Keeping The Lights On

One of the benefits of being over in the UK recently was that I was able to pick up the latest copy of Private Eye magazine. I used to be a subscriber, but found that the postal delay rendered much of the content dated and irrelevant. If ever there was a case for a publication having a digital edition, Private Eye are it. Topical satire simply doesn’t age well.

But I digress. Often.

There was a column in it written by ‘Old Sparky’, entitled “Keeping The Lights On”. It was very interesting to read it as a SA resident. It’s probably a bit long to add into a blog post, to be honest, but I’ve never been one to abide by the petty unwritten rules around blogging, so here is it, in its entirety – I’ll see you for more comment on the other side:

WHEN the authorities make contingency plans against predictable disasters, we all applaud their foresight. Which catastrophes they are thinking about, however, can be revealing and give cause for concern; and right now the government is working on the possibility of a five-day nationwide power blackout – putting all its breezy denials of the lights going out into perspective.

As frequently noted here, energy policy since the dreadful Energy Act 2008 has resulted in the safety margin between reliable electricity generating capacity and peak demand becoming progressively and dangerously tighter. A 20 percent margin would be considered comfortable; but this winter it will only be 1.2 percent – down from 4.1 percent last year – before the National Grid takes special short-term measures.

Homes and hospitals
The grid has recently been bolstering its emergency resources with banks of diesel generators and the right to switch off industrial customers. Publicly the government always insists “the lights will stay on” – in homes and hospitals, that is. But it’s a costly, third-world way to run a grid in a supposedly advanced economy: and now we know they obviously don’t think it is guaranteed to work.

Papers seen by Private Eye indicate that the Cabinet Office and Treasury combined are planning for a scenario in which there is a five-day nationwide blackout with only small stand-by generators working. The detailed consequences they envisage include:

  • No landline telephones available to businesses or homes
  • Mobile phones with voice-only service (not data)
  • No street lights, traffic lights or public transport
  • Two-thirds of petrol stations closed
  • Shops open only sporadically and unreliably
  • ATMs unavailable, with cash running out fast

This would most probably happen in winter. It goes without saying that such a situation would also bring about ghastly accidents and loss of life, with the emergency services much constrained in their ability to cope. The implications for industry, commerce and public order are grim, too. If it’s any comfort, the German authorities – based on their own crazy energy policy – are looking at very similar scenarios.

With all this at stake, as prudent as it may be to plan for potential calamities, it would surely have been better to render the blackout scenario redundant by properly ensuring security of electricity supply. The current combination of intermittent wind farms, ageing nukes, fast-closing coal-fired power stations and mothballed gas-fired plants doesn’t do that: and privately the government knows it.

Yeah. We think that SA is the only one with problems like these. But there’s a real danger that the UK could experience some form of load-shedding this winter as well. (Regular readers shouldn’t find this news surprising.)

When similar ‘disaster’ plans made by Eskom and the SA Government became public knowledge, there was considerable disquiet and some small degree of panic (probably mainly thanks to scaremongering headlines). Sales of tinned goods reached heights not seen since 1994 and we all waiting to be plunged into dark, apocalyptic anarchy.

It didn’t happen.

Yet.

SA signed up (or didn’t sign up, depending on whom you choose to believe) for 4 new nuclear power stations, designed and supplied and ostensibly run by a foreign power – Russia. (Ironically, the UK has pretty much done the same thing with China and France.)

The cost of this SA/Ruskie venture? A tidy One Trillion Rands. It’s a lot of money, but the issues are not specifically around the cost, but (as you will read here) mainly around the safety of nuclear power stations and the potential for widespread corruption. Thing is though, the safety issue isn’t actually an issue – one only has to look at the still completely unexploded Koeberg Power Station to see that. And the corruption thing, while entirely valid, has got very little to do with this specific deal, and would be a problem no matter what large scale civil engineering project was being undertaken, and by whomever. That’s how these things work in SA. It’s sad, but it’s true.
So your plans for a ‘super clean’, ridiculously big, massively inefficient solar plant would attract the same problem. Your unpretty, flying thing killing, massively inefficient wind turbine plan will also be loaded with backhanders. But Greenpeace will probably choose to ignore that.

Large scale projects are expensive. Producing electricity is expensive. It’s something we have to accept though, because these are things that we need. People with trendy, fleetingly zeitgeist ideas like diverting that Trillion Rand to tertiary education are missing the rather obvious point that without some form of generating more electricity, there will be nothing for their newly graduated thousands to do in an economy that’s lying in small bits and pieces all over the bottom of Africa.
Yes, of course this situation could definitely have been better managed – it could still be better managed – but we need to do something, because otherwise we’re going to end up implementing that Eskom blackout plan.
And that is not a road we want to be going down.

PDF of the Private Eye article.

6 thoughts on “Keeping The Lights On

  1. I’m not that many miles away from the proposed Hinckley site, and the press is filled daily with column inches on why nuclear is bad, why doing deals with the Chinese is bad, blah, blah, blah. When the lights do go out, I’m moving back to Denmark/Norway!!

  2. Correct! Plus… Norway has more gas than it needs, thanks to all those waterfalls, so I know the lights will NEVER go out. And Denmark has more wind turbines than the whole of the UK put together! (It gets *really* windy in Jutland – must be all the farting from eating all that herring)… ?

  3. In addition to potential total blackout armageddon, there is currently a water shortage. Perhaps we can expect watershedding in the near future? Apparently it’s on the cards up here in Gauteng.

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