Mass blackouts might sound more like the stuff of 1973 rather than 2022, but the risk of planned or unplanned power cuts looms over UK businesses this winter, according to warnings from the National Grid. A worst-case scenario could see critical data centres knocked offline, leaving both office-bound and remote workers high and dry. That’s why business continuity planning needs to be on every organisation’s Christmas list this year.
With the right partner, UK businesses should still be able to weather the storm should the government be forced to activate the Electricity Supply Emergency Code (ESEC).
Isolated and exposed
The UK is more exposed than many countries to the current energy crisis, due to its reliance on burning gas to create electricity. It is also heavily reliant on imported gas, as North Sea supplies have dwindled over recent years, and we have little capacity for gas storage. This was not a problem until the war in Ukraine resulted in many countries turning away from Russia as a supplier and energy prices rose dramatically. Then came news from the National Grid that we might face planned three-hour outages to ensure that the UK’s grid can cope with the demand.
These fears may have receded somewhat, thanks in part to a warm autumn, which has enabled European countries to fill their storage supplies. However, the UK’s power grid is still heavily reliant on imports from France over the winter months to make up any shortfalls, but currently more than half of the state-run nuclear reactors in France are closed to maintenance and technical problems. When you add this to the threat of an unusually cold winter and fresh restrictions on gas flows from Russia the risk dynamic can change very quickly. In any case, the same scenario could reappear in winter 2023-24, if Europe isn’t able to replenish its gas storage sufficiently next summer.
When blackouts strike
These challenges demand that corporate business continuity experts revisit and update their plans. What sort of impact would random power cuts have on the ability of organisations to function? Of course, it depends on what type of organisation we’re talking about. But any without grid-independent power supplies would find office-based servers and computers knocked out, as well as connectivity and lighting. Even if a power outage didn’t impact the office itself, it may take a crucial third-party data centre offline.
In theory, remote working might spread the risk a little. However, if an organisation’s workers are all based in a similar geographic area, they may all be impacted by a regionalised blackout. Once again, that would mean a loss of power for computers or fixed broadband. This would force staff to fall back on 4G or 5G mobile tethering if the mobile network is still available. There is also a risk that a surge in users would create availability issues with mobile data services. It may be that the wireless connectivity available during power cuts is not sufficient to work productively from home.
Time to plan
The good news is that there are things organisations can do now to plan for this kind of eventuality. Data backups should be stored at a separate location – as they will be if the organisation is using a cloud storage type service. Laptops are more resilient than a desktop computer as they can normally last a few hours on a single charge, although peripheral devices, like monitors require a separate power source. Lower bandwidth ways of working should be researched and shared with employees. Business continuity leads may want to ensure that important contact information, procedures, worksheets and instructions are also available as hard copies. It might seem old fashioned, but home phone numbers still working on the PSTN should still work, so organisations should have a record of these, as well as mobile numbers.
You should check if sudden loss of power will lead to irretrievable loss of data, or damage to key IT equipment. If this is likely, IT equipment should be powered off before the scheduled power outage Of course for larger organisations, the answer may be standby generators with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). It’s important to establish whether these would be able to ensure supply throughout any potential sustained blackout periods and if the configuration has been maintained and tested recently.
If it emerges that the UK is entering a period of random power cuts, strategic decisions should be made over whether to close offices or encourage employees to change their working patterns and locations.
Daisy’s work area recovery centres and data centres are all designed to be able to run independently of the national grid. All of these facilities are protected by UPS and backup power generators with a high level of redundancy, and equipment is regularly maintained and tested. Daisy facilities have the ability to run non-stop for a week, with steps taken to ensure the provision of diesel replenishment within 24 hours.
Hopefully we won’t see the ESEC activated this winter or the next. But businesses that need to keep the lights on, come what may, would be wise to plan for the worst.