If there was a league table for ‘worst times for a power cut,’ it’s fair to say that a Friday afternoon would be near the top. If the rush-hour wasn’t already stressful enough, the UK’s most significant power cut in over a decade certainly caused some upset on 8th August when it left large parts of the country without power. In London tens of thousands of disgruntled commuters were left stranded in the dark. National Grid was able to restore power fairly quickly however disruption to travellers lasted for a number of hours.
Whilst it might have been an annoyance in the past, our increased dependency on electricity has changed the story of the power cut . Not only has the population grown substantially but our homes are now filled with more electronic devices than anyone in the 1970s could have cared to acquire. Business and infrastructure is also critically dependent. Back then, a candle and a board game might have been enough to see someone through a power cut, but we just can’t say the same in the connected age. Being powerless in 2019 takes the real sense of the word now that we so heavily rely on being plugged in.
Of course, we haven’t just changed the way we use electricity; we have changed the way we generate it, cleaning up the power sector by decreasing the percentage of fossil fuels and increasing renewables generation. Policy favouring renewables has helped tackle the 40% of power generated by coal in 2012, bringing it down to 5% in 2018. All this progress was further celebrated when the UK hit a record number of coal-free days at 18 days and 6 hours earlier this year. Policymakers have identified clean electricity as one of the key options for decarbonising transport and heat sectors too.
Heating solutions that are low-carbon, efficient and reliable are desired and electric heating (primarily using heat pumps) is one of the key options available to Government in meeting the net-zero by 2050 emissions target put in place earlier this year.
As our dependence on electricity grows over the coming years and expands into areas such as heating, so will the importance of keeping electricity flowing. Granted it might be frustrating to be left waiting at the train station due to a powercut, but the likelihood is that you’ll probably get home at some point. The bigger issue will be for those relying on electricity for more critical needs, such as keeping their homes warm in the winter or for using their medical equipment.
The perception issue may actually be more serious than the reality here. Homes fitted with heat pumps should either be designed or retrofitted with high levels of insulation. As such, they will retain heat for longer periods than we are used to. Just as the food in your fridge stays cold after you switch the fridge off, a well insulated home should stay warm for quite a long time even in the event of a power cut.
As we increase our dependence on electricity, the UK may need to increase overall generation capacity integrating high levels of renewable power, all the while maintaining reliability. Following the events of August, National Grid were quickly put in the hot seat to answer questions as to why a gigawatt of power was lost and why a back-up generator failed to start. If electric heating is the way forward, balancing the energy demand will be key. One thing is certain, the public only really takes notice of energy at the point they’re left without it.
Article written by Ecuity partner, James Higgin, originally published in the October edition of H&V News Magazine