John Pettigrew, the CEO of National Grid.
John Pettigrew says problems at local networks exacerbated the effects of the blackout last week © Charlie Bibby/FT

The head of National Grid has called for the government to investigate why regional networks allowed power to be cut to critical infrastructure such as railways and hospitals, as part of its inquiry into last week’s blackout

In his first interview since Friday’s blackout cut power to 1m UK homes and businesses and caused widespread transport disruption, John Pettigrew defended National Grid’s performance, saying it had restored power within minutes to the electricity transmission system during the “rare” outage. Problems at the local network level caused the effects of the blackout to be more severe, he said.

“My view is the broader investigation absolutely needs to look at the prioritisation of demand,” said Mr Pettigrew. “The network was back and in normal operation within seven minutes but the disruption was massive, so it’s absolutely critical we look at the prioritisation of demand.”

Mr Pettigrew’s comments suggest a degree of frustration within National Grid, which was privatised almost three decades ago, over how a short-term outage caused such disruption. The company has faced calls from the opposition Labour party to be renationalised.

National Grid is responsible for the backbone of the UK’s electricity system and is in charge of balancing supply with demand. However, decisions over where to cut power in the event of a blackout lie with regional distribution network operators, said Mr Pettigrew. These include UK Power Networks, which covers London and the east of England, and Western Power Distribution, which covers the Midlands, south-west and Wales.

Friday’s blackout came after two big electricity sources tripped offline — first a gas-fired power plant, then an offshore wind farm.

Many passengers were stranded on trains for hours after the event, while one hospital in Ipswich lost power after its own back-up generators failed. The government has launched an investigation and National Grid must give the initial findings of its own inquiry to regulators by the end of this week.

Mr Pettigrew denied the electricity grid has become more vulnerable because renewable energy such as wind and solar power has been added to the network.

He said he was not looking to shift the blame for Friday’s outage on to smaller regional distribution network operators. But he conceded that blackouts affecting people’s homes were disruptive and argued they had a smaller knock-on effect compared to transport hubs or hospitals being shut down.

“I’m not pointing the finger, I’m just saying I think it’s sensible to do a broad investigation,” said Mr Pettigrew. “National Grid doesn’t have visibility of the specific demand that is being reduced, that is with the distribution companies. What is meant to happen is it’s meant to be non-priority demand. Clearly based on the report I have seen there was some priority demand that was affected.”

People walking in complete darkness at Clapham Junction station in London during a power cut, which has caused “apocalyptic” rush-hour scenes across England and Wales, with traffic lights down and trains coming to a standstill. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday August 9, 2019. Blackouts were reported in London and the South East, as well as the Midlands, South West, North East and the North West, late on Friday afternoon after what the National Grid Electricity System Operator said were issues with two generators. See PA story ENERGY PowerCut. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Commuters on the London Underground were left in the dark during the power cut © PA

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