Wednesday, 12 November 2014
Some searching questions came up when the National Grid disclosed in late October that national power generation capacity would be at a seven year low this winter. The safety margin – spare capacity - fell from 17 per cent three years back to around four per cent for the coming cold season. Generator shutdowns and closures were blamed for the steep drop. The National Grid made predictably soothing noises. Yet the point had been lit up, in flames, on national media a week earlier as a huge fire spread across four cooling towers at Didcot power station in Oxfordshire. True, Didcot was back on stream the next day. But electricity output at the plant will be less than four-fifths of normal levels for some time. And the power station serves around a million people. Do we need to worry? The short answer is probably not – or not that much. Yet the UK’s shrinking power reserves throw into sharp relief a longer-term issue that everyone among the UK’s 64 million people will need to consider, even if their prime concern is keeping household bills down. You could call it ‘The Energy Trilemma’ – keeping the lights on, keeping the bills down, and preventing climate change. It’s often presented as a huge conundrum. Yet there is a surprisingly simple answer. How can anyone make such a bold statement? And, if true, why isn’t it being done already? Each winter day in the UK, between 3pm and 8pm, we use about 14% more electricity than at other times . People are coming home from work and school. Yet many offices and factories are still hard at work, and burning power. It’s cold and dark, so we use a lot of electricity. Britain wants to cut greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050. And with power costs spiraling year on year, businesses have a strong financial incentive to cut their electricity consumption during those peak hours. At home, it’s another story. We can try shifting our use of power-hungry appliances to different times. But unless you’re on an Economy Seven tariff or have solar panels, you are unlikely to benefit financially. Or are you? Hinkley C, a new nuclear power station, got the construction go-ahead from the EU in late 2014. It will yield 3.2 Gigawatts of power, or 3.2 million Kilowatts of power. The estimated cost was also hiked from £16 billion to £24.5 billion. That works out at nearly £8,000 per kilowatt. On current usage, we need about one kilowatt each for every person in the country. But the key point is that this applies only at peak times. The decision to build new power stations is based on estimates of future peak demand. It’s also assumed that domestic consumers – you and I, assuming we’re on the mains – will do nothing to reduce our individual peak demand because we have no direct financial incentive to do so. But we do have a very significant collective incentive to do something about it. That’s because every kilowatt we stop using at peak times contributes to a large cost saving on building new power stations. The saving is around £8,000 per per person if we carry on building nuclear power stations like Hinkley C, and the cost will rise. In the long run we’ll have to stump up these sums through bills or taxes, for the government subsidizes the construction costs of new power stations and needs to get the money back. So how can we avoid paying? By switching our peak consumption times. That goes for immersion heaters, dishwashers, washing machines and tumble driers. And there’s no need to reduce our overall consumption, either, though it’s useful in terms of bills and the environment alike. Shifting our use of power-hungry appliances that aren’t especially time-sensitive away from 3pm-8pm peak period would largely eliminate the peak. And with modern appliances, it takes no effort at all, simply because they’re usually fitted with delay timers. For instance, if you normally start up your dishwasher at 7pm, you could delay it for anything up to 20 hours - without having to get up in the middle of the night. (I set mine to start at 2am.) Immersion heaters are another clear example. They don’t need to be on all the time. So if you have one, you can fit a time switch and the water will stay hot. (I set mine to switch off at 7am, back on again at 8pm. And if I happen to want a piping hot bath during the day, I can easily override it.) There’s a strong precedent for taking collective action of this kind, and that is recycling. We are mostly willing to sift our rubbish into categories, with no direct reward. We just know it’s the right thing to do. It helps. Isn’t it time to do the right thing with electricity as well? If enough people did, there would be an indirect payoff, both financial and environmental: fewer new power stations, no matter what fuel they burn.