Saturday, 31 May 2014

Waking up to shortages

There have been two articles recently that have demonstrated that more and more people are becoming aware of the looming energy crisis. The first was in the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) Journal called 'When The Lights Go Out' by Bill Wright (May 2014, page 34). It focuses on the national issue in the UK of a shortage of electricity generation. It is clear that since privatisation in 1990 there has been an under-investment in new power generation. Now we are in a situation where power stations are reaching the end of their useful lives or will not meet tighter EU pollution regulations so have been shutdown, without new power stations coming online to replace them.

Ofgem (the gas and electricity regulatory body in the UK) have been warning of this for some time and I have written about it previously here. Writing for a commercial market, Bill explains the impact of even a short period of power cuts and encourages engineers to be prepared by having backup diesel generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). Articles like this help to plant seeds in peoples minds and as it is aimed specifically at engineers who are responsible for implementing these backup measures, it will hopefully lead to better preparedness. It would take a major power cut or severe warnings from government to result in full-scale preparedness, but it is still a sign that concern is building.

It is the peak demand times when we are at the greatest risk of power cuts, other than from storm damage or severe weather. On a very cold winters evening, around 4 to 5pm, when many people are getting home from work and switching on heating, ovens, kettles etc., is the peak demand in the UK. In warmer parts of the world the peak demand comes in extreme hot weather, from air-conditioning use, but air-conditioning is uncommon in homes in the UK.

The UK's electricity network has been so robust, that power cuts are extremely rare. The last blackout I experienced was in 1987 from the Great Storm, and the blackouts since then have been mainly localised from extreme weather events. The next major power cut may come as a shock to many. Very few people have a back-up system or are off-grid. If you have solar PV panels that are linked in to the electricity grid they will be off in a powercut too, so would not provide a safety net.

The main thing that individuals can do to be prepared is to monitor and reduce their energy consumption at all times, but especially during the peak times. It is also prudent to have working torches with spare batteries or candles and matches on hand. I like head torches, because they leave your hands free and I also use mine instead of a bedside light. I have modelled one for you below, and they do look rather silly, but are so practical for jobs, such as changing light bulbs, that they are a worthy investment. You can give them as gifts to friends and family too.

If your heating is from a gas-fired boiler system, the controls will be electric, so it may be worthwhile ensuring you have some back up heating that doesn't need an electric ignition to start it. This is harder to do unless you have a wood stove, but having a gas hob and hot water bottles you can fill is a start. If you have a cordless telephone these won't work without electricity, so have a traditional landline phone with a cord just in case. You can pick these up cheaply from carboot sales or charity shops. Keeping some spare cash, including coins could be useful too as cash machines and credit cards won't be working in a powercut. Some rural areas may also lose water supply in a powercut, so storing bottles of drinking water may also be necessary.

When electricity is tight, it will force a reduction in consumption. In peak demand periods energy companies buy more electricity from Europe at a premium, so increasing prices. Power cuts will add pressure for further investment in electricity generation, so again increasing prices. Whichever way you cut it, prices will go up, making renewable energy systems more attractive and encouraging businesses and homeowners to seriously reduce their energy consumption. High energy prices have a significant effect on reducing consumption.

The other article was on the BBC News website entitled UK 'Needs More Home-grown Energy', based on a report by the Global Sustainability Institute.

"In just over five years Britain will have run out of oil, coal and gas, researchers have warned."

This again isn't anything new, but who else remembers being told that there was enough gas to last until 2030 and 200 years worth of coal at current consumption? Well countless UK mines have been closed, leaving no option but to rely on imports. UK oil production peaked in 1999 and UK gas production peaked soon afterwards in 2001. They now contribute an ever decreasing percentage of our annual consumption, with UK produced gas providing less than 50% of our total gas consumption for 2013. Rising imports may well have contributed to the increasing prices we have seen.

The report also goes on to claim that Russia has 50 years of oil, more than 100 years of gas and 500 years of coal left based on current consumption levels. As with most fossil fuel predictions you have to be aware that they are based upon current levels of consumption. If countries like the UK are increasingly running out of gas and oil, and are being left with little alternative than to turn to Russia to supply them, then the Russian exports may well increase. If you take into account that this week has also seen Russia sign a deal to supply gas to China for the next 10 years, you can see that the level of consumption is not static. If production increases then the fossil fuels will be used up far more quickly.

China have been exploring the possibilities of fracking. I'm not sure that they would have signed this new deal with Russia if there was any real prospect of fracking meeting their energy requirements. The US have been fracking for a while, but they are still gas importers according to Gail Tverberg in her post The Absurdity of US Natural Gas Exports. The UK government thinks fracking will fill our gap for natural gas, but I think they are deluded. At best it may delay the very real prospect of running out of UK-drilled gas, but at a very high price financially and environmentally.

Russia has some of the remotest landscapes, making drilling for gas or oil, and transporting it long distances, relatively expensive. This could be why they have more fossil fuels remaining than other countries, as when prices were low it was not cost effective to produce. There are clear signs that the highly militarised countries, that are addicted to fossil fuels, are preparing for a power struggle to ensure they have control over the remaining fossil fuel resources.

It would be really good to not be so dependent on fossil fuels right now. Making simple lifestyle changes now, before we are forced by circumstances to make lifestyle changes under pressure, is a good idea. John Michael Greer a leading Peak Oil writer and blogger has used the phrase "Collapse now and avoid the rush" to describe this idea, and he gives a good justification for it. I prefer to think of it as Downshifting. The point is that it is harder to prepare and make changes when everyone is in the same boat and trying to do the same. It is far better to put plans into action now.

"To give yourself a new life, you've gotta give the other one away." (words of a Sara Bareilles song, December) That is what Barry (who's ecohome I discussed in the last post) has done. He has chosen to turn his back on the pursuit of money and some of life's luxuries, like running water and a car, and created a new life where he can manage fairly well without them. What part of our business-as-usual lifestyles would you be prepared to give away?


  1. Have you dropped by the Green Wizards website? Lots of people following Greer's advice and collapsing now. There is a forum and a main website if you Google it.

    I am prepared to give up quite a few creature comforts. I have lived without running hot water, heating, gas, a fridge, a washing machine or a car before now. Hard work if you are unprepared, but we have the luxury of forewarning :)

    I will be buying some old fashioned oil burning lamps to brighten the evenings and perhaps a few solar powered lamps too.

    1. I do read The Archdruid Report and I am very slowly working my way back through some of the older posts. Greer writes so much of interest that I hardly have time to keep up! I saw the Green Wizardry book on his blog and I am planning to get it, but I didn't know about the forum. Lots of very interesting discussions on it, so thanks for that.