How Can We Turn The Tide on the Threat of Power Blackouts?

by Scott Douglas

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Electricity PylonA version of this post first appeared in the Daily Record’s Edinburgh Now supplement.

I can’t recall ever having been affected by a genuine power blackout.

The grim days of the electricity shutdowns in the early 1970s are only vague memory, mostly of childish delight at living a small part of life by candlelight.

Back then we still had only three TV channels and a battery-operated digital watch was considered sci-fi technology.

So, while a total loss of power was a massive inconvenience, people could still work a manual typewriter, file paperwork and more or less go about large parts of life at work and at home, at least during hours of daylight.

Try to imagine what a total, UK-wide power shutdown, even for just a half a day, would look like now.

Many businesses struggle to cope if they lose email for a day. How on earth could commerce function without the most basic access to a computer or a server?

Tree Hugger

And in a time when patchy mobile phone signal is a cause for foot-stamping disgust, how would the “always-on” generation cope with a total switch off?

No Facebook, no Twitter, no cable or satellite telly, no X-box or Playstation and no mobile devices beyond the few hours of juice in the battery – #shudders.

Energy is the hot topic of the moment. There’s nothing like rising bills to focus the attention of a disgruntled public, particularly while the “Big Six” power companies are creaming in enormous profits.

But it goes beyond that. So many of the stories catching our attention have an underlying energy focus, whether it’s the troubles at the massive Grangemouth petrochemical plant or the Greenpeace protestors jailed in Russia for opposing oil drilling in the Arctic wilderness.

Trouble’s afoot and is likely to get worse. You don’t have to be a militant tree hugger or a tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist to know two things.

Firstly our own demand for more and more power is skyrocketing, yet still looks positively peely-wally when measured against the voracious and growing energy appetites of fast-growing economies such as China and  India.

Fossil Fuels

Secondly our reserves of fossil fuel are dwindling and increasingly controversial and destructive measures are being used to get at what the planet has left to offer – from fracking across the US, through the exploitation of the Canadian Tar Sands to the rush to drill the Arctic.

All of this is even before we use the ‘N’ word that causes so much division and outrage. Nuclear has its advocates, but who isn’t unsettled by the prospect of French and Chinese money men building Britain’s first new nuclear plant in a generation in leafy Suffolk?

At home the Scottish Government has a vested interest in maintaining North Sea Oil production to pay for its dreams of independence, but with a canny eye on the future has also pinned its colours to the “renewables” mast, particularly wind and tidal power.

Starting today (wed) the two day World Ocean Power Summit will take place in Edinburgh, with Energy Minister Fergus Ewing among the speakers. Also on hand will be Martin McAdam, the boss of Edinburgh-based Aquamarine Power, which is developing and testing the very clever Oyster, which turns the motion of the ocean into clean, green electricity.

A key theme of the conference will be on how to attract the kind of political and financial backing which will allow these new technologies to flourish.

Smart Cookies

What’s not to love when you hear stats that Scotland has a quarter of Europe’s offshore wind and a tenth of the continent’s tidal potential? All we need is some smart cookie to work out how to turn rain into electricity and we’re sorted.

Yet there will be at least one cautionary voice at the summit. Edinburgh University boffin Claire Haggett has spent 20 years studying the reaction of local communities living near renewables projects.

She believes that offshore wind and tidal projects could face the same sort of public backlash that wind farms have faced, often from highly-organised and disciplined anti campaigners.

Problems associated with wind farms, such as “visual impact” and “shadow flicker” might sound relatively tame when ranked alongside “nuclear meltdown” or “massive oil spill”, yet the emerging wind sector still feels unloved.

In the meantime the august Royal Academy of Engineering has warned that power cuts could be a reality as early as next winter, with our electricity system stretched to the limit.

We’ve all got some tough choices ahead of us – what are you prepared to accept to ensure the lights stay on?


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