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Blackout Britain?

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George South | 19:07 UK time, Wednesday, 28 May 2008

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Electricity supplies are now back to normal after hundreds of thousands of people lost power yesterday. The issue was brought to our attention early, by an anonymous listener who emailed to tell us:

There has been loss of electricity supply in several parts of the country. This is because the loss of two power stations including a nuclear station (Sizewell I believe) triggered a system disturbance. A major supply emergency and possibly a blackout was only averted because emergency protection triggered load shedding of blocks of load in several different parts of the country.There is still a possibility of a generation deficit tonight. You need to check this out. The electricity system is not what it used to be in this county. Sorry about the not giving my name but I work in the Industry.

The blackouts - affecting parts of London, Cheshire, Merseyside and East Anglia - were indeed caused by the failure of Sizewell B nuclear power station, moments after the smaller Longannet coal-fired station in Scotland went offline.

We've been trying to unpick exactly what happened yesterday, and whether it suggests deeper problems in the UK's electricity infrastructure. British Energy, who run Sizewell B, are being tight-lipped about the precise cause of the failure, and aren't doing any interviews. But they did give us this statement:

Sizewell B was taken off line at around noon on Tuesday 27 May after a record breaking run followed by a record maintenance outage during March and April. It is three-and-a-half years since Sizewell B experienced an unplanned outage. British Energy is currently working on the return to service plan and the plant is due to be operating again shortly. It is the company's policy not to give technical information about the cause of trips because this could affect the wholesale price of electricity. For the same reason generators tend not to confirm the return to service date as again it would cause the wholesale price to rise or fall unduly.

British Energy suggested we talk instead to the National Grid, who are attracting much of the early blame for the blackouts. They won't talk on tape either, but did tell us that this was a freak event, that it's now 'business as usual' and the message to take from the episode is that things actually worked as they should have, and the market quickly responded to bring more power online.

Conservative MP Peter Luff chairs the Business and Enterprise select committee. He tells us that the simultaneous failure of so many power stations was baffling to him. He's worried that the UK energy market is too illiquid, making it difficult for smaller, independent retailers to sell energy. We may speak to him further tomorrow.

Also worried about the structure of the energy markets is Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University and an energy advisor to the government. He says we'll see more incidents like this, especially in the medium term between 2010 and 2020, because of a badly designed energy market and an incoherent government energy policy.

So are energy markets working? We'll be speaking tomorrow to the CEO of APX Power, an energy trading exchange. They also have plans for a power cable between Britain and the Netherlands, which they say could be laid by 2010 and which could 'soften the energy spikes'.

The Institution of Civil Engineers have been warning for years that without sustained investment in the infrastructure, the lights could be going out over large parts of the country. They've predicted a shortfall of up to 80% of Britain's energy needs by 2020. We hope to speak to someone from ICE tomorrow to get their take on the current situation.

CHRIS ADDS: But what is the state of supply? The amount of supply has a direct affect on the bills consumers pay. I've been speaking with one analyst who predicts double digit percentage price rises for consumers in the near future. That's not great news for people already paying a lot for fuel, food and, well, just about everything else you care to mention.

Earlier Eddie spoke to David Porter, Association of Electricity Producers. They felt there was plenty of capacity in the short term, but added that, "Within the next decade we really do need to build more power plant" Producers can see this "energy crunch" coming and are racing to increase supply, but the AEP claim, planning rules are hindering this expansion in supply. And then there's the European issue...

The AEP also told us they were concerned about the proposed EU Industrial Emissions Directive that could, they argue, force some coal fired power stations to close. We'll hear from an EU Commission spokesperson who will I suspect will have a rather different view of the matter.

Wrapping this all up - in good Radio 4 style - we hope to hear from a minister. Fingers crossed, the "empty" chair is being prepared - just in case.

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