Experts have accused the UK defence secretary of scaremongering by claiming a Russian disruption of Britain’s electricity interconnectors to Europe would cause chaos and kill thousands of people.
Gavin Williamson told the Daily Telegraph that Moscow was looking at energy cables and pipelines between the UK and the EU, and sabotage could come by a cyber-attack, missile or undersea activity.
“Why would they keep photographing and looking at power stations, why are they looking at the interconnectors that bring so much electricity and so much energy into our country?” the defence secretary told the newspaper.
Experts said the lights were unlikely to go out if the electricity interconnectors, which supply about 5% of UK power, were somehow cut off.
“It does sound a bit like scaremongering really. If you take out one interconnector it’s clear the UK can survive. We saw that last year with the one to France,” said Jonathan Marshall, energy analyst at the ECIU thinktank, referring to a major power cable to France running at half capacity after it was damaged by a storm.
Even if all four power lines were disrupted simultaneously, it is unlikely supplies to homes would be affected. “There’s more than enough capacity in the UK,” he said.
John Feddersen, the chief executive of Aurora Energy Research, agreed. “Electricity is not a major problem, we’ve got a decent amount of capacity. No house lights are going to go out,” he said.
The analyst added there was also a hierarchy of needs in place for such scenarios, whereby big industrial users would be forced to cut their power demand before individuals were affected.
However, experts said the UK’s growing reliance on interconnectors for power could pose more of a problem in the future.
Peter Atherton, an analyst at energy consultancy Cornwall Insight, said: “If you literally switched off all the power interconnectors with a bit of warning, the lights probably wouldn’t go off because there’s enough capacity in the system.
“But once you get up to 7-8GW [of interconnector capacity in future, up from around 4GW now], there wouldn’t be enough spare capacity.”
A wider attack on Britain’s energy system targeting power stations and grid infrastructure would be crippling.
Atherton said: “It’s a very real threat in the sense that all modern economies are very vulnerable to a loss of energy. The energy infrastructure has relatively few very, very key nodes, and if you could take them out through bombing or a cyber attack, it would be hugely disruptive.
“In that sense it’s not scaremongering, but it is something that’s been around for ever [as a threat] and industry takes it seriously.”
Moscow mocked Williamson over the claims, saying they were “worthy of a comic plot or a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch”.
Industry watchers said the impact on gas supplies by Russian attacks on UK-EU pipelines could be very disruptive, though the effect would be more limited if North Sea links to Norway were unaffected. While Britain could import gas supplies by ship in a crisis, the tankers would take several days to arrive.
Analysts told the Guardian that the UK energy industry was mindful of the potential impact of threats to critical infrastructure, both physical and cyber.
A National Grid spokesperson said: “Given our vital role in connecting people to their energy supplies, we take our responsibility very seriously.”
This article was written by Adam Vaughan, for theguardian.com on Friday 26th January 2018 15.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010