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Europe Goes on Blackout Watch as Winter Descends

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LONDON—Europe’s energy-squeezed winter has sent power operators and businesses into high alert for blackout risks, heightened by Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

In a control room in Glasgow, dozens of engineers and supervisors for months have been executing a series of “desktop rehearsals,” in which they game out the many various ways a blackout could unfold. 

Winter is always dicey in Northern Europe, said

Guy Jefferson,

operations chief for ScottishPower’s SP Energy Networks in Scotland, North Wales and England, but this year’s preparations go beyond bracing for the season’s severe storms. They are developing plans not only for uncontrolled blackouts, but also the increased risk of scheduled disconnections, or brownouts, which could be ordered by the U.K.’s

National Grid

to balance supply and prevent more-chaotic outages.

“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” Mr. Jefferson said.

Already this winter, a wicked cold snap has frozen stretches of the U.K., while France has endured nuclear-power shortfalls, putting tens of millions of people in danger of losing power. Europe’s heavy reliance on natural gas to generate electricity has left it more vulnerable this year after Russia choked off gas supplies to the continent as part of its war in Ukraine.

ScottishPower engineers and supervisors have been executing ‘desktop rehearsals’ for blackouts at a control center in Glasgow.

So far, grids have mostly held up. Power-conservation efforts are getting a boost from high natural-gas and electricity prices, which analysts say have spurred households and companies to curtail their energy consumption, in some cases well beyond official targets. Coal is also helping fill gaps.

That has eased some of the strain on Europe’s highly integrated power system. But across the continent, normal seasonal anxieties over potential blackouts remain amplified, with the coldest months still looming.

Some power customers are building their own contingency plans. 

The newly opened Lippulaiva shopping center near Helsinki houses its own geothermal power plant. “We can produce a lot of [electricity] ourselves, especially now when we think about outages,” said Kirsi Simola-Laaksonen, chief information officer at property developer

Citycon Oyj.

The Lippulaiva center uses a system of sensitive power-monitoring and pricing algorithms as part of a so-called microgrid system to work out the best times to send electricity back to the public grid, potentially helping to alleviate consumption at peak times.

“It’s looking at weather forecasts and doing a very complex set of calculations to come up with when it’s most useful to sell,” Ms. Simola-Laaksonen said.

Europe’s energy crisis has boosted demand for technology that helps customers operate under their own power, reducing costs and greenhouse-gas emissions, said Philippe Delorme, executive vice president for European operations at

Schneider Electric SE,

which makes the microgrid system used by the shopping complex. 

Companies see energy prices as a continuing risk, Mr. Delorme said. “It’s creating imbalance in terms of the competitiveness of businesses in Europe.”

Europe’s power-supply risks are unevenly distributed, experts say, and could test the willingness of some countries to help out neighbors more exposed to freezing weather or suffering a scarcity of gas or coal.

A converter station in Hunterston, Scotland, that is used to switch types of electricity so it can travel via undersea cable.

France, Sweden and Finland are more susceptible to nuclear-power shortfalls, while Germany and Poland could run short of coal used for power generation, especially in late winter, according to a December risk assessment from Europe’s umbrella association of power suppliers, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity.

Ireland and Northern Ireland suffer from aging gas-fired power plants and depend on energy imports from the mainland U.K., a risk if the U.K. runs short, ENTSO-E says. In general, Eastern Europe is more dependent on Russian energy imports as well as less connected with Central and Western Europe, making it more vulnerable in extreme weather, said Carlos Torres Diaz, head of gas- and power-markets research at Rystad Energy, a consulting firm.

Europe’s tightly interconnected energy system features long stretches of subsea cables and cross-border pipelines. Energy shortfalls in one country can ripple into neighboring states. 

That happened earlier in December with France, normally an exporter of power to the U.K. and other countries. French nuclear-reactor outages coincided with the U.K. cold snap.

“France was importing from all borders, basically, which is very unusual,” said Gabriele Martinelli, head of European power research at data provider Refinitiv. The U.K.’s benchmark electricity price hit a record high on Dec. 12, and the National Grid electricity system operator put two backup coal plants on standby in case demand overwhelmed supply.

Inside one of the rooms at the converter station in Hunterston, Scotland, and a cross section of a subsea cable.

In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Amprion GmbH, one of the country’s four transmission-system operators, is coordinating emergency plans with neighboring countries. German officials recently approved increased carrying loads for certain power lines in colder weather, boosting capacity during peak times, said Gerald Kaendler, Amprion’s director of company assets. “All these little measures are falling into place now to really get the best out of the grid,” he said.

France’s contingency planning for rolling blackouts going into winter has stoked widespread conversations about what companies and households could do themselves to avoid power outages, energy-company and other officials say.

Réseau de Transport d’Électricité, France’s transmission-system operator, urged customers to use a smartphone app called EcoWatt that provides regional power-consumption forecasts, with alerts that go from green to orange or red, the latter signaling power cuts are looming if electricity consumption isn’t reduced.

Supermarket operator

Carrefour SA

is one of dozens of companies that have joined a partnership with RTE to promote awareness of power consumption, promising to reduce its use from heating, cooling and lighting, a company spokesman said.

The EcoWatt electricity forecast is also online and broadcast on French television. So far, the alerts have stayed green, according to a spokeswoman for the transmission-system operator. RTE has seen strong adoption of the app, she said, and French electricity consumption dropped 9% over four weeks in late 2022.

“This year is quite special,” said Rystad’s Mr. Torres Diaz. 

Engineers at the converter station in Hunterston, Scotland.

Write to Jenny Strasburg at [email protected]

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8


LONDON—Europe’s energy-squeezed winter has sent power operators and businesses into high alert for blackout risks, heightened by Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

In a control room in Glasgow, dozens of engineers and supervisors for months have been executing a series of “desktop rehearsals,” in which they game out the many various ways a blackout could unfold. 

Winter is always dicey in Northern Europe, said

Guy Jefferson,

operations chief for ScottishPower’s SP Energy Networks in Scotland, North Wales and England, but this year’s preparations go beyond bracing for the season’s severe storms. They are developing plans not only for uncontrolled blackouts, but also the increased risk of scheduled disconnections, or brownouts, which could be ordered by the U.K.’s

National Grid

to balance supply and prevent more-chaotic outages.

“Prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” Mr. Jefferson said.

Already this winter, a wicked cold snap has frozen stretches of the U.K., while France has endured nuclear-power shortfalls, putting tens of millions of people in danger of losing power. Europe’s heavy reliance on natural gas to generate electricity has left it more vulnerable this year after Russia choked off gas supplies to the continent as part of its war in Ukraine.

ScottishPower engineers and supervisors have been executing ‘desktop rehearsals’ for blackouts at a control center in Glasgow.

So far, grids have mostly held up. Power-conservation efforts are getting a boost from high natural-gas and electricity prices, which analysts say have spurred households and companies to curtail their energy consumption, in some cases well beyond official targets. Coal is also helping fill gaps.

That has eased some of the strain on Europe’s highly integrated power system. But across the continent, normal seasonal anxieties over potential blackouts remain amplified, with the coldest months still looming.

Some power customers are building their own contingency plans. 

The newly opened Lippulaiva shopping center near Helsinki houses its own geothermal power plant. “We can produce a lot of [electricity] ourselves, especially now when we think about outages,” said Kirsi Simola-Laaksonen, chief information officer at property developer

Citycon Oyj.

The Lippulaiva center uses a system of sensitive power-monitoring and pricing algorithms as part of a so-called microgrid system to work out the best times to send electricity back to the public grid, potentially helping to alleviate consumption at peak times.

“It’s looking at weather forecasts and doing a very complex set of calculations to come up with when it’s most useful to sell,” Ms. Simola-Laaksonen said.

Europe’s energy crisis has boosted demand for technology that helps customers operate under their own power, reducing costs and greenhouse-gas emissions, said Philippe Delorme, executive vice president for European operations at

Schneider Electric SE,

which makes the microgrid system used by the shopping complex. 

Companies see energy prices as a continuing risk, Mr. Delorme said. “It’s creating imbalance in terms of the competitiveness of businesses in Europe.”

Europe’s power-supply risks are unevenly distributed, experts say, and could test the willingness of some countries to help out neighbors more exposed to freezing weather or suffering a scarcity of gas or coal.

A converter station in Hunterston, Scotland, that is used to switch types of electricity so it can travel via undersea cable.

France, Sweden and Finland are more susceptible to nuclear-power shortfalls, while Germany and Poland could run short of coal used for power generation, especially in late winter, according to a December risk assessment from Europe’s umbrella association of power suppliers, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity.

Ireland and Northern Ireland suffer from aging gas-fired power plants and depend on energy imports from the mainland U.K., a risk if the U.K. runs short, ENTSO-E says. In general, Eastern Europe is more dependent on Russian energy imports as well as less connected with Central and Western Europe, making it more vulnerable in extreme weather, said Carlos Torres Diaz, head of gas- and power-markets research at Rystad Energy, a consulting firm.

Europe’s tightly interconnected energy system features long stretches of subsea cables and cross-border pipelines. Energy shortfalls in one country can ripple into neighboring states. 

That happened earlier in December with France, normally an exporter of power to the U.K. and other countries. French nuclear-reactor outages coincided with the U.K. cold snap.

“France was importing from all borders, basically, which is very unusual,” said Gabriele Martinelli, head of European power research at data provider Refinitiv. The U.K.’s benchmark electricity price hit a record high on Dec. 12, and the National Grid electricity system operator put two backup coal plants on standby in case demand overwhelmed supply.

Inside one of the rooms at the converter station in Hunterston, Scotland, and a cross section of a subsea cable.

In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Amprion GmbH, one of the country’s four transmission-system operators, is coordinating emergency plans with neighboring countries. German officials recently approved increased carrying loads for certain power lines in colder weather, boosting capacity during peak times, said Gerald Kaendler, Amprion’s director of company assets. “All these little measures are falling into place now to really get the best out of the grid,” he said.

France’s contingency planning for rolling blackouts going into winter has stoked widespread conversations about what companies and households could do themselves to avoid power outages, energy-company and other officials say.

Réseau de Transport d’Électricité, France’s transmission-system operator, urged customers to use a smartphone app called EcoWatt that provides regional power-consumption forecasts, with alerts that go from green to orange or red, the latter signaling power cuts are looming if electricity consumption isn’t reduced.

Supermarket operator

Carrefour SA

is one of dozens of companies that have joined a partnership with RTE to promote awareness of power consumption, promising to reduce its use from heating, cooling and lighting, a company spokesman said.

The EcoWatt electricity forecast is also online and broadcast on French television. So far, the alerts have stayed green, according to a spokeswoman for the transmission-system operator. RTE has seen strong adoption of the app, she said, and French electricity consumption dropped 9% over four weeks in late 2022.

“This year is quite special,” said Rystad’s Mr. Torres Diaz. 

Engineers at the converter station in Hunterston, Scotland.

Write to Jenny Strasburg at [email protected]

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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