Power companies must “up their game” after thousands of households in Britain faced “appalling conditions” when they were left without power for more than a week after Storm Arwen hit last year, the industry watchdog has said.
Publishing its full report into the response of power distributors to the storm, Ofgem said they were underprepared and provided an “unacceptable service” to customers, with nearly 1m homes losing power and 4,000 of those cut off for longer than a week.
Jonathan Brearley, the chief executive of the regulator, said companies must do more to make sure they are prepared for the winter ahead.
“The main message to all the network companies is up your game, get ready for winter. This is a really tough time for customers right now. This is a market where everybody is having a difficult time. Every energy company that’s working in this country needs to be working on behalf of their customers. And that means big changes for the networks,” he said.
Three network operators – Northern Powergrid, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and Electricity North West – have paid nearly £30m in compensation to affected customers and have agreed to pay a further £10.3m in “redress payments”. Ofgem said a total of £44m will have been paid by distribution network companies as a result of failures in their response to Storm Arwen. These included poor communication with customers.
Brearley said that while the regulator recognised companies faced challenging conditions in the aftermath of the storm, which was the worst the country has faced in a decade, “it was unacceptable that nearly 4,000 homes in parts of England and Scotland were off power for over a week, often without accurate information as to when power would be restored”.
Ofgem has issued a raft of recommendations, which include stress-testing the capacity of customer call centres, and forcing power network and distributing firms to submit winter preparedness plans that prove they can properly support customers during power disruptions.
“The network needs to be more resilient to things like this,” Brearley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. He stressed that companies needed to be clear in their communication with customers, especially after the review found some were repeatedly told they would have power restored within 24 hours, even though some outages lasted a week.
Brearley said companies also needed to come up with more creative solutions to restoring power after outages, including providing generators, rather than waiting for engineering work to be completed.
Affected customers were paid £70 each in compensation for the first 48 hours of outages, and a further £70 for every additional 12 hour period they were left without power. While that calculation was capped at £700 a customer, network companies have offered to pay even more to those who were left without power for more than six and a half days. About 82% of customers had their power restored within 24 hours, Ofgem said.
Brearley said it was particularly important to prepare for future disruption, given the effects of the climate crisis. “We’re going to need to continue to invest in our networks, particularly if we have more storms like this as a result of climate change,” he added.
“Network companies need to do better, not just to prevent power disruptions, but to ensure that when power is off, they work smarter to get people back on power quicker, and keep customers informed with accurate and timely information. This is the very least customers should be able to expect.”
David Smith, the chief executive of the Energy Networks Association industry body, said he welcomed Ofgem’s findings, adding that members had pledged to increase spending on “resilience measures” such as tree cutting and flood prevention by 20%, from £12bn to £14.5bn, over the next five years. Those plans have been submitted to Ofgem for approval.
“It’s important customers have trust in their network operators and are supported during severe weather events,” he said.