A pan-European power and infrastructure failure, a so-called blackout, would bring our society to the brink of collapse within a few days.

Neither the people nor the companies or the state are prepared for these kinds of wide-spread utility failures. We are living in a dangerous state of false security. But how realistic is this scenario and what would be its consequences?

The European power grid is one of the most reliable in the world. From a risk calculation perspective, the likelihood of a complete failure is very low, as this sort of event has never happened in Europe. However, the challenges to secure grid operation and the risk of major disruptions or failures have been increasing for many years. There are many reasons for this. They range from a power market that knows no physical limits, to an energy revolution that ignores systemic interrelationships and only calls for the replacement of individual elements, to new vulnerabilities arising from increased connectivity.

First phase of the blackout

A disruption can spread across large parts of Europe within seconds. It could take a week before the entire European grid system is working reasonably again. However, that is just the first phase of a blackout that grid operators have been anticipating for years. Emergency power generators are often used in other areas as a security measure. However, they can only cover a fraction of actual requirements. Performance is usually highly overestimated and susceptibility highly underestimated in this situation.

Second phase of the blackout

The second phase of the blackout until telecommunications services (fixed and mobile networks, internet) are working reasonably again is also completely underestimated. A recovery period of at least a few days should be anticipated due to expected hardware damage and overloads. The duration of the power failure is decisive here.
The longer the power failure lasts, the more difficult and time-consuming it is to reboot these systems. This means that neither the production nor the distribution logistics or sale of goods are possible. Fuel logistics would not function either. There are simply too many – and often ignored – dependencies in supply logistics and many of these are transnational. Just two examples of many:

  1. in a local power failure, a key network component loses its configuration and the entire IT network and telephone system no longer work;
  2. a necessary online connection to the cash register drops out at a petrol station being supplied with back-up power and prevents fuel from being distributed.

Third phase with time-consuming restarts

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Supply bottlenecks lasting several months are to be expected as a result of serious damage and total failures in food production, food processing and food distribution. This means that time-consuming restarts are also to be expected in phase three.

As an Austrian security research study has shown, around one-third of the population thinks it will be self-reliant for a maximum of four days. For an additional one-third, the figure is seven days. However, it will only be possible to restart on a broader scale in the second week at the earliest.

Generally speaking, employees and members of the emergency services or companies are not much better prepared and organised than the rest of society. However, if people are in crisis at home and are starving, they will not come to work to reboot the systems or to maintain an emergency supply. This is the start of a vicious circle.

Help the people to help themselves

Helping the people to help themselves is the main basis for all other necessary measures. Only when as many people as possible are able to keep their heads above water for at least two weeks will a rapid and extensive restart be possible.
However, there is a lack of awareness of this because there is hardly any risk and safety communication, usually out of misconceived consideration. “We don’t want to unsettle people,” is a recurring statement.But it is precisely this appeasement that provides for early escalation and uncontrollability.
A population that is self-sufficient is essential for any type of interruptions in supply and a prerequisite for a resilient society. In order to ensure that more and more people take precautions, it is essential to issue safety communications and information openly and honestly. It remains to be seen whether the coronavirus crisis will cause a change in mindset in the long term.

Herbert Saurugg, MSc
Präsident der Österreichischen
Gesellschaft für Krisenvorsorge
T +43 660 3633896

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