What happens if the power suddenly goes out? In the largest cities in Germany in particular, it is important to be well prepared should the worst come to the worst. What a blackout means for a big city and how Düsseldorf, Berlin, Munich and Hamburg are preparing for it. The timetable for emergencies.

Berlin-Köpenick, February 2019. A state of emergency suddenly prevailed in the district of the capital. A damaged wire shuts off the lights for over 30 hours on a Tuesday afternoon. Nothing works anymore. Traffic lights are out, the streets are in darkness. 31,500 households and 2000 commercial units are affected. The reason: During construction work, workers accidentally cut through two 110-kilovolt lines, each with three individual, arm-thick cables. A blackout occurs.

The scenario of a blackout in German cities is on everyone’s lips again these days. Many fear an overload of the power grid or a shortage. While some say that a large-scale power outage is very unlikely, others advocate preparing for emergencies. Cities like Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf and Hamburg have prepared. The responsibility is great: together, the four cities have a population of almost 8 million people. What blackout precautions look like in the largest cities in Germany and which processes are set in motion when the lights suddenly go out? FOCUS online asked.

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If there is a blackout, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg or Düsseldorf see themselves well positioned. In Munich, for example, people have been preparing “for months for possible energy bottlenecks in the coming winter,” said a spokesman for the city. The so-called staff for extraordinary events (SAE) “Energy” has the task of “designing scenarios at the city-wide level as to how state requirements can be implemented in the event of an energy bottleneck and how compensation or replacement measures can be taken for the citizens of Munich as well as for the economy and infrastructure”. .

How seriously the possibility of a blackout on the Isar is taken is also shown by the use of a planning group that has been doing preparatory work for the SAE “Energy” for several weeks. “In addition to the city leadership, the department for labor and economy and the district administration department, the Munich public utility company, as the operator of the Munich supply networks, is also an integral part of the staff,” said the spokesman. He also points out that Stadtwerke München and its infrastructure have had a crisis organization that has been in place for years and that has also proven itself in the event of disruptions in the past. “In addition, the Stadtwerke and the Munich fire department have repeatedly practiced how to deal with a blackout and gained experience with network failures.”

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In Düsseldorf, too, “there has been a coordinated action plan on the subject of power outages between the Düsseldorf fire brigade, Netzgesellschaft Düsseldorf mbH and Stadtwerke Düsseldorf AG for a long time,” according to a spokeswoman for the city. There are also “modular concepts” in Düsseldorf. These can be activated depending on the type and scope of an event.

In order to keep such protective measures up to date, action plans are “continuously evaluated by all those involved and adjusted if necessary”. The municipal crisis management also meets regularly, continuously monitors the current situation and prepares further strategic and operational measures in relation to an energy shortage, she explains. A constant exchange of information between the state capital and the network company as well as the public utilities should enable a quick reaction to events.

Power outages lasting hours or even several days can be caused by extreme weather conditions or construction work. Overloads are also a conceivable scenario for a blackout. “It is difficult to predict when and where the network will be overloaded,” explains a spokeswoman for the city of Berlin.

In order to protect the network, temporary and spatially limited shutdowns are a necessary option. If, for example, “a particularly large number of power-guzzling devices go online in large numbers in a certain area at the same time, for example air conditioning systems in summer or heaters in winter, the network can be overloaded and damaged as a result”.

A spatially limited shutdown means that entire cities do not necessarily go dark. “Approximately 36,000 kilometers of power cables have been laid in the Berlin city area. The power grid can be imagined as a series of honeycombs: If one honeycomb has to be switched off for a short time due to an impending overload, the other honeycombs can continue to be supplied with electricity,” says the spokeswoman.

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In Munich, too, in the event of a large-scale power failure, the municipal utilities can operate parts of the supply network in isolated operation and thus guarantee the city’s basic supply of electricity, the spokesman explains. “An overload of the power grid in the coming winter, especially the low-voltage grid, is fundamentally conceivable.”

A special scenario is also viewed critically in Munich: “Many people could use direct electrical heating (radiators, fan heaters, infrared heaters, etc.). Due to the electricity prices, this is not only the more expensive heating option, it also carries the risk of power failures due to overloading.”

In Hamburg, on the other hand, one enjoys the advantage “that the grid is closely integrated into the German and European power grid and is located in the middle of the high-generation north,” explains a spokeswoman for the Ministry for the Environment, Climate, Energy and Agriculture (BUKEA). The probability of a short-term load undersupply or power failures due to stressful grid situations is currently not significantly increased for Hamburg. Nevertheless, the city is taking measures that are recommended after the second stress test commissioned by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection (BMWK) in early September in order to be well prepared.

If a blackout then occurs, the first priority must be to ensure that the city’s population can take care of itself. If the light suddenly goes out, the actors need a certain amount of warm-up time to react. The Düsseldorf spokeswoman refers to the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance ( BBK ), which provides information on how citizens can prepare themselves for crisis situations.

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In the Hanseatic city, reference is also made to the BBK’s recommendations for stockpiling and self-provision in the event of an emergency. Nevertheless, “extensive precautions are being taken to ensure the provision of essential goods and services to the population,” said the spokeswoman. This would include, among other things, the drinking water emergency supply and medical care in the hospitals.

From the moment knowledge of a large-scale and long-lasting power failure occurs, for example in Düsseldorf, “all measures are bundled via the state capital’s established crisis management system”. In the event of a blackout, the crisis team includes not only urban areas but also municipal utilities and energy and water suppliers.

The city’s fire brigade and aid organizations are also deployed. A “coordinated action plan to accommodate a large number of people over a period of several days” was developed for emergencies. The city draws experience from evacuations when defusing explosive ordnance. These have proven themselves in the past, so the premises, equipment and organization of the care centers have already been determined. All of this can be activated at any time and at short notice, “so that many thousands of people can be cared for and fed for several days”.

No so-called heat halls are planned in Berlin. Instead, there should be a network of “heat points”. According to the social administration, these can be meeting places, canteens, museums or libraries where people can stay and meet.

If there is a longer-term power failure, the Central Disaster Management Team (ZKD) of the Ministry of the Interior and Sport and the Regional Disaster Management Team (RKD) of the districts in Hamburg take up their duties “to counteract the effects of a blackout with a coordinating structure for task management”. To this end, there is close cooperation with the city-owned company Stromnetz Hamburg GmbH (SNH), which is responsible for ensuring the city’s electricity supply security. “The primary goal is always to restore the supply of electrical energy as quickly as possible.”

If the power fails, there is mostly radio silence. News no longer reaches people via their TVs or radios powered by electricity. And at some point the cell phone battery is empty. So what? In order to be able to get information to the population and, if necessary, to be able to react to emergency situations, “contact points for the transmission of requests for help” would be set up in the major cities of the Federal Republic.

“For this purpose, well-known and easily accessible locations in the respective city districts are preferably used as locations,” explains the spokeswoman from Düsseldorf. Coordinated public and media information is also provided. The usual distribution media are used for this purpose. In the event of a long-lasting power failure, the city’s population is informed via information points in the districts, via loudspeaker vehicles or via direct mail. In this way, information for the general public is ensured.

In addition to the loudspeaker announcements or other options for getting information to the city population without requiring electricity, Hamburg also refers to the MoWaS modular warning system. MoWaS is made available to the federal states for shared use. “In the event of a large-scale power failure lasting several days, the responsible authority would warn the population about the respective danger situation via the warning system with the means of communication available there,” explains the spokeswoman. In the event of a widespread power failure, the warning system continues to function because it has the appropriate emergency power supply.

“The municipal crisis management facilities are always backed up by an emergency power supply.” Fire brigades and rescue services have technical equipment such as emergency power generators at their disposal so that they can also be used in the event of longer power failures. In addition, there are two filling stations specially designed for emergency vehicles in Düsseldorf. Critical infrastructure buildings and facilities such as hospitals “basically have emergency power systems”.

This is also the case in Munich: “Retirement homes, hospitals or other care facilities are considered critical infrastructure companies, just like the municipal utilities. In the event of a blackout, they are therefore given priority power supply as part of emergency plans.”

An advantage of the Isar metropolis: “Even in the event of a power failure, the drinking water supply can be maintained,” explains the spokesman. Because: “The drinking water flows from the extraction areas to Munich in a natural gradient.” In addition, the elevated tanks, which serve as a kind of temporary storage between extraction and the distribution network, are located higher than the city area itself the drinking water distribution network to the house connection.” In many other cities in Germany, it is advisable to take precautions yourself when it comes to the drinking water supply.

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In the case of a power failure, pre-planned alarm and action schemes are laid down in the hospital alarm and action plans of Hamburg’s planned hospitals. In addition: “According to existing regulations, hospitals are obliged to guarantee a 24-hour emergency power supply for medical devices that are used on people.” All Hamburg planned hospitals would have an adequate emergency power supply for medical care in the first 24 hours.

The 17 waterworks in the city are also connected to one another, “so that the failure of a single waterworks can usually be compensated for by the remaining waterworks for several days,” explains the spokeswoman. In addition, most waterworks are provided with a double power feed, which can usually be fed from two separate substations of the network operator. “For a maximum period of two days, certain zones can be supplied with residual water from elevated tanks that flows freely into the drinking water pipes.”

In the event of a blackout, large parts of local passenger transport would also come to a standstill. The annual electricity requirement of the Rheinbahn, for example, amounts to around 80 million kilowatt hours just for the trams and light rail, says a spokeswoman for the Rheinbahn. Should there be a power failure, “the trains would roll out and be stopped at a safe and least obstructive position”. The passengers then continue on foot. The passengers would be evacuated under the direction of the drivers from the trains and subway stations.

“Our so-called substations are decentralized and are fed via the public supply network – if this should fail over a large area, our railways no longer have any drive energy. There are no generators that could meet the needs of tram and light rail lines, ”explains the spokeswoman. For depots, IT and the control center, on the other hand, you have the necessary infrastructure to bridge a spatially and temporally limited power failure and to be able to continue bus operations.

In Munich, in the event of a failure of the electrically operated local public transport system, diesel-powered buses are used on an “emergency network” in order to maintain a basic range of mobility. In addition, redundant feeds ensure “that, for example, the local power failure of a substation has no effect on underground and tram operations,” says the spokesman from Munich.

The past has already shown that such preparations are quite appropriate in large cities. Power outages have recently increased in Europe. In Austria, a blackout only occurred in June during an international soccer match between Austria and Denmark. In July, visitors were stuck in the Ferris wheel at the Prater due to a power failure. At the beginning of August there was a temporary blackout in Tyrol. 140,000 households were without electricity. And in late July, a widespread blackout in south London brought trains to a standstill – traffic lights and streetlights went out.

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In the case of blackouts, the larger the area of ​​the blackout, the more serious the potential damage. When telecommunications systems fail completely within minutes, neither the Internet nor the telephone work, the drinking water supply comes to a standstill, checkout systems in supermarkets fail, food spoils, elevators and gas stations no longer work, traffic comes to a standstill, supply chains are interrupted and important IT systems fail , the damage can be massive without adequate precautions.