergency services can respond as required; provide a UPS to support a hospital’s internal phone system and staff can continue to communicate irrespective of power problems.

Of course, when it comes to national contingency there is also a financial consideration. Power stations and water companies, rail providers and emergency services are all subject to strict targets – failure to meet these targets will result in fines, damage to brand image, and an impact on shareholder value.

Whether the UK hits its full capacity and the lights go out, or a substation trips for a few seconds resulting in a surge that damages equipment, the nation’s reliance on power cannot be underestimated. Safeguarding critical infrastructure is as much about protecting the smooth operation of the nation as it is about safeguarding the smooth flow of revenue – and power contingency is now a fundamental aspect of business planning.