The pressures on the UK’s energy supply are not limited to our shores. Across international power grids, the threat of blackouts in even the most connected countries is becoming more realistic.  Arne Svendsen, VP at technical consultancy www.vysusgroup.com, explains why a perfect storm of growing demand, fluctuating supply, and increasing instability is on the horizon, one which can be weathered through the use of probabilistic risk management technology.

The 2019 UK blackout was a warning sign. Whilst it was a rare event – having two major power stations fail within minutes of each other is not a common scenario in an engineer’s handbook – it did raise a number of red flags and posed the question whether action could have been taken sooner to prevent it in the first place.

Two years on and pressure on the grid continues to grow at an unsustainable rate. This is compounded by capacity lost due to a fire on the critical IFA Interconnector subsea power cable connecting the UK and France, where most of the former’s back-up power is sourced from, in September, with fears that it will not be back to full operating potential for another two years.

Both these occurrences have shown what happens when connections on the grid network fail. The surging demand for ‘clean’ energy has led to power being sourced from less conventional sources, that are impacting the grid in ways not previously anticipated. For all the investment and target-setting, risks remain.

This will always likely be the case. But the severity and likelihood of these events can be managed whilst the wider discussions around infrastructure resilience take placeDevelopments in technology and the gathering of historic data reveals how much pressure a specific area of the grid can operate under before shortages result in lost power and where the areas of improvement are.

Big data, which is used in Vysus Group’s Promaps probabilistic risk assessment software, has the ability to provide an overall view of the likely areas faults will occur, therefore making it easier to prioritise tasks such as maintenance before lengthy blackouts impact on the country’s infrastructure.  

‘Live’ probability assessments ensure that the most accurate information is provided for making critical decisions with as little delay as possible. On many previous occasions, this information is derived from a non-quantifiable source, often an educated assumption. The use of big data, gathered over a period of several years and in conjunction with real-time analysis software, gives some tangibility to these assumptions and allows for actions to be taken at the first opportunity.

As we have already seen this year with the major outage in Texas, caused by a winter storminitiating protocols at certain levels of disruption can prevent much wider problems. According to officials, blackouts were purposely implemented in order to prevent the entire Texas grid going offline completely. The decision to cause these blackouts was not one made lightly, only as a result of the careful monitoring of data in as close to real-time as possible.

If we use the analogy of a UK smart-motorway giving advanced warning of an accident, Promaps works in much the same way. It would be impractical, not to mention dangerous, to bring all the lanes of traffic to a sudden stop from 70mph, hence the gradual reduction of the speed limit, and a similar approach should be taken with grid faults. By understanding the consequences of specific actions, backed up by clear, factual data, operators have the chance to implement the measure that will cause the least disruption and costly for utility operators and, as we are already seeing, the consumer.

At Vysus Group, we are seeing this approach already being used across the North Sea in Norway where probabilistic risk management is facilitating a stronger working relationship between government and grid operators across multiple regions. Challenges arise when critical components of the grid lie on the boundaries between two or more different localitiesas it is not always clear how a particular action will affect the neighbouring nodes in the event of a fault. Taking preventative measures in these instances removes the likelihood of the ‘wrong’ action having further repercussions.

Of course, any changes to the ways in which grid operators manage the arterial networks that keep our lights on will not happen overnight. While the future has never been so impossible to predict, lessons will need to be learned so that we are not caught cold this winter.