Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 860 - 879)



  Q860  Mr Drew: I was going to say, by pure chance I drove past Walham a week last Friday when we had our second dose of water, and there was an awful lot of water lapping up against the sides of the HESCO barriers.

  Mr Winser: I do not think that is right.

  Q861  Mr Drew: There was quite a lot of water.

  Mr Winser: Not up at the HESCO barrier. It was still a meter short of the site, and actually the HESCO barrier is on the site.

  Q862  Mr Drew: I am just saying there was a lot of water that day.

  Mr Winser: There was not water up against the barrier, no.

  Q863  Mr Drew: Unfortunately I do see water everywhere nowadays. I meet a lot of constituents at weekends who are paranoid about it.

  Mr Murray: I think the fact that we had the close shave back in July at Walham, the fact that we did not rely on just having a temporary barrier there but did invest in the HESCO barrier and given the events of a week last Friday, when indeed the water levels around the site were rising quite rapidly, we did take the precaution of making sure that the whole site was then sealed off and secure in the event that the flood waters did rise again. On this occasion they did not. Had they risen again, this time the HESCO barrier is there, is deployed and, as Nick has mentioned, we have also got now this portable barrier, identical to the one the EA deployed on our behalf at Walham the first time round, so that if we get flooding elsewhere we can deploy that very rapidly, in advance of the conclusions of the ENA study which is going to the Energy Minister at the end of February, and, of course, the final conclusions from Sir Michael Pitt.

  Q864  Chairman: As far as back-up is concerned in terms of these potentially vulnerable sites, have you now addressed all 23 of the sites you identified and, in a more general question, where you believe there may be vulnerability at a site, have all of them got some alternative way, if they were inundated, of by-passing them to get consumers their electricity?

  Mr Winser: That is what the ENA work is all about, to work as an industry with the Environment Agency to understand what is the most economic way of providing a greater degree of resilience against both our sites and the sites of the distribution companies. Clearly, in this case, although we did not lose any supply from Walham, it is a good example of this feature that the distribution side also has sites which are fed from Walham. There is no point in protecting one without protecting them all, in a way.

  Mr Raymant: Yes. Coming back on the previous question in terms of protection of the sites, for a distribution network flood risk is just one of the weather risks we have to consider, and typically most of the interruptions we see are not down to flooding, they tend to be down to wind or lightning. So, when we are looking at our whole approach to risk assessment where we focus our attention, it has tended not to be flooding. The issue that has come to light now is that with what we would call low probability but high impact incidents like this we are having to factor those into our risk assessments in a completely different way by basically giving them a higher weighting. So that is how we are approaching this and that is the way we are looking at the 81 sites at risk we have got. Picking up on Nick's point about the distribution network, an analogy we can apply to that is more like the local road network compared to, say, the motorway network of the grid company. What that enables us to do is to provide a greater degree of interconnection so, if there is an incident on the network, we have got ways of feeding supplies alternatively, and actually we deployed that very successfully at Gloucester, which is why we were able to restore two-thirds of the customers within a couple of hours. But there does come a point where, if there is a major incident on the National Grid network (which, fortunately, we did not have), but if there had been, it would have been impossible for us to provide alternative supplies to meet that shortfall.

  Q865  Chairman: We spend a lot of time trying to make our special services like electricity, gas, sewage resilient to a whole range of risks, whether they be natural or man-made. Are we getting to be in a situation where these facilities are more or less resilient to threat? How do you actually deal with that? We keep reading about all these contingency plans, even for things like terrorist activity; now we have potentially extreme weather events. How reassured can the public be that their infrastructure is going to be properly protected?

  Mr Murray: I think they can be very well assured, Chairman. The resilience on the electricity network is already 99.999% in terms of its delivery, and the reason that we worked with the Hadley Centre EDF and E.ON a couple of years ago to kick off a study of the long-term impact of climate change and the impact on the energy sector was because we recognised that we were not looking at a static position, things are changing. We do have regular contingency exercises, we have got one actually with London this month, and going forward, of course, we have further hardened our resilience, not only just at Walham by the installation of the HESCO barrier but by the investment in the portable barrier for elsewhere and, indeed, the on-going investment we are making in our networks in terms of the replacement and refurbishing of the National Grid over the next ten, 15 years.

  Mr Winser: Alan made an excellent point, which is that there are many requirements for us to invest in our networks and we are investing at a higher rate than we have ever invested, and that is a lot to do with connecting up new sources of low carbon generation. Obviously we are also entering into a major phase of asset replacement anyway, a lot of the assets are getting towards the end of their lives, so for our part we are investing in our networks currently at a rate, over the next five years in this network, of about three and a half four billion pounds, so this is really accelerating, and, as we do so, we are trying to pick up all of the risks that you have highlighted there, but inevitably there is a degree of balancing against them. We are giving great emphasis to the risks of flooding because of the work coming out of the Hadley Centre.

  Q866  Dr Strang: On that point, you are making the point that there is a whole range of hazards and threats that you have got to try to protect our infrastructure from. On the terrorist threat, I think we all agree that, obviously, the threat now is of a different order from the one posed by the IRA. So, if you look in the last ten years at this issue, has that become quite prominent? Obviously, it is not something you necessarily discuss with the media, but has that become much more prominent in your planning and thinking? When it comes to investing in new facilities, is this a major factor in terms of recruitment, in terms of staff and labour? Is this really a major factor in increasing your costs legitimately?

  Mr Raymant: Do you mean specifically with flooding?

  Q867  Dr Strang: No, I mean in terms of all your investments.

  Mr Raymant: Like Nick said, I think the whole industry is investing significantly much larger amounts of money in the network, and that is recognised in the fact that the network is very old. Even at current investment levels, you are talking in excess of 50, 60 years implied life for the assets, so it will take a long time to turn round the asset-base that we have got into something different and, therefore, we have to look at the specific risks of individual investments very carefully to decide exactly where we are going to allocate our funds. Going forward, we would be expecting to allocate further resources to flood resilience. What we are trying to do at the moment is quantify exactly which sites are at risk and then what investment we need to make to protect those sites, and that will be informed by the work that the ENA are doing that Chris referred to earlier as well as work that the EA are doing in terms of improving their predictive methods for assessing flood risk. All of those things have to be considered and we have to come up with a balance in terms of our investments to make sure we are managing all of the risks effectively.

  Q868  Dr Strang: Obviously you cannot do all of this by yourself, but things like reservoirs and dams and all these things are major considerations that you are concerned about?

  Mr Raymant: Yes.

  Mr Winser: From our perspective, thankfully, transmission reliability is, by international standards, right up there at the top of the pile. As Chris was saying, it is six-ninths reliable. We have to be balancing the variety of risks to it, and flooding is the latest thing that we really do need to focus on and we are doing so through the ENA study. That will have to be judged carefully for its effectiveness at providing resilience against the variety of other risks that the Chairman raised.

  Q869  Paddy Tipping: We were given a promise that you were going to give us a snapshot of what happened in Sheffield, because there were problems there both with substations for electricity and gas as well. Perhaps you would just tell us what happened? You had not expected it to happen in Sheffield.

  Mr Murray: No, as I think the Committee will know, we had unprecedented weather conditions this summer and in Sheffield we actually did lose some supplies. The water levels at our Neepsend substation rose extremely rapidly on 25 June. At 12.30 we found that the water was starting to come into the substation, by 1.45 we had evacuated the substation and by 5.30 it was under four feet of water. Around two hours earlier, at 3.30, we actually lost supplies to the local distribution network outlet, CE Electric. Because we knew this was happening, the water levels were rising, working with the local DNO, CE Electric, we transferred as much load as we possibly could away from that site so that, as Alan mentioned, they could reconfigure their network. Unfortunately, when the site tripped, we lost 35,000 customers. Very quickly CEE were able to reconfigure further to bring that number down to 12,000 customers, they were then able to do some rota disconnection while we did repair works and they did support works, and everybody was back on within 36 hours, and by the Friday evening, about 11.30, we were able to get back into the site and actually restore the supplies from that site. Since that time, of course, we have spent several million pounds repairing the site and bringing it back up to normal operations as well as improving the defences there. That was the gas side of things. Very close to that we had the Thorpe Marsh site, which again was subject to water inundation, but we did not lose any supplies from there, we were able to get it switched out and to do some protective works—we had great support from the Army, the Fire Brigade—and then switched it back in without any loss of supply; and on the gas side we had some low pressure areas where domestic customers, because of water ingress, had to have their supplies off and we got those back on quite quickly. Frankly, the biggest issue that we might have had, which, thankfully did not come to fruition on the gas side, was the risk of the failure of the Ulley Dam at Rotherham, because we had a gas installation at the foot of that site, but, once we became aware of that risk, we isolated it and were feeding the local area by other routes. Thankfully the Ulley Dam did not fail and so that site was not a risk ultimately.

  Q870  Paddy Tipping: But within Sheffield none of these sites were on your radar screen, as it were. Is that right? How do you view them into the future?

  Mr Murray: One of the things that we think about in terms of Neepsend, of course, was that this was due really to two things: first of all the extreme rainfall and water levels coming up anyway and then actually the impact of that rainfall washing away a bridge which then diverted lots more water into the site. I think we have to think of second consequences and not just think about what happens if the rain level comes up. We have to think about the infrastructure around it, and that is what a lot of the work has been doing since that time with both our own consultants and the ENA, and that is why we have chosen to deploy the temporary barrier both north and south so that in the intervening period, while we await the results of the ENA recommendations, we can have the capability to protect our sites. One of the recommendations from Sir Michael Pitt's Review is that we engage with our regulator and look at what further investments should be made, but I think one has to look at this holistically in terms of investments that the EA might want to make in providing flood defences, the investments that we might want to make and the investments that the DNO might want to make: because we should not have people paying twice through maybe tax and their energy bill for investments which, if they were looked at holistically, could have been done once.

  Q871  Paddy Tipping: Are those discussions taking place?

  Mr Murray: They are indeed.

  Q872  Mr Drew: Could we go back to Gloucestershire—really these are questions for Mr Raymant—and what happened in Castle Meads. In the same way as Mr Murray outlined the Sheffield experience, would you give us a quick elucidation of what happened in the Castle Meads substation?

  Mr Raymant: Sure. The main events, as it were, started on the Sunday evening when the water levels started to rise at that site. We had assistance from the Fire Brigade but it was becoming quite clear that it was going to be very difficult to hold back the flood waters and ensure that the site was fully protected. Going back two days, in Worcestershire we had had an incident at the substation called Timberdine, which had flooded not by river flooding but by rain water run-off, and in the process that substation actually tripped because it flooded. The consequence of that was it caused significant damage to the substation and it took us four days to repair it. Going back to Gloucestershire, on that Sunday, early on the Monday morning, we were faced with a similar situation. We actually took what we considered to be a difficult but quite brave and courageous decision to switch the substation out, and the reason we wanted to do that was because we were confident that if we could pump the water out, as soon as we had pumped the water out we would be able to switch the circuits back in and get the customers back on. The consequence of that was that at 5.00 o'clock in the morning we switched the substation out. We lost supplies to 47,000 customers. We progressively, over the next two to three hours, brought about two-thirds of those customers back on by redirecting supplies and that left us with about 13,000 customers that we had no other means of supplying. We needed to get Castle Meads back on. Whilst we were doing that, with the assistance of the Army and the Fire Service, we put protection around Castle Meads substation and pumped the water out to where we were comfortable we could actually switch the circuit back in and maintain safe supplies, and we did that at just after midnight on the Tuesday morning and all supplies were then restored. The maximum impact was that we had about 11-13,000 customers off for around about 20 hours. In the circumstances we think we could not have done any better than that.

  Q873  Mr Drew: Why did you not, before the Gloucester County Council Inquiry, give them the same information you have given to us?

  Mr Raymant: Part of that, to be honest, was a misunderstanding. We had been supporting the debriefing of the Gold Command meetings. There were a number of those meetings and we took the decision that we had actually provided all of the briefing material we needed to provide and, therefore, did not see the immediate need to support that particular investigation as well. So, that was the reason why we did not go. I think, in hindsight, we would have preferred to have gone, but, as I say, it was a judgment at the time, having many requests to attend a series of debriefing sessions, that we focused on the Gold Command meetings.

  Q874  Mr Drew: You put written evidence in but you did not appear in person?

  Mr Raymant: Yes. As I say, I think our focus at the time was on the Gold Command debriefs.

  Q875  Mr Drew: What have you done about those customers who lost power? Have you compensated them in any way or have you explained what has happened so they know directly what the repercussions were of your decision?

  Mr Raymant: Two things. One was that in the immediate aftermath of the incident we were very proactive in terms of checking out properties round the Gloucestershire area that had been affected by flooding so that we could at least give the customer some comfort about the safety of their supplies once they returned into their properties. That is what we felt was most important, because we are talking about vast numbers of customers at that point. So that was our immediate focus, as well as making sure that they had the general safety information for when they returned to their properties. In terms of those immediately disrupted, as part of the industry regulation there is an established compensation mechanism which customers are entitled to call on.

  Q876  Mr Drew: You have done that, or you have allowed them to do it?

  Mr Raymant: Yes. It is for the customers to actually claim, but, yes, to the extent that they have we will have met those obligations in full.

  Q877  Mr Drew: In terms of the costs of the emergency services, obviously the Army and the other emergency services, have you recompensed them in any way?

  Mr Raymant: In short, no. We certainly have not been asked to, and it certainly was not our expectation that we would have been either. I think at the time the main driver, the main requirement, was for us to effectively move as quickly as possible to business as usual and, therefore, not be reliant on the emergency services, and that was the position and the strategy we adopted.

  Q878  Mr Drew: But they played a key part in some of the logistics to allow you to get to the stage where you were able to put the substation back on again.

  Mr Raymant: Yes, they were absolutely critical to the process on that Monday of sandbagging the site and pumping the site out. That is absolutely right. That was the first part of the strategy. The second part of the strategy was making sure that we could stand on our own two feet once we got the site back on and, thereafter, that is what we did. We had sufficient pump capacity of our own to manage the site.

  Q879  Mr Drew: Moving on to the Pitt Review, the interim report, it would be very interesting to know from both organisations: what have you done so far? There is obviously a lot of mention of the role of Category 2 responders. Michael Pitt is not uncritical of the role that you played both during the emergency and post emergency. Perhaps starting with the National Grid, what have you actually done so far? Of those immediate recommendations that Michael Pitt highlights, how many of those have you got responsibility for and what have you done in response to that?

  Mr Winser: His immediate recommendations were largely not to us, although PPS25, which zones the sites and has recommendations for how to deal with the different types of resilience required to flood, we have implemented in full. We have also undertaken the work with the ENA and the rest of the industry to understand what is the best overall approach to increasing resilience going forward.

  Mr Murray: I think the emergency or urgent recommendations that Sir Michael Pitt has put forward, as Nick says, largely do not apply to National Grid. However, there are a number of the other 72 recommendations. Many of them are related to the closeness of working with the local and regional fora, and I am pleased that we do work very closely with them. We have also worked very closely with Sir Michael on his work for the interim review. I have met with him personally, and I am meeting with him again within the next two weeks, in support of the work towards his final conclusion. We have no difficulty whatsoever with the recommendations that he has put forward. As I mentioned, one of the other recommendations that he has made is that we work with the regulatory authorities to consider what further investments should be taken to physically harden any other sites that might be at risk going forward.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 7 May 2008