Best crisis or issues management
Demand Flexibility Service
National Grid ESO
The ESO is the electricity system operator for Great Britain. Its control room moves electricity around the country on a second-by-second basis, ensuring that the right amount is available whenever it is needed, so that, for instance, when the kettles are switched on during a commercial break, the water will always boil.
It has always been a delicate balancing act managing supply and demand, but in the run up to winter 2022/23, there were real concerns that it could fall out of kilter. The cost-of-living crisis, coupled with Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, caused uncertainty around the supply of natural gas in mainland Europe.
While the former USSR had kept the gas flowing throughout the Cold War, there was a real risk that it could take the unprecedented step of closing the pipeline which would threaten Britain’s electricity system: it takes gas to generate electricity.
Even before Ukraine’s invasion, ESO’s issue tracking system had identified the danger of disrupted supplies, which allowed the corporate affairs team to take a pro-active approach to mitigate the risk. It worked with Government and industry bodies – hosting two CEO-level roundtables, involving more than 30 delegates – to create a communications and engagement plan, while also seeking solutions outside the existing network.
This led to the launch of the world’s first Demand Flexibility Service, which incentivised consumers and businesses to shift their use of electricity to off-peak times. But the team knew that asking people to reduce their use of electricity in the middle of winter was a tricky message, which was complicated by the fact that, historically, ESO is a B2B communicator rather than a consumer-facing one.
The team took a multi-channel approach, involving social, digital and traditional media, and even went straight to customers, by appearing on the sofa of BBC Breakfast to promote the service. It also spent time communicating the initiative to colleagues, who could act as ambassadors for the business. A dark site was created so that, in the event of a crisis, it could go live immediately, offering advice and information to customers and businesses. The team also liaised with the major social networks and the government to ensure they would communicate directly with the public if risks escalated.
Between November and March 2023, the ESO ran a total of 22 live events to balance the country’s electricity network. These involved 1.6 million households and businesses who were asked to reduce their power consumption during the events, by avoiding using energy intensive appliances, such as dishwashers, or switching to microwaves instead of ovens, say. In total, more than 3,300MWh of electricity was saved – enough to power almost ten million homes.
The Demand Flexibility Service, and the successful live events, generated thousands of positive articles and news items. It also strengthened ESO’s relationship with Government bodies. More importantly, 92 per cent of consumers were aware of the risk of power cuts and 94 per cent had heard of the Demand Flexibility Service.
‘This was good solid crisis management planning,’ said the judges. ‘The crisis was well handled, and the metrics were excellent.’