Power failures: This week, local news site EdinburghLive published a story with the headline ”Warning East Lothian residents could ‘face death’ in event of national power cut”. Whilst the message is stark, and based on emergency scenario planning at East Lothian Council, it is one that all organisations should heed, argues Paul Brickman of Crestchic Loadbanks. 

Power failures loom high on risk register 

The article, which appeared on 12th December, stated, “work was already underway to prepare for a national blackout with generators able to provide eight days of energy for essential services.” The work forms part of the council’s corporate risk register, which explores both the severity of the risk and the likelihood of it happening. While the possibility of a power failure has been identified to be low, the potential impact is huge, with the report stating, “Total failure of this system would cause a nationwide loss of electricity supplies instantaneously and without warning. This would cause cascading failures across multiple sectors including telecoms, water, gas, sewage, food, health and fuel, and cause significant disruption to public service provision and most businesses and households. These disruptions could lead to physical and psychological casualties or fatalities due to the loss of the services relied upon by many, especially those with health and wellbeing vulnerabilities”.

To mitigate the impact of this low-risk but very high-impact scenario, the council has already got backup power generators in place. And here, warns Paul, lies another layer of risk that needs to be mitigated. 

Power resilience, grid balancing and the energy transition 

Paul explains, “Most of us can’t even begin to imagine our lives without electricity. From basics such as heat, light and utilities to consumer tech, to the infrastructure around us – including transport, businesses and healthcare. We are completely reliant!  At the same time, there is an ongoing push to transition from fossil fuel-generated electricity to renewable sources. While the move is one that arguably needs to happen, the transition can pose an issue with balancing a less stable supply with fluctuating demand. In environments which rely on electricity to operate, the consequences of even a short power system failure could at best have a significant financial impact and, at worst, be a threat to human life.”

Backup generator testing is key 

In the main, organisations such as councils, utilities, businesses and healthcare providers have backup power in place. Power resilience plans are increasingly becoming part and parcel of risk registers such as the one produced by East Lothian Council. While investing in generators is the first step in any power resilience plan, the generators must be proactively maintained to ensure that they operate effectively in the event of a crisis. 

Paul explains, “In the main, generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems will be tested by the manufacturer in the factory before delivery. Many businesses will assume this is all that’s needed, and that the generator will work when called upon. In fact, despite their bulk, generators can be sensitive to changes in the environment such as temperature and humidity, as well as the impact of lifting, moving and transporting the equipment. Fuel, cooling and exhaust systems may all be different from the systems used at the factory. For this reason, backup power systems must be commissioned accurately and tested in situ, rather than assuming a plug-and-play scenario.”

Load banks, commissioning and preventative maintenance 

The only way to accurately test and commission a new system is to use a load bank – a piece of equipment that applies a “dummy” electrical load to a generator to force it into action. The load bank mimics the type of load that the generator would use in normal operational conditions. This test allows the fuel, exhaust and cooling systems and alternator insulation resistance to be effectively tested and system issues uncovered in a safe, controlled manner without the cost of major failure or unplanned downtime. 

Paul continues, “As with any piece of equipment, ongoing preventative maintenance is key to the operational efficiency of the generator. Once commissioned, generators should be tested at least annually. The risks of failing to test are that the system just doesn’t work when you need it most. With the fuel, exhaust and cooling system untested, along with the potential for embedded moisture, your backup power system – the very system you rely on in an emergency – will itself fall into the very high-risk category.”

“The news article from West Lothian Council sounds incredibly alarming. The reality is that this type of power resilience planning should be happening in organisations across the world, so it’s positive to hear that they have generators in place. I’d love to dig a little deeper, and make sure those generators are being adequately cared for. They might be big powerful engines that are known for their reliability. But, with the risk of failure so high, a little TLC can go a long way.” 

Find out more about the role of load banks in generator maintenance and power resilience by getting in touch on our website, here: Contact Us.