Could Corrie Cause a Blackout?

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Surprise surprise, our national generating capacity is a little shy of what it should be. This winter even with contingency plans activated, we will only be producing 6% more electricity than we consume. That’s not a great margin for error. Three years ago the figure was 17%.

To put this into context, a popular episode of Eastenders or Corrie can cause power consumption to spike by around 4.5% of the currently estimated peak capacity for winter (53.6 Gigawatts). I’m not suggesting for a second that the National Grid haven’t thought of this, or that blackouts are actually likely — most experts agree they are not.

But still: a single-digit margin for error on one of the most crucial resources to our physical well being, national security and economic activity is not exactly reassuring.

The National Grid has known for some years that this situation would arise, as is shown in this slide deck from 2009: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/few/2009/documents/presentations09/lewis_dale.pdf. What this also shows is the level of work required just to keep the lights on — literally. What it doesn’t show is that the very principles on which our national energy infrastructure is built are wrong.

180 or so large power stations and a giant grid to distribute the power they generate is an outdated model for this century. Domestic energy consumption has been falling slowly but steadily for the last few years, in part due to the economic downturn but also thanks to increasingly efficient homes and appliances. We can now generate an increasing proportion of our needs in a distributed fashion through solar and wind. What we need is a grid that supports our increasingly distributed generation and low energy needs.

There’s a lot of whining about renewable energy sources. Wind turbines are ugly. Solar panels aren’t as efficient as promoted. Blah blah blah. The debate sounds very much like the current one about the Human Rights Act. Who’d want to protect those, right? And who’d want a source of energy that renewed itself? That sounds like a terrible idea…

The economics of renewables are undeniable — particularly solar. All around the world solar energy generation is overtaking fossil fuels in cost effectiveness. Whatever your opinion on the matter, renewable energy sources are winning the fact war. Though it will be a long time until they are the whole story, to bet against them over that long term is plain daft.

Given that this is clear to anyone willing to look at the evidence, we should be making our bets as a nation there. Investing in a grid that supports distributed generation and particularly storage: the challenge of renewables is that you can’t spin them up when you want them like a generator, so we need means of storing energy — again in a distributed fashion. The answer could be batteries, it could be flywheels, it could be something we haven’t invented yet: a healthy dose of investment here would be very, very wise both for national security and international competitiveness.

With every home and enterprise in the country contributing its roof space to energy generation, and a sensible investment programme in the grid, we would have cheap, secure power for years to come. And no worries about whether one too many mid-Corrie cuppas would take the country offline.

This post forms part of my Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

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Tom Cheesewright