8 May 2016 10:32

Power cuts that left more than 61,000 homes and businesses without power in the Lancaster area should act as a wake-up call, argues a new report.

Heavy rainfall during Storm Desmond in December 2015 saw the River Lune burst its banks and swamp an electrical substation – resulting in a widespread and prolonged blackout, affecting every-day life for more than 100,000 people.

Following a workshop when bodies affected by the loss of electricity shared their experiences, Professor Roger Kemp, from Lancaster University’s Engineering Department, has produced a report detailing the experiences of the power cuts and how they affected businesses, hospitals, care homes, bus operators and other Lancaster organisations and service providers.

The ‘Living without electricity – one city’s experience coping with the loss of power’ report, published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, also looks at what can be learned from Lancaster’s experience to help inform future decisions on energy resilience as society becomes ever more dependent on electricity and the internet.

Professor Kemp said: “None of the individual dependencies on electricity reported at the workshop came as a surprise – we all know that the Wi-Fi box on the hall table has to be plugged in to a mains socket or that the credit card reader in a shop is connected to our bank by an electronic system of some sort. What did come as a shock was the loss of so many systems at once and the effects this had on our lives.

“Over the past 20 years we have become steadily more dependent on electricity – timetables on-line, not on paper; phone numbers on a SIM card, not a handwritten list in last year’s diary; card locks on hotel rooms, not cumbersome keys. Each of these innovations makes life easier – until we lose electricity.

“By international standards, the British electricity system is very reliable but we must recognise that it is impossible, or at least prohibitively expensive, to ensure 100 per cent reliability under all circumstances. The events in Lancaster reminded us that we need contingency plans for the rare occasions when we have to live without electricity.”

The loss of power affected services many take for granted. Mobile phone coverage was lost, as was the internet and television. Electronic payment systems could not work, and people could not access cash from ATMs. Petrol stations had to close as the pumps need electricity. Food retailers had to throw away large amounts of stock when the fridges and freezers went off, schools and universities had to close and care homes lost lights, heat and hot water.

The power cuts affected Lancaster from the 5th to the 9th December 2015. At its peak a flow of 1,742 cubic metres of water per second was recorded flowing down the River Lune by the Environment Agency – the highest flow of any river ever recorded in England.