Energy blackouts as predictable surprises

Andrew Curry writes: Last week’s British energy blackout has been followed by reports that the UK National Grid has come close to blacking out, at scale, several times, over the past year. This took me back 14 or 15 years to a project I did for an energy utility, looking out to 2015.

They had a management consultancy doing a strategy review, using the typical capability, market, and sectoral analysis. They added a futures component to this, to see if a futures ‘outside-in’ approach identified surprises or blindspots. The company I then worked for was commissioned to do the scan.

Blackouts and outages

As we built the systems story from the drivers of change, it became clear to us that there was a real risk of blackouts and outages. The combination of growing population, steady electricity demand, ageing infrastructure, shift away from coal, and ageing skills base led to that conclusion, no matter how many times we looked at it. It was clearly one of the critical issues coming out of the work. In a country that had pioneered the Grid and centralised electricity generation, precisely to ensure that the power stayed on, this was a surprise.

I was nervous about presenting this back to the client. People who work for technical businesses are often confident about avoiding gloomy outcomes. But when I revealed the slide, the response in the room was a surprise to me: the business had already come to that conclusion. They believed there would be blackouts.

Black elephants

We were looking out 10 years, and it has taken 14 to happen. This makes sense: insiders can often help technical systems to keep running by degrading them a little, in ways that are largely invisible to outsiders. At the same time, although we often talk about futures work as being about managing uncertainty, one of its purposes is to identify predictable surprises. Vinay Gupta and Dugald Hine invented the term “black elephants”, a cross between the “black swan” and the “elephant in the room”, to describe foreseeable events that people later try to pass off as a complete surprise. It seems that the British blackouts were a black elephant.

Andrew Curry is Director of Futures at SOIF. He can be contacted at andrew[at]

The image at the top of the post is from Bella Caledonia, and is used with thanks.