There will probably not be widespread power failures, “blackouts”, this winter. However, the federal government is counting on so-called “brownouts”, short-term power cuts, regionally. FOCUS Online explains what that means.

The Bild-Zeitung reports on a letter from the Federal Government to the Baden-Württemberg Environment Minister Thekla Walker (Greens). In it, the minister warns that so-called “brownouts” could occur in her federal state in the coming months. These could come at short notice and as a surprise.

First of all, a brownout is an unoriginal neologism. Secondly, there is a shallower variant of a “blackout” behind it. In the event of a brownout, the power would not fail across the board and for an indefinite period, but only locally or regionally for a time window of around 90 minutes. In addition, it would not be a failure of systems, but a deliberate shutdown of the power grid in certain areas. This can be, for example, a single district of a large city or a larger industrial site.

So brownouts are controlled power shutdowns, not blackouts. However, there are also uncontrolled brownouts. The power does not fail, only the voltage in the power grid drops. This usually only takes a minute and has no devastating consequences. However, the data memory of electronic devices can fail due to the voltage drop, resulting in loss of data or functionality.

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The cause of both a controlled and uncontrolled brownout is the same. It occurs when more electricity is drawn from the grid than is being fed into the grid at the same time. Grid operators then correct this excess demand by briefly disconnecting electricity customers from the grid. In severe cases where the imbalance lasts longer, this can happen on a rolling basis. Network operators would then, for example, take one district offline for 90 minutes, then another for 90 minutes, and so on until the problem is solved.

In the event of an imminent brownout, the grid operators will only receive a message that a certain number of megawatts must be taken off the grid. In most cases, a random number generator decides which parts of the city this affects. It is also thrown on if the brownout lasts longer, i.e. another part of the network has to be switched off after 90 minutes. This is to ensure that nobody is discriminated against.

Even if one might suspect so, the warning of brownouts this winter has nothing to do with the Ukraine war or a possible shortage of natural gas. The problem is in France. More nuclear power plants than usual are currently offline there. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that necessary maintenance work was postponed during the Corona crisis and now has to be made up for, and on the other hand, because 12 of the 56 reactors are currently being taken off the grid due to corrosion problems. In France itself, the situation is so serious that the state is rehearsing a blackout, i.e. a complete power failure, this week. The French often heat with electric heaters. So the colder it gets in France, the more electricity is needed. Because European power grids are connected, supply problems from French nuclear power plants would also affect Germany.

The Federal Network Agency considers controlled shutdowns of electricity to be unlikely. The German power grid is now well secured against disruptions from abroad. However, brownouts cannot be completely ruled out, and as the letter to Baden-Württemberg cited by Bild shows, some regions of Germany are more at risk of a brownout than others. Baden-Württemberg mostly borders on France.

Ideally, a network operator will warn the affected electricity customers before their electricity is switched off as part of a brownout – just so that you can prepare. However, the warning time can be as little as 12 minutes. That would not be enough to inform all customers in advance. Since the power outage lasts a maximum of 90 minutes, no major measures are required. Devices such as refrigerators and freezers can now deal with such failures without their food rotting or thawing. However, you should make sure that you back up any data you are working on on powered computers before the brownout begins – otherwise they may be gone afterwards. This applies to Word documents as well as game saves.

The infrastructure in Germany is well protected against temporary power failures. Hospitals, for example, have emergency generators for such purposes. Other sensitive areas of society also have emergency plans up their sleeves. A brownout would hit the industry harder. Depending on the company, there are also preparations for power outages here, but without power many will simply have to stop operations and production for a while. The outage can last longer than the brownout because systems then have to be started up again. There are no refunds for the resulting damage.

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