Jersey experienced an unprecedented gas outage on 7 October that left its residents and businesses without gas supply for up to two weeks. The blackout affected thousands of households and raised concerns about the island’s infrastructure. It was caused by a fault in Island Energy’s La Collette plant, causing the entire system to shut down. In this article, we will delve into the impact and causes of this significant power outage and whether the incident responders involved followed the correct course of action.
Cost to Community
The gas outage in Jersey had wide-ranging implications, affecting more than 4,000 customers, 400 businesses and even a “minor but manageable” disruption to one of the wards at Overdale Hospital, as reported by the Government of Jersey.
While the impact for some was limited to taking cold showers in the morning, for many businesses it resulted in thousands of pounds in losses. Marcus Calvani, co-chief executive of the Jersey Hospitality Association commented on the cost to business because of the outage. “The reputation damage to the Island is large. While the Destination Jersey conference this week went well, restaurants, particularly those taking part in the Delicious Jersey food festival, have really suffered,” he said.
One local business owner said losses due to the gas outage were pushing £10,000 after having to throw away almost £2,000 worth of fresh produce and missing out on around £8,000 in sales due to being closed since Saturday morning.
While the warm weather meant that the danger to health remained low, the situation could have been much worse. An estimated 63,000 excess winter deaths occurred in England and Wales in winter 2020 to 2021 according to the Office for National Statistics. Ensuring that people have the ability to heat their homes is vital and failure in this regard can have dire consequences.
The true cost of this outage will take some time to be uncovered, just last week, 23 November, the residents began to repeat calls for Island Energy to reveal their compensation plan.
Bringing the system back online
The root cause of Jersey’s gas outage can be attributed to a software failure. Island Energy Chief Executive, Jo Cox, claimed that the outage had been caused by “rogue code” which had caused their La Collette plant to automatically turn off to protect the wider network. All the backup procedures also failed. Although it is not clear what “rogue code” refers to, it could be a security threat or just a failure in the digital infrastructure.
Joe McKevitt, Director of Engineering at Uptime Labs, highlighted the important work of those incident responders in taking quick action and also the difficult decision to follow proper procedure and delay bringing systems back online, “failure will happen it is how you respond that matters”. The delay in bringing the system back online was due to the risks involved with air in the system. Cox compared it to bleeding a radiator but on an island-wide scale and said that failure to follow appropriate procedures could have created very unsafe conditions.
Slim prospect, sure chance
Cox claimed the chances of the La Collette plant and the backup systems failing were comparable to winning the Euromillions. However, as Incident Responders know, there are countless potential faults all with a miniscule probability of occurring. If something can go wrong, it probably will.
The focus needs to move away from building a system impervious to faults (a Sisyphean task) towards improving response time and getting systems back online as quickly as possible. This is doubly as important when there are secondary delays to bringing services back online, as in this case when engineers were faced with the prospect of potentially causing serious damage to the island’s infrastructure had proper procedure not been followed.
Contributing author: Patrick Aquilina