The Emperor’s new clothes: when the lights go out

Written by David Chandler.

The Emperor’s new clothes: when the lights go out

Adults are amused by young children when they are asked “Where does milk come from?"  They will often say Waitrose or Tesco.

However, I am not sure that adults are much more sophisticated when they come to answer the question “Where does electricity come from?”

Electricity just seems to be there, like the air we breathe and not thought about at all, unless there is a power cut.

A power cut, locally, of a few hours is a news item and one lasting a day or more, anywhere, will hit the national news.

Hours spent in darkness are miserable, heating and cooking immediately stop, working and shops grind to a halt without their electronic systems.  Phones and computer systems soon stop working and quite quickly the internet goes down.  Phones and electronic devices can no longer be recharged and, more importantly, water and sewage pumps immediately stop working.

We would have anarchy within a few days if the electricity supply failed.

I was therefore surprised to discover in talking about this in a discussion group that nobody had heard of the National Electricity Grid and only a few understood the fact that electricity generation has to precisely match consumption at every moment  of time.

Electricity generation involves CO2 emissions and has been targeted for reductions by Ed Milliband’s Climate Change Act of 2008.  This Act was in response to an EU Directive when the UK responded in a unilateral fashion, by enacting in law, reductions in CO2 emissions.

Other EU countries ignored the Directive to the extent that Germany, Holland and Italy are all building new coal fired power stations while we are closing ours.

The huge subsidies given to renewables such as wind and solar mean that the UK has the most expensive electricity in Europe.  This is having the effect of closing down our heavy industry as the recent crisis with steel is showing.  Our aluminium smelters have already moved overseas with the loss of thousands of jobs.

The intermittent nature of wind and solar means there have to be back-up systems.  Some of these back-up systems are parks full of diesel generators (no saving of CO2 there!). More efficient are gas-fired power stations, but the most efficient combined cycle gas turbines are not so flexible.

What is depressing is not so much the lack of knowledge of these technical matters among the general public, but the lack of expertise apparent at the highest level of government.


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