Why power cuts will get worse and worse and even the Wichita lineman won’t be able to cope

This week parts of the United Kingdom suffered power cuts. You might expect it in the depth of winter, but not on a rainy day in May. Why should there be any power cuts at all? Forty years ago, Jimmy Webb gave the clue in his song:

I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun for another overload

The electricity supply of every country should be designed to meet a certain basic requirement of continuous power, and large fluctuations of demand in power, and should always have something spare. For many years some of the continuous power demand  – around 20% out of 35% of the overall demand – has been met by nuclear power stations. In fact the base load – the minimum amount of electricity required at any time is around 35% of the overall requirement. The overall requirement should be augmented by “spare” capacity for emergencies.

For many years the “spare” was around 30% to 35% of the maximum demand but in recent years this has fallen to 20%; the average “spare” capacity has for some periods been as low as 5%. When it falls into negative territory we are in trouble because we then get a power cut.

The reason for spare capacity is to cover failures in the network that supplies electricity. Sometimes an event, such as a transformer breaking down or a power cable snapping, triggers a difficulty in supplying electricity. Often the network has enough resilience to cope with the event; a well designed network should have enough resilience, but our networks do not. Resilience is the way that the network can make up supply lost in one place by adding supply from another place.

Each part of the network, each generator, each cable, each transformer will have a maximum amount of power that it can create or carry. The network will be “resilient” if it operates below these maximum limits, but if it is asked to operate above them (by an event such as a generating station being out of action for maintenance or a power cable being blown down) we will lose power supply in some places. If the events overwhelm the network there will be a series of power failures.

At the moment our electricity distribution not fit to provide uninterrupted supplies for our nation, and this is not peculiar to the UK. We have not planned sufficient power stations and the basic load at present supplied by the nuclear industry (supposed to be around 20%), will gradually have to be supplied by other means as the nuclear power stations are de-commissioned. It will not be possible to build new nuclear power stations quickly enough to replace those coming off line, so power cuts will inevitably increase, unless we build more fossil fuel power stations, which can come on line more quickly.

The present system of a “regulated” free market (an oxymoron surely) will add to the likelihood of future power cuts. There is every incentive on the retail power companies to keep prices down. This reduces investment quite considerably in spare capacity (which is why the real spare capacity has fallen each year after the power companies became part of the oxymoronic regulated free market) and so the network is increasingly having less resilience.

I am also not convinced that the maintenance of the transformers has been what it should have been or that there is an effective replacement program. It would be odd, if an industry working in the way that the power supply companies have to work – for immediate shareholder profit with a direction to keep prices low – to invest in infrastructure more than is absolutely necessary to keep the businesses profitable in the short term.

For these reasons the network infrastructure is failing. I fear that our power supplies will get worse and worse and we will have to endure more and more power cuts. I believe that this will also be the case in the United States and in most other countries.

In South Africa, where ten years ago no investment was made in building new power stations, power outages are common as the state owned electricity company Eskom struggles to keep up with demand while the infrastructure becomes less and less capable of coping and network resilience is merely a consummation devoutly to be wished.

How should any nation cope with the increasing risk of more and more power cuts? First, use less of the stuff. It is still astonishing how many people, companies and organisations leave lights on, leave machines on standby and do all the other things that consume power unnecessarily.

Secondly, we need to outlaw excessively high energy appliances, or else tax them very rigorously. These two things should reduce demand.

Thirdly, we need to encourage and incentivise power generating devices such as photovoltaics and wind farms off shore; they can produce plenty of power and although the supply and certainty will be intermittent at times, they offer a better alternative than the long term likely effects of carbon dioxide creation as a by-product of fossil fuel burning.

Fourthly, we need to create many more and smaller power generating stations closer to where the power is actually being used. This will save transmissions losses and make the network more resilient. I would not have these power stations use uranium – that is too risky and dangerous in my mind. I would have them use the fossil fuel that is the least harmful in terms of emissions and pollutants – natural gas.

Fifthly, in order to reduce natural gas demand for heating and water heating I would look at what California is thinking of doing; incentivise solar panels so that the energy from gas is converted to power and have people use benign energy from light to create heat, where ever possible, saving gas for electricity generation.

In future power cuts will happen and with increasing frequency. Apart from having torches easily available and stocking up on batteries there is not a lot that you will be able to do about it, just suffer it as best you can. It is up to governments who we elect to manage these things to devise a system of power supply that works.

I have had the feeling that for many years successive governments have had energy security very low on the agenda and have virtually made up energy policy on the hoof, so that when an energy crisis arises we hear that the Prime Minister is holding talks with oil companies to ask them to increase production, or rushing to speak to OPEC, or Russia, or moves from a non nuclear policy to a nuclear policy and then a few weeks later to a super nuclear policy.

There is no planning, merely a series of reactions to events, so that the events master the politicians and nations suffer.

And the Wichita Lineman will be on the line more and more as he tries to patch up a failing infrastructure, not just in Oklahoma and Kansas but also throughout the length and breadth of these islands.


10 Responses

  1. I think that storing electricity from the remewable electricity generators would help the situation in addition to your recomendations about reducing the demand caused by wastefull appliances, some of those wastefull applainces are heaters of course so Solar thermal wins hands down in this respect.

    Wind Farm Seeks Higher Prices for Stored Power: http://www.vrbpower.com/docs/media/Sunday%20Tribune%2014%20May%202007%20-%20Windfarm%20seeks%20higher%20prices%20for%20stored%20power.pdf

    This Report by EirGrid gives some further insight into the problems that you describe:

    Click to access EirGrid.pdf

  2. This situation as you state is going to get worse. There was an interesting report on back page of h&v news a couple of weeks ago
    I will email it to you could you publish it with acknowledgement to its author

  3. Richard

    I’d be pleased to look at it; you can email me through the enquiries page on the Genersys web site.


  4. Robert your post was at the right time!
    “Power Failure in Germany Triggers Blackouts in Europe”

    Wouldn’t Solar refrigeration and Air-conditioning be a good idea to reduce demand for electrcity? because these demands closely follow Solar energy availability, with some exceptions such as cloud cover insulation and reduced insolation? at the same time and also stored heat in the environment at night time after a hot day.

  5. It would seem that the insurance of the spare capacity has been calculated down in mainland Europe because they calculate into their equations diversity? so therefore the vulnerability is greater, we in the UK are reliant on the interconnector from France and now we will be hooked up to Eire and Northern Ireland soon.

    We should pity our Eastern European cousins with their really rickety soviet nuclear reactors that the EU has declared must be closed . Lithuania has one such reactor that is estimated in some reports to be covering 70% of the countries electricity supply

  6. Good point but I welcome clsoing down of all nuclear reactors until we are sure that we can dispose of the waste safely.

    Some of Northern Europe’s electricty supply that has a lot of wind turbine has suffered breakdowns in 2006, but it is hard to find out too juch about them.

  7. It is sad that nuclear reactors seem to be seen as the answer to energy shortage, The Nuclear energy industry in the UK is about to be increased and the government is forcing the sale of British Energy in order to expand the nuclear energy industry to fix the very problems of base-load, there is a debate in Manchester on June 17th @ the Urbis centre in Manchester. It would be good if you could contribute to such a debate even in your absence, I am sure you do not think Nuclear is a panacea to solve the worlds energy problems given its past safety and environmental record.


    Speakers at the debate will include Professor Richard Clegg from Manchester University’s Dalton Nuclear Institute, Adrian Bull, UK stakeholder relations manager for north west nuclear company Westinghouse and Professor Erik Bichard, an expert in sustainability based at Salford University.

  8. Peter,
    Of course it is apposite that the debate is in Manchester. When I was there I used to walk past the building where Rutherford did his ground breaking work. Do we balme or praise the University for providing the framework your Ernest need?
    Nuclear is fine except for its waste by product, which we have yet to understand how we should deal with it for 10,000 years.

  9. If you could not make it to the debate in Manchester maybe you could send a video from Genersys [although Genesis maybe more popular] or even rent a billboard truck outside.

    Not only is there a waste from the closure and running of nuclear plants, the nuclear fuel has been obtained in many cases by Acid mining [pumping a strong acidic solution down to pump it back up with the hard to extract nuclear fuel] the problem of which is that much more acid is pumped down than is pumped upwards, it is really not good for the ecosystem to add this acid to the water table. Don’t get me wrong it is really nice to get vast amounts of energy from a small quantity of fuel, and of course it facinates me I have visited BNFL in Cumbria as a child, but the consequences are so bad and so it is better to be not so greedy and lazy and capture the solar energy which requires much more infrastructure spread over many installations however it is much more sensible and the cost is possibly financially greater but cost £ is not the only measure of quality of life. We would not live in fear of the great danger which comes with nuclear. What kind of world are we going to leave for future generations is a good measure

  10. I have always thought that part of the problem with all energy generation – including nuclear is that governments automatically think large scale, rather than small scale.
    It would have been better to convert the south bank power station to gas firing, rather than to the Tate modern Gallery, becasue it would have distributed the electricity locally. Better to have lots of smaller nuclear power stations dotted around the country close to where the electricity will be used, than large scale plants.
    As EE Schumacher said “small is beautiful”.


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