Energy gap claptrap

Why thinking on electricity is a right royal mess

17 October 2013

Our Chief Executive Simon Roberts on why he's fed up with hearing about the 'energy gap'.

In late July this year, National Grid tweeted that electricity demand plummeted by 800MW (a decent-sized power station’s worth) at the moment young Prince George was first ‘shared with the nation’ on the steps of the royal hospital. Clearly a large number of people had switched something off to mark the occasion.

Before their comms team had even started tweeting, someone in the National Grid control room will have switched off a power station (I simplify grossly) which seconds before had been producing 800MW.

Balancing the system like this – making sure that the supply of electricity into the system matches the demand from users – is a fundamental requirement. Get it wrong and we can have power cuts.

When we’re warned that there is an ‘energy gap’ and ministers and energy companies start warning of power cuts, what they mean is that there is a modest risk that at the highest possible estimates of peak electricity demand, we may not have enough electricity to go round. And so, the argument goes, we need to build more power stations (and quickly, and mainly fossil fuelled) and, in the case of nuclear, jack up prices with a government guarantee to secure the investment in them.

But this thinking ignores the word ‘balancing’ and shows how policy-makers and their advisors (many of them ex-utility bosses) still aren’t thinking ‘smart’ when it comes to our future electricity system.

Peak demand isn’t an alien force that is beyond comprehension or immune to influence. Peak demand is the sum total of the decisions made by 60 million people in the homes, offices and factories across the country, both in the moment (to switch on, all at the same time, the lights, kettle and cooker and electric fan heater) and over time as purchases and procurement specifications (to buy inefficient appliances and lighting, install inadequate heating controls, or fail to insulate).

These decisions are subject to influence, both in the short term (witness the 15% drop in electricity demand in Japan after public campaigns in response to the post-Fukushima shut down) and in the medium term (by banning all but the most efficient appliances and bulbs). And both do more to balance the energy system much more quickly than building new power plants – and at far lower cost to our fuel bills, the economy and the environment.

That’s not to say we don’t need new power supplies.

But we shouldn’t be scared into accepting inefficient fossil-fuelled plant or high cost nuclear on the basis of substandard thinking that only considers half the equation.

If the government and the energy industry spent as much time thinking about and planning to tackle the demand side of the balance as they do fretting over the supply side, we might find that the public’s electricity-using response to the first public appearance of Prince George became a normal, controlled aspect of system balancing, rather than a disruptive cost.


Image: Daniel Cardiff | istockphoto.com

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