HC Deb 08 September 2003 vol 410 cc9-10WS
The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms)

Her Majesty's Government have noted with concern the problems that have recently occurred on the National Grid. I would like to inform the House of the events of Thursday 28th August, when power was temporarily lost to an area of South East London and Kent, and of a further loss of power on Friday 5 September in the Birmingham area, and on the actions taken since.

In the early evening, on 28 August, electricity supply was lost to some 410,000 customers in South London and parts of Kent. Power was restored to the transmission system within 30 minutes and within another 11 minutes the local distribution system was re-energised and normal power was restored in all areas.

However, the consequences of the power failure were serious. There was disruption to surface rail, underground, street lights and traffic systems, water supply and sewerage systems as well as to electricity users in homes and workplaces. While London's critical infrastructure does have back-up arrangements, there was significant disruption, especially to the transport service. I understand that all of the back-up plans are under review by those agencies involved in the light of the difficulties caused to passengers after the power cut.

On 29 August I wrote to National Grid Transco (NOT) registering my grave concern about the power disruption and asking them to provide me with a full report explaining why it happened; what actions were taken; what the risks were of a similar action occurring in the future and what measures they would undertake to prevent a recurrence. On the 29 August I also met with the Chief Executive of NGT. My officials have been in close contact with NGT and EDF throughout. I expect a full report from NGT later this week, which I will place in the Libraries of the House.

My officials in the Engineering Inspectorate will need to consider the report carefully, liaising with the companies concerned. Ofgem will do likewise and will be reporting by the end of September on their initial assessment and will be considering the incident in light of National Grid's obligations. It may therefore be a number of weeks before we have a full understanding of the events. The DTI Engineering inspectorate has power to mount a full investigation and make recommendations should that be required.

Initial reports from NGT indicate that the power cut was a result of a transformer fault followed by another fault on a high voltage cable. As a result, electricity supplies could no longer be maintained to the affected areas and a power blackout ensued. EDF (the local distribution company in the area) was also affected, losing power to parts of its network.

It has been suggested that a lack of investment caused the problem. The Chief Executive of National Grid Transco told my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and myself, in a letter of 29 August, that this event "cannot be attributed to under-investment or to resource issues on the network". This issue will of course be considered further.

There has also been speculation that the fault was related to a shortage of generating capacity. However there was no shortage of generating capacity at the time, and the transmission system in the area would normally have been adequate to carry the electricity flow required. On present evidence it appears that the problem was solely a transmission failure.

I am very concerned that between 10.10 and 10.52 on 5 September another power failure should have occurred in the Midlands, this time affecting some 200,000 consumers. Again although I understand power was quickly restored, this second incident does raise questions about the reliability of the Transmission network that I am pursing as a matter of urgency with NGT.

Of course risks to complex systems such as the supply of energy cannot be completely eliminated, but I am determined to use this experience so that together with other Government agencies, the Regulator and the companies involved, we can help minimise and where necessary, manage them. The Secretary of State and I are determined to ensure that the necessary lessons are learnt.