Friday, 22 March 2013

Energy Security

Did anyone hear about this in the news yesterday? The head of one of the 6 big energy suppliers in the UK is warning that power shortages are becoming a real possibility. Ofgem (the energy regulation body in the UK) have been saying something similar for a while already, but the government don’t seem to be taking it seriously. Hear Alistair Buchanan’s presentation to CIBSE for more information at . Todays news paints an even bleaker picture with the current cold snap and problems with the import pipeline causing even more supply concerns .

We have been in sticky spots previously regarding energy security. For instance in 2006, when the outputs of gas from the North Sea were declining and the increase in capacity for importing gas through pipelines from Europe had not yet come online. The UK has very little gas storage capacity compared to many EU countries, so if the 2006 winter had been cold then there would have been shortages. As it was, it was very mild and most of the public were unaware of how dire the situation could have been. That doesn’t mean we will be so lucky next time.

When there is a shortage of gas, it is too dangerous to reduce supplies to households, so instead gas is shut off to big industry. Electricity generation in power stations is a large consumer of gas, so the chances are that a gas shortage would result in the shutdown of gas power stations and lead to an electricity shortage. With the current situation, we also have the additional problem of power stations being taken offline as they become obsolete, or for financial reasons or because of the new regulations for emissions from coal power stations. Without sufficient spare generation capacity in the UK, there could be a shortfall of electricity generation during times of Peak load. So on a cold winter’s day (like today is – even though it should be spring), around teatime, when everyone is switching the kettle, cooker, lights and heating on, there is high demand for electricity. This is why there needs to be plenty of spare capacity, to meet these peaks. If there is insufficient electricity it could result in blackouts.

Essential services such as Hospitals have a back-up generator to provide constant electricity for just these emergencies, which is reassuring. The trouble is that industry experts have known that there is a shortage of electricity capacity looming, but rather than trying to reverse the trend by investing in increased generation capacity (or better still reductions in energy consumption), quick fix alternatives have been found. For instance Hospitals and other sites with large backup generators have been targeted. They have been offered the opportunity to be paid to run their backup generators during times of peak demand. In other words the emergency backup would then be used as spare capacity to cover the peak demand. This makes me twitchy!

Imagine the situation of severe snow lasting a week or more, causing high energy demand and depleting stores of gas. The emergency backup generators in Hospitals are called in to help meet the peak demand. The emergency generators run on diesel, but because of the travel disruption caused by the snow there are problems getting diesel supplies delivered. Very soon the peak capacity AND the emergency backup is lost. This would be a desperate situation that could lead to loss of life, and will hopefully never materialise, but it gives an idea of just how fragile our energy system is becoming. Building resilience involves having additional back-up and options in an emergency, not less.
Generally speaking, planned loss of electricity for short periods is not life threatening, although it can be inconvenient. In the UK climate, if you have no heat in winter then you can die. If you have no lights, fridge or TV, then it should not impact too severely on your survival. Looking back to the 1970’s, when there were electricity shortages and planned power cuts, most people found ways to adapt and carry on regardless.
I feel that we are more at risk now though. I can’t remember my kids ever experiencing a proper blackout, nothing more than a disrupted local power supply for an hour or two. The last blackout I remember was caused by the Great Storm of 1987, when I was just 14, and we were without power for much of the day. Even this only affected people in the South of the UK. I know there have been blackouts caused by weather events or technical problems since then, but they have still been relatively localised.
How many of you keep candles and a box of matches in just in case? My grandparents always did, my parents do, but what of the younger generation who have never really experienced significant power cuts? Hopefully most people have a torch knocking around. More people also have central heating systems, which are controlled electrically, so are likely to stop working in a power cut. It is worth ensuring that you have an alternative heat source in your home, maybe a wood-burning stove or gas fire. (Don’t count on using a barbeque, as these give off smoke and carbon dioxide and should only be used outside!) Rural areas especially could also lose their water supply when the electricity stops, so having some bottled water stored would be useful, or else fill up the bath with fresh water if there is time before the power goes off.
Other preparations to consider may include having a landline telephone that does not need electricity. Hands free units often need the base unit to have a power supply in order to work. Banks, cash machines and credit card facilities in shops cannot operate without electricity, so it is a good idea to keep some spare cash stashed in the house. The kids money boxes may be sufficient for an emergency situation, but make sure that you have at least enough cash to buy food for a few days, if the need arose. Ideally keeping enough dried or canned food for a week or more is an even better precaution.
These aren’t really big or difficult steps, but it may make the difference in the event of a power cut. It also puts you in a better situation to help less prepared neighbours or those in need.
The government has all the information about energy security, but has made the decision to run the risk of blackouts. My personal view is that they will not act to improve electricity capacity or significantly reduce demand until after an event, such as a shortage of electricity has happened. Then the energy bills will have to increase even further to relieve the financial burden of the infrastructure improvements required.
When my grandparents were born less than 10% of British households had any electricity and if they did it was just for lighting. The difference now is that we are used to having electricity and expect it to available for us to use forever. If David Cameron did a televised speech tomorrow, saying that electricity is in short supply and everyone needs to do what they can to reduce energy consumption in order to avert plunging the country into darkness, I think people would listen and act. I know that Cameron is no Churchill, and his speeches are hardly rousing, but the key is speaking directly to the people, not leaving room for hearsay and drivel to filter down from the press. That is how you get a united response, rather than everyone waiting to see what their neighbours do. It really isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.
As for blackouts, we have lived through them before and people round the World are surviving without electricity right now. The difference is that we were pre-warned and prepared in the 1970’s. Will we have warning next time or will the politicians allow unexpected blackouts to cause total mayhem? I’m not taking that chance and I would suggest that you don’t either.

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