How would daily life in the UK be impacted as a result of four days without electricity? A new report from Lancaster University, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) tells the story of how, for one city, virtually all the modern infrastructure we rely on stopped working. This affected over 100,000 people and had serious potential consequences for the most vulnerable members of the community.

On 5 December 2015, Storm Desmond caused unprecedented flooding in north Lancashire and Cumbria. In Lancaster, the main electricity sub-station was flooded, cutting electricity supply to 61,000 properties.

The loss of power quickly affected many other services that we all take for granted. Most mobile phone coverage and text messaging was lost within an hour; this meant that Lancaster University had no way of communicating with its 7,000 students about what to do. Internet, television, and DAB radio were all knocked out. Electronic tills and most ATM machines stopped working, which along with non-functioning freezers, meant that many shops could not do business. Gas-fired central heating did not work because control systems and pumps need electricity. Homes with all-electric cooking were unable to heat food. High-rise buildings lost power for their lifts and upper floors lost water supplies.

No traffic lights were working and garages could not sell fuel as pumps are driven by electricity. The railway line was working as it is powered from outside the affected area but the station was closed at 4pm for safety reasons as there was no platform lighting.

The local hospital, which has back-up diesel generators, was able to function as normal but vulnerable people in their homes and homeless people on the street were more seriously affected.

Some gaps in local emergency leadership emerged as the crisis unfolded: the Gold Command was communicating with the local emergency services but not with the general public; the only functioning supermarket had to close its doors to queues of customers because of Sunday trading laws that no-one apparently had the authority to overturn.

These ‘cascade failures’ were the subject of a workshop convened by Lancaster University, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the IET to explore what lessons could be learned from the city’s experience. Attended by local and national service providers and government representatives, the workshop considered how the UK should prepare for such serious events in a society that is becoming more and more reliant on electronic and digital infrastructure that is reliant on electricity supply.

The report of the meeting outlines the balance that needs to be struck between ensuring sufficient resilience in national and local infrastructure and the need to ensure that infrastructure remains practical, efficient and affordable. The report will provide an informative read for a wide range of audiences: national and local planners, utilities, emergency services, education providers, local authorities, transport operators and retail and banking sector.

Report author and resident of Lancaster, Professor Roger Kemp MBE FREng of Lancaster University’s Engineering Department and the author of a highly-praised blog as events unfolded, said: “This one, very difficult event provided us with a unique opportunity to see just how reliant we all are on electricity and the services it supports. In the event, engineers worked tirelessly to rescue the situation and fortunately there were no serious consequences. But it is up to us all now to learn the lessons.”

Read the report:

Living without electricity (4.06 MB)

Notes for editors

  1. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession
  2. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is one of the world’s largest engineering institutions with over 167,000 members in 150 countries. It is also the most interdisciplinary – to reflect the increasingly diverse nature of engineering in the 21st century. Energy, transport, manufacturing, information and communications, and the built environment: the IET covers them all. The IET is working to engineer a better world by inspiring, informing and influencing our members, engineers and technicians, and all those who are touched by, or touch, the work of engineers. We want to build the profile of engineering and change outdated perceptions about engineering in order to tackle the skills gap. This includes encouraging more women to become engineers and growing the number of engineering apprentices. For more information, visit www.theiet.org
  3. Lancaster University is ranked in the UK Top 10 in the latest league tables from both the Guardian and the Complete University Guide. In the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, it is top in the North West, rising to 11th overall in the UK. It is ranked 130 in the world in the Times Higher tables, is ranked 121 in the QS World University Rankings and also appears 59th in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings table of Europe’s top 200 Universities.