On 21 June 2024, several countries in the Western Balkans experienced a supra-regional power outage, which was classified as a blackout by the European Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E). Although the topic of blackouts has been hotly debated in recent months and years and has since receded into the background, this event went largely unnoticed in our areas. This is probably also due to the fact that the successful international co-operation of the network operators meant that the disruption could be resolved within two hours. So, the all-clear for the longer-lasting scenario outlined so far?

This is generally the conclusion one tends to draw, but it is perhaps a little premature. A blackout, which was previously considered very unlikely due to the great efforts of the European transmission system operators, has materialised. As was to be expected, there were a large number of cumulative individual events that would not have posed a problem on their own. A high grid load due to high electricity consumption caused by temperatures of around 40 °C, high international load flows and an outage at an important point as well as other individual events led, as far as is known, to a cascading outage that affected Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Croatia. In Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, there were water supply failures as a result.  

Regional players are talking about further major challenges in the coming weeks and months, as the infrastructure is outdated and is also under heavy strain from the increasing number of decentralised feeders. Grid expansion – similar to that in Austria – is not keeping pace with the requirements.

Only the third blackout in Europe!

On 21 June, we experienced only the third blackout to date in the European interconnected system in Central Europe. The first occurred on Easter Monday 1976, when parts of southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland were affected. The second blackout occurred on 28 September 2003, when the whole of Italy was without electricity for up to 18 hours. Now the third. Due to the short duration, many of the otherwise expected consequences did not materialise.

Critics now claim that the warnings of a possible longer-lasting blackout were exaggerated and therefore more or less disproved. However, this could also be self-delusion. After all, the course of such an event depends on many factors and a little luck. On 21 June, we probably experienced a best-case scenario. But what happens if such an event were to occur in the centre of Europe or if circumstances do not allow for a quick recovery?

Underestimated triggers

What would happen if sabotage attacks on critical infrastructure, such as those announced by Russia, were actually realised? Such attacks are part of the hybrid warfare that we keep hearing about. The energy industry has also long been the target of increasing cyber-attacks, which in the worst case could trigger a major disruption. Furthermore, the increasing complexity and networking in the power supply system (keyword: flexibilisation) poses an additional challenge. These are all external factors that are almost impossible to keep under control.

Disregarding warning signals

Despite improvements in general blackout prevention in recent years, many people continue to take a careless approach to this issue and trust that nothing will happen or that someone else will help in an emergency. But in the event of a supra-regional outage, this is more than unlikely, as has already been explained in detail several times, as neither communication will work, nor will there be enough resources available to help many people.

Do we want to learn?

General preparedness therefore remains essential in order to be able to deal with possible large-scale supply disruptions – regardless of the cause. After all, prevention is important, but it is even more important to be able to deal with possible events and the expected consequences that could not be prevented. This is precisely what makes a resilient society. Those who only prepare for the best-case scenario will always be unpleasantly surprised. And we have experienced enough of these in recent years. So, the question is whether we want to learn something new or continue to be lulled into a false sense of security.

As already emphasised several times, it is not about possible probabilities, but about our ability to deal with surprises and uncertainty. In other words, to be crisis-proof. In any case, the challenges in the electricity supply system have not become any smaller and self-assessments can also be wrong, as a recently published report on the Summer Outlook 2024 confirms: According to this report, no particular challenges were expected this summer from the Balkan countries now affected. Desire and reality are often not congruent.

Further awareness raising is essential

Further awareness raising and calm communication of the necessary minimum requirements are therefore required: Water supplies for several days, a first aid kit, medication and food for at least 14 days. This buffer enables self-sufficiency with the bare essentials and relieves the burden on supply chains and emergency services when they restart. These provisions are also useful for many other possible events and are not just for the worst-case scenario described here. The personal preparedness of as many people as possible is and remains the basis for our crisis management capability, on which all other necessary measures are based.

What should companies and organisations do?

The first step is to accept that there is a potential risk of failure. In production environments, a few minutes or hours are often enough to cause major damages. If it takes longer, damage and restart difficulties increase with every hour. And exponentially so. It is therefore primarily a matter of minimising the expected damages and ensuring an orderly shutdown, which poses different challenges depending on the organisation. This is where the guidelines for blackout preparedness in companies and organisations from the Gesellschaft für Krisenvorsorge (www.gfkv.org/unternehmen) can help, providing a quick overview of the necessary measures.

The guide is structured according to the Pareto principle: 80 per cent of the success can be achieved with 20 per cent of the effort. It is therefore primarily about organisational processes that need to be prepared so that in the event of an incident, when hardly any technical communication will be possible, an orderly shutdown or, if necessary, emergency operation can be ensured as quickly as possible. Another point is the safety of staff. How will they get home? How many may need a roof over their heads so as not to expose themselves to unnecessary danger? And then you have to consider what problems are to be expected when restarting, and when it makes sense to restart at all.

The decisive factor is that an ad hoc organisation will not be successful, as is the case with other possible crises, but that only what is prepared and coordinated now will work. It is also not enough to have something on a piece of paper; the process up to that point is crucial. Otherwise, you have a great piece of paper but no functioning process that works with little communication effort. And that requires a lot of communication and coordination work in advance and, less, large investments in technology.

It is also not a question of hyping up the event, which turned out to be harmless, or of belittling the excellent work of the transmission system operators, but rather of raising general awareness that there is no such thing as one hundred per cent security, especially not in an environment of such fundamental upheaval as we are currently experiencing. A disaster only occurs when a foreseeable or surprising event hits an unprepared society, be it heavy rainfall events such as we are currently experiencing or, in the worst case, a supra-regional infrastructure failure. We all have it in our own hands how much we can be surprised and affected by an event. Let’s see this event as another early warning signal.