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« Guess the number of bears in the freezer | Main | Settled science at the BBC »

Mr Swinney's footwork

Readers will recall that a power cut put a large swathe of northern Scotland in the dark a few weeks back, apparently due to a faulty relay in a substation. However, a number of expert commentators have observed that this seems to be a somewhat implausible explanation and there have been several attempts to check the facts, including an FOI request submitted by yours truly.

One of the other attempts took the form of a question put in the Scottish Parliament by Alex Johnstone, the MSP for North East Scotland.  Here, such as it is, is the answer he received, as documented in the official report of the Scottish Parliament:

Electricity Grid Failure (Wind Turbines)
3. Alex Johnstone (North East Scotland) (Con): To ask the Scottish Government whether it has undertaken any further investigation into whether an overreliance on wind turbines as a source of electricity played a role in the grid failure on 16 April 2014. (S4O-03258)

The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth (John Swinney): On 22 April, I set out the reasons for the power outage of 16 April and submitted to the Scottish Parliament information centre a comprehensive note outlining the contributing factors.

Alex Johnstone: On 22 April, the cabinet secretary told me that Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution had identified a faulty electronic relay as the cause of the problem. However, engineering opinion that in many cases has been volunteered to me has suggested that, far from failing, the relay did exactly what it was supposed to do and that the cause of the trip has yet to be identified. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to make SSE’s engineering incident report available to allow independent opinion to be sought?

John Swinney: On 22 April, I relayed to the Parliament the information supplied to me by SSE that a fault in the electronic relay at the Knocknagael substation near Inverness was the root cause of the outage. In addition, SSE has advised me that it is engaging closely with technical experts at Siemens, which is the manufacturer of the relay, to ensure that that fault will not occur on SSE’s network in the future.

SSE’s position that the reason for the power outage was the reason that I gave to Parliament back in April could not be clearer. I hope that that gives Mr Johnstone the reassurance that he is looking for that the examination by those who are responsible for operating the grid identified that as the particular problem that led to the circumstances in April this year.

The failure to confirm that the engineering incident report will be made available looks intriguing, to say the least.

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Reader Comments (40)


May 30, 2014 at 5:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimbrock

More like Freedom from FOIA (FFFOIA).

Have they never heard of root cause analysis? Why? Why? And Why again?.

Such an incident will repeat itself. I look forward with interest to the further explanation.

May 30, 2014 at 5:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohnOfEnfield

Compare with his refusal — 11 times! — to put a figure on the set-up costs of an independent Scotland.
Salmond eventually came up with a figure which is scarcely credible (even though the interpretation of the Treasury figure is not much more plausible).
Swinney (a man whom I have met and like) is a nonentity as far as the government of Scotland is concerned. Like the rest of the Cabinet he is Salmond's puppet.

May 30, 2014 at 6:22 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

The failure was a rapid fall of grid frequency; this happens when there is too little power to feed the load, a natural property of a synchronous AC grid. When there was a missed half cycle, 10 ms, the safety system tripped out 20% of the load.

The cause of the low power was a fall in windmill power when the wind dropped and there was no standby power to take over sufficiently quickly.

Salmond must know by now that there is no possibility of >20% windmill power as a proportion of instantaneous demand with massive pump storage giving 20 - 30 s standby at the GW level just for Scotland. This has to be pumped by nuclear power for no CO2 because it is artificial hydro and has to be kept going continuously.

May 30, 2014 at 6:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpartacusisfree

Re the above: without massive pump storage giving 20-30s standby and surge absorption at the GW level. The alternative, Diesel STOR uses more fossil fuel for the wind tranche than coal without windmills.

May 30, 2014 at 7:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpartacusisfree

Pity you don't have a way into Siemens. Perhaps someone there would like to blow the whistle. (afaik FOI does not apply to private companies)

May 30, 2014 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

Got to hand it to John Swinney- he really is a master of evasion.

Sadly it is the primary qualification needed by today's politicians.

May 30, 2014 at 8:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Swinney is clearly blaming Siemens. Perhaps Siemens have a view of the incident that they would like to share if only they were asked in a particular way? Perhaps, in expounding their view, Siemens might find it useful to explicate the design spec of the relay in question?

May 30, 2014 at 8:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuther Bl't

Ask for the investigation report ,spec ,serial number,manufacture date and service history of the failed relay concerned to be made available to the SMPs by Siemans itself.

What is the specification of this relay ,current or voltage sensing and was it designed to work with Wind Turbines.

May 30, 2014 at 9:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid


Resistance to publishing the incidence report is suspicious.

Protection systems are complex, they have to consider many possible fault conditions, over and under voltage, current overload, under and over frequency, ground faults, phase imbalance and more. Without the facts, to assume that the trip was an under-frequency condition induced by a loss of wind generated power is speculation.

This unwillingness to release the investigation does however support the suspicion of a wind generation induced grid instability as being the root cause. If there is nothing to hide then release the report with the raw data and the analysis. I have serious doubts about the capability of a politician to understand and relate accurately the reality of the incident investigation when he likely wouldn't know an Ohm or a Theta if they bit him in the backside.

May 30, 2014 at 9:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Singleton

If events happened as you say, and I have no reason to fault you on this, then the proactive* circuits reacted as designed. That is to say they protected the grid from further disruption.
All too often the non technical fail to realize that the number one job of a grid connected system is to maintain as much of the grid's integrity as possible at all times; this even at the cost of loss of sevice to the customers (generators and consumers) on it.
[*protective? BH]

May 30, 2014 at 9:43 PM | Unregistered Commentertom0mason

@ Mike Jackson 6:22

Swinney is a "nonentity" and a "puppet". And this is a guy you LIKE.

Remind me not to upset you at anytime!

May 30, 2014 at 10:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterEd Moran

The devil looks to be in the detail :-)

I do like tormenting wind advocates with "There is a law against connecting a "traditional" generator to the power grid with the output characteristics of a windmill" ... and it's beginning to look more than likely that this outage is an embarrassing one.

Keep tugging on that thread - unraveling is looking like a fair bet at the moment :-) The cover up is usually worse than the incident.

May 30, 2014 at 10:50 PM | Registered Commentertomo

What has Swinney got to hide? There was a time when lying to parliament was regarded as a very serious offence and minsters who were caught out resigned without question, e.g. John Profumo at the time of the Christine Keeler affair when Macmillan was prime minister of the UK. Of course, that was all a long time ago and the Scottish Parliament, being a recent creation, follows recent UK precedent whereby ministers cling on to office by the skin of their teeth.

May 30, 2014 at 11:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoy

Ah, "Scotch Mist" at work!

May 30, 2014 at 11:42 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

Agree with jamspid: if anyone is FOIing, let's have the details on the "failed" relay, the failure mode and the root cause analysis of the failure. As this was a significant failure the distribution company would be pretty remiss if they haven't investigated it in detail. IIRC, the "relay" was claimed to have been "repaired" - if so, worth asking the details of the repair (what was broken, why, what parts replaced and the cost of repair).
If the answer is something like it was a rack mounted control unit and it failed due to a defective capacitor in the power supply that's a genuine failure. If it "failed" because it tripped (as intended) due to low grid frequency that's a different matter...

May 31, 2014 at 12:34 AM | Unregistered Commentergareth

May 30, 2014 at 6:35 PM Spartacusisfree.

Birdmincers, as a substitute for fossil/ nuclear - is political and energy policy insanity.

Sounds about right to me, doesn't matter, even if there is a windpower supergrid - not enough, or no steady state baseload - as the southern German experience has proven - grid will trip - or blow.

May 31, 2014 at 1:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Just ask for a copy of the grid frequency chart for the 10 minutes prior to the failure. If it shaows a drop from 50 Hz to something less than 49.5 Hz then everyone would know that a drop in the frequency was a prime cause.

May 31, 2014 at 2:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterJantar


Even if an "electronic relay" did indeed fail, for that to have caused a major power cut over a wide area indicates a serious problem with the network and its management.

May 31, 2014 at 8:02 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Ed Moran
Swinney's a nice guy — too nice to have let himself get in with this crowd!
But in Salmond's shadow he's turned out to be ineffectual because Salmond walks all over him as we saw demonstrated on Wednesday. If you can think of a more effective way to embarrass your deputy than to leave him swinging in the wind like that and then popping up with any old figure that comes to mind then I'd like to know what it is if only to avoid it.
Doesn't stop Swinney being likeable though. More so than Fat Eck anyway.

May 31, 2014 at 8:35 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson


These are the 5 minute frequency averages over the period in question, thanks to gridwatch

| freq (Hz) |wind (MW) | Timestamp |
| 50.063999 | 1841 | 2014-04-16 20:00:02 |
| 49.972 | 1830 | 2014-04-16 20:05:07 |
| 50.083 | 1862 | 2014-04-16 20:10:03 |
| 50.02 | 1923 | 2014-04-16 20:15:04 |
| 49.985001 | 1950 | 2014-04-16 20:20:03 |
| 50.056999 | 1970 | 2014-04-16 20:25:01 |
| 50.056999 | 1988 | 2014-04-16 20:30:04 |
| 49.956001 | 2010 | 2014-04-16 20:35:02 |
| 50.066002 | 2049 | 2014-04-16 20:40:01 |
| 50.014 | 2073 | 2014-04-16 20:45:03 |
| 49.917 | 2087 | 2014-04-16 20:50:03 |
| 49.960999 | 2128 | 2014-04-16 20:55:03 |

Sadly they show nothing untoward, so whatever caused the trip was not actually a falling frequency on the whole UK grid, which is phase locked.

Similarly there is no sudden drop in wind either.

May 31, 2014 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

A relay is an electrical switch.

A protective relay is a sensor that operates a switch.

They are different animals. The statement says it is the former. The criticism talks of the latter. Do we know what it actually was?

May 31, 2014 at 9:36 AM | Unregistered Commenterssat

Leo, do those measurements have enough resolution to determine the cause of the trip?

I presume the fluctuation, trip and corrected frequency would all happen in a second or two at most.

May 31, 2014 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterNial

@Leo Smith, Unfortunately your figures are not good enough. What is needed are figures that are, at most, 10 seconds apart. Electronic proactive protection equipment usually reacts to one second differences in their set parameters.

May 31, 2014 at 10:30 AM | Unregistered Commenterivan

Also, are they classing "fixing" the problem as resetting the tripped switch rather than actually replacing any failed parts?

Arse-covering springs to mind...

May 31, 2014 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony

Under the April 17 article 'Wind speculation', local Beauly farmer John Graham (host of windfarmaction) made a very telling comment:
"Definitely wind drop. Never mind the forecasts. I was out feeding the cattle. One minute I could hardly get the barn door closed and the next no wind at all. Just went inside and the power went off."

May 31, 2014 at 11:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterDoug Brodie

I think this summarises Salmond/Swinney's approach to truth in politics:

May 31, 2014 at 12:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpartacusisfree

The switch reacted as designed, which means it was the wind mills screwing up the grid.

May 31, 2014 at 12:43 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

In the meantime, nationwide, wind is providing a mighty 0.10GW (0.3% of modest demand).

My goodness, those windythings are good value for taxpayers' money...

May 31, 2014 at 1:11 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

What Nixon called a "non-denial denial". This is what the energy company, officially, said. If it ain't true Swinney's can say he never said it was.

May 31, 2014 at 2:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Craig

I suspect that events occurring on the National Grid are National Security related. So little or no event activity detail will be released to the public.

Anyway, if you introduce a very unstable/variable power source to a critical generation/distribution system that has been designed for steady/predictable inputs, then expect exactly whats just happened.

May 31, 2014 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterEx-expat Colin

Given the freedom with which a number of 'slebs (and The Gurniad) are bandying about the rape word and stretching it's use - my wallet / bank account has been violated by these eco-thieves ...

Forensic evidence is being continually collected and disturbances in The Force are recorded I suspect as a matter of routine at a number of locations across the country....

Even the BBC are on the case....

The Register folk are probably a good port of call to see if the relevant data can be gotten hold of.....

Jun 1, 2014 at 8:25 AM | Registered Commentertomo

@ Mike Jackson 8:35 yesterday.

Thanks for the background info, Mike.

@ Sparticusisfree 12:08 yesterday.

Special thanks to you! I laughed out loud: dangerous when you're on your own!

Jun 1, 2014 at 4:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterEd Moran

Blimey now you really are being conspiracy theorists. Swinney is hiding nothing. The relay was faulty. An unknown writes a letter saying relays don't fail and somehow everyone else is believed to be covering up? Let it lie for Petes sake! Unlike in England there is no capacity problem at all in Scotland so windmills are not being relied upon unduly. I like Swinney too by the way. He is a very able minister as are Salmond and Sturgeon... Totally unlike the New Labour puppets that preceded them.

Jun 1, 2014 at 10:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG


Aye well, that'd be nothing to hide, nothing to fear then - wouldn't it?

Transparency - it's easy to do and then to move on. Generally when information is withheld like this - it's not simply because of "who are you to be asking this?" obstructionism that many bureaucrats wallow in - there's usually an ulterior motive.

Jun 1, 2014 at 11:01 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Will we be seeing warnings against using Siemens equipment in any and all mission critical systems? Siemens, another Global Warming travesty.

Jun 2, 2014 at 4:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul in Sweden

> Unlike in England there is no capacity problem at all in Scotland so windmills are not being relied upon unduly.

Except they're feeding the 'National' grid.

Jun 2, 2014 at 7:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterNial

Look: wind at that point wasn't contributing very much - a couple of GW nationwide.

The grid if it lost even 500MW would simply cope. As it does when any power station itself trips.

The ultra short term load increase in what's left is taken up by the actual rotational inertia of the kit, and as the grid slows down, other plant at part throttle is dispatched upwards.

I am certainly of the opinion that wind power is pants: But I am wary of laying the blame for this event at its door.

Jun 2, 2014 at 8:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

Leo Smith

absolutely - so why not release a report and move on ?

Unless the instability was precipitated by something that "shouldn't" have caused it. I've seen reports of some quite surprising (an unexpected) behaviour in extended power distribution networks - maybe it wasn't wind turbines - but sitting on the report almost always seems to cause more trouble than simply publishing...

Jun 2, 2014 at 1:41 PM | Registered Commentertomo

Swinney signed this Westminster EDM as a then MP for North Tayside

EDM1261 in 1997-98
"That this House recognises the importance of the role of renewable energy technologies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling the threat of dangerous climate change; welcomes the [UK] Government's aim for 10 per cent. of electricity to be generated by renewable sources by 2010 as an important step towards meeting its manifesto target of a 20 per cent. cut in carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels by 2010"

Swinney is clearly an ignoramus when it comes
to power generation and a "Green" prosy at that.
Salmond may be a "Greenie" now, but he didn't
sign that EDM at the time , when he was the MP
for Banff & Buchan constituency in the North East of Scotland.
(at that time there was much resistance to wind power in the North East)

NOTHING will permit Swinney to change from his avowed position, and he will go to any lengths to avoid revealing any substantive facts which disprove the assumptions which he has made in Scottish Government Energy Policy, now that he is the official Scottish Government "Cabinet Secretary for Everything Else". He even convinced Salmond to adopt that crazy notion, as laid out in the EDM and went further still to the position where we are today, with rolling black-outs set to become a regular occurrence, I fear.

Bah !

Jun 5, 2014 at 3:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterMemory Hole

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