There was a gale

Fallen tree blocking the road.
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The intransigence of a fallen tree blocking the road.

Tale of a gale

The news that electricity was cut in some parts of Kent following the storm does not surprise me. The reason for the power outages is that trees or large branches fall on overhead cables pulling them down. I used to wonder why nobody ever gets electrocuted from fallen cables. Then one year I learned why.

I was conducting a party of teenagers on a DoE Gold camping expedition in the Black Mountains, Wales. One day the weather was worsening, with increasing wind and rain. We arrived at the pub campsite, pitched the tents in the garden and then went into the pub to warm up and dry off.

Later after dark we all returned to sleep in our tents. But the wind was gathering in strength, rattling all around us. Some of the girls came across to me and said they were getting scared of all the little twigs and branches falling on their tent. Then it happened!

Whilst I was putting my boots on, there was an almighty loud crack and the sound of a tree crashing down, followed by girls screaming. I rushed out to discover that a poplar tree (thank goodness a poplar: tall and narrow, not broad and heavy) had indeed fallen into the campsite and the ends of a few branches had affected one tent.

Back to the pub

Another teacher, immediately also on the spot, suggested evacuation back to the pub. The situation could only get worse, and others were also frightened, so this was the correct decision. Whilst this was happening someone had already called 999. The pub took us all in. A bit later all three emergency services arrived: police, ambulances and a fire engine. What had the caller said?

Next morning, we went back across the fields to retrieve our tents. I was shocked to see an electricity cable lying across the path we had taken the night before. Would we have been electrocuted?

Shortly afterwards an electrical team arrived to do the urgent repairs. The whole of the Llanthony valley beyond that point had no electricity upward from the breakage. I asked them about this. They said that the electricity sub-station monitors all overhead cables carefully during a storm. When there is an outage, a current is sent down the line nano-seconds afterwards and three times. If it fails to restore power, it assumes there is a problem and cuts out immediately, then the transmission is stopped completely, so that a broken cable end cannot harm anyone and all power beyond that point is terminated.

So this is one solution that removes the electrocution risk. But it does not stop power cuts during storms. For that the UK would have to do as Germany does: put all cables underground. Money seems to rule over safety and aesthetics.