How long will the lights stay on?
The ECA Today reports:
The danger of large-scale power cuts is looming. BILL WRIGHT, head of Energy Solutions at the ECA, shines a spotlight on the real issues about potential energy shortages and explains how electrical contractors can help to deliver the solution.
London, Corporate HQ, 3.35pm, 6 February 2015: area recovering from recent storm, trees down in Kensington Gardens, some flooding by the Thames. Weather: bright but cold, with no wind. An area of high pressure is covering most of the UK and is forecast to stay for the next two days. There will be icy conditions on the roads overnight...
At Corporate HQ, the lights have been dimming and flickering all day, but that’s fairly normal at this time of the year. Ofgem has put out warnings of low generation margins, but no one takes much notice these days – there have been so many warnings.
The building lights go out and it is getting dark outside. No streetlights, only some dim emergency lights in the office. Computers switch off, heating off, everything stops. Staff sit at desks waiting for power to be restored – it always comes back on, doesn’t it? – but not this time. After 15 minutes, ambulances can be heard nearby, and the only lights are from a few torches and car headlights. Useful, those batteries…
Still dark and getting colder. Someone switches on a radio and hears an announcement that all of central west London has suffered a major power outage. Could be out for some time; advice is to stay calm, use a torch (where is that torch?) and walk home – if possible – as all traffic lights and street lighting is out. Accidents at junctions and general confusion have already jammed the major roads. Emergency lights start to dim; all told to leave work and go home. Except the Tube and trains are not running properly, and many are not running at all…
Possible or not in 2015? Yes, definitely possible. Take storm damage to overhead lines, low margins of generation, precious little wind power (forget about solar PV at a time of year like that) and one or two power stations tripping out because of faults, and you soon have a scenario that means area-wide power cuts.
Consider recent warnings by Ofgem, the electricity supply regulator, that – due to power station closures – supply margins (the difference between capacity and demand) are too low for comfort during high demand in winter and we can see that the above scenario could easily come about.
Why is this possible? There has been no major investment in large power stations since privatisation in 1990, and some large coal-fired stations that are the backbone of our generation capacity are now at the end of their useful lives. The EU Emissions Directive has stated that old polluting power stations must be shut down before 2016, and closures have taken place. Rather than being mothballed, they have been demolished, sometimes because land is regarded as more valuable. Our nuclear power stations, once world leading, are scheduled for closure as they reach the end of their useful lives, and the proposed new nuclear power station for Hinckley Point is not due for completion until 2023. That is not going to be of much use if we get power shortfall problems in 2015.
Our increased reliance on ‘renewable’ sources, such as wind power, has given us ‘greener’ non-polluting power, but we are, of course, at the mercy of the elements. If an area of high pressure covers the UK and there is little or no wind that will be the equivalent of switching off three or four large power stations.
The government has recognised the problem, but is hardly moving to resolve it. The Energy Bill has brought into being conditions that will encourage investment in new power generating capacity and subsidise nuclear and renewable sources, but this will not help until the new plant is financed and constructed.
The UK distribution system has also suffered from significant under-investment and it is estimated that something in the order of £110bn is required to renew our ageing generating and distribution capacity. Where is this going to come from? The investment could be raised through taxes or private investment, which means that the price paid for the power will have to rise further to pay back investors. Ultimately, though, that means the consumer pays. When one looks forward, there seems only one way for the price of electricity to go – and that is up.
But even expensive energy is going to look good when you compare it to no energy. The blackout scenario above is obviously a worst-case one, and things may not be as bad as shown in the 2013 Channel 4 ‘info-drama’ on prolonged power outages. We might get so-called ‘brownouts’ – reduced voltages – first. But it really will pay to be prepared for local, relatively short, power outages.
Consider how helpless you feel when your IT fails for even an hour; how would you or your business cope with power cuts of a few hours’ duration? Could you carry on? Will important data be lost? And what about your staff? Will you actually be in danger? Will you lose customers? It is prudent to consider these questions now, while we have a good power margin and power cuts seem unlikely.
Now, let’s look at homes. Do not think that just because you have fitted renewable energy sources, such as solar PV, that you will have power. The invertor relies on incoming mains for synchronisation and stops if there is no grid energy. No power means no heating, as the gas boiler and pumps also stop working. No lights, no PCs or television, no charging phones or tablets. If you have a gas hob, you can do some cooking and heating in the dark. This happened to thousands of people over the recent Christmas period, when power was lost for several days. Do you have candles and blankets ready and portable heaters? We are so used to reliable power supplies that most people have probably not got candles, batteries or portable stoves. Ask anyone who lost power over Christmas 2013 and they either stayed at home and wore their entire wardrobe, or went to relations or friends who had power.
Electrical contractors can provide a range of possible solutions – and pragmatic advice – to both business and domestic consumers. They are in an excellent position to understand the cause and effect of power outages, and can assist in installing alternative supplies, such as portable generators and batteries.
Think about businesses. How will they cope? Obviously, the larger companies with bigger premises, such as retailers and occupiers of offices in purpose-made buildings, will already have provision for emergency lighting and uninterruptible power supplies for computers, to enable a safe shutdown. However, even they may not have made sufficient provision for standby power for heating and lighting to enable the business to carry on uninterrupted. How long could they continue without standby power? Have they pinpointed critical areas that need supplies to keep the business operational? As an electrical contractor, you are in an excellent position to help identify critical circuits and their loads, and advise on alternative power supplies.
During the recent power outages, many suppliers rapidly sold out of generators – but how do you use them in homes? Essential supplies could be powered from extension leads put into the generator, but this could be a source of overload danger or carbon monoxide poisoning if the generator is kept indoors. If clients think in advance, it would pay to fit a changeover switch to enable a generator to be plugged into the house circuits safely and effectively. Should householders think about some form of emergency lighting to enable safe access to stairs and exits? As the time of potential power cuts approaches (remember, winter 2015 onwards) it would be a good selling point to install changeover and emergency systems within homes.
Companies may decide to close after a certain time without power. They could now install a limited back-up supply, or a standby generator, or a connection point for an external generator in the event of a prolonged loss of power. Those who act now will be in a good position to ride out any future disruption to supplies. Take a lesson from hospitals, where critical circuits are identified at design stage and standby systems installed accordingly. Hospitals cannot stop if power fails.
This worst-case blackout scenario may not happen; we could have mild weather over the next few winters, plenty of wind and sunshine with no risk of power failure. But is that a chance we should be taking?
Sir John Armitt, the former Network Rail boss, who chaired the Olympic Delivery Authority, has said publicly that he thinks power cuts could jolt the government out of its complacency and get a construction programme moving.
Those who take action in domestic and nondomestic premises will be in a good position to sit through power outages with minimal disruption. Companies who can carry on regardless will find themselves with a big advantage over those who can’t.
The ECA, in association with Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA), is holding a joint conference with speakers from the National Grid, Ofgem and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to discuss this problem and identify solutions. Admission is free to all members of the ECA. It is being held on 27 March 2014 in Central Hall, Parliament Square, London. It will be of interest to all those who are involved in the safety and continuity of supplies to buildings. If you do wish to attend, email your details to email@example.com as soon as possible to reserve your place. Places are limited so apply now.