House at dusk with lights at the wondows. Photo by Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

Blackouts and the common good

01 November, 2022

Sarah Darby, Environmental Change Institute

Reading time: 5 minutes

Guest blog from Sarah Darby exploring what other countries are doing to reduce demand and whether the UK should reconsider its approach to avoid blackouts.

How you feel about a loss of electricity supply will be influenced by where in the world you live. Some readers will have had to cope with blackouts caused by extreme weather – high winds, ice storms, floods and forest fires that bring down power lines and put generators and substations out of action.

Some will live in regions where people are routinely told when the power supply to their district will be unavailable that day, so they can plan their activities accordingly. Some do not have the luxury of warnings about outages and have to make the most of their supply when it is available, however randomly. And some, living off-grid, may have to fix any failings in supply themselves.

But it’s easy to take electricity for granted if you are supplied through Great Britain’s National Grid, one of the most reliable systems in the world. People in rural areas may not enjoy such a constant service as city dwellers, but even so, we expect to be able to press a switch at any time and for the electrons to flow forth and activate our lights, fridges, machine tools, cookers, TVs and laptops. So when National Grid warned that, in a worst-case scenario, there could be power cuts of up to three hours a day this winter – ‘rolling blackouts’ – it made headlines.

Increase supply or reduce demand

There are two basic ways of avoiding blackouts: increasing supply or reducing demand. Emergency services will have backup generators if at all possible, while wealthy households or businesses may invest in their own generators or storage: a common solution in many countries with intermittent power, and one that exacerbates inequalities. In the UK, at macro scale, National Grid has arranged to bring some old coal-fired power stations out of retirement this winter, should the need arise – but the environmental cost will be heavy.

The other way of addressing the prospect of shortages involves the other face of the supply/demand coin: what can be done to reduce demand so that the system can cope with it all, even if gas supplies are restricted? Here, the evidence is – perhaps unexpectedly – encouraging. The first thing to remember is that the system is only likely to be tightly squeezed for a short time each day. This time will vary depending on factors such as climate, working hours and whether people prefer a cooked meal in the middle of the day or the evening. But if people switch off inessential appliances during those hours of peak demand, the need for rolling blackouts (or for extra gas-fired generation) vanishes. And if demand can be reduced overall, throughout the day, renewable sources are able to supply a higher proportion of power – as they did during 2020, when demand dropped during the Covid lockdowns.

What are other countries doing?

We are seeing government activity around Europe to reduce demand for gas, especially in countries that have relied heavily on Russian supplies. They are mandating or calling for more careful use of gas for heating – for example, bringing down the temperatures in public buildings to 19oC and asking citizens to do the same – and bringing in policies to cut demand for electricity, especially in those all-important peak hours. So the French now have a real-time ‘electricity weather report’ so that everyone can check the current supply situation and see when blackouts could result if demand outstrips it, while President Macron has called for citizens to aim to cut back their electricity usage by 10% and there is a ban on shops leaving their doors open while heating or cooling is switched on. Germany is no longer lighting its public buildings. Spain’s shop windows are no longer lit after 10pm.

Will this approach work, without alienating people and leading, perhaps, to a softening of resolve against Russia? It’s early days, but there are hopeful precedents. Rolling blackouts were predicted during the Californian energy crisis of 2000-2021, but they never occurred, thanks to a combination of public concern, daily information about grid conditions and incentives to switch off at peak times and to invest in more efficient equipment. Demand went down by almost 15%, for the sake of the common good, in a part of the world famed for individualism. Japan, Norway, Ontario, New Zealand and Brazil can offer comparable stories of ‘saving electricity in a hurry’.

Reconsidering demand reduction in the UK

The recent unwillingness of the UK government to advise and support demand reductions in order to avoid rolling blackouts seems unwarranted; perhaps it can now be reconsidered? If policy makers see us purely as individuals who purchase units of electricity from our suppliers, the standard economic view is that it is up to each of us to decide what we do with those units, while the supplier gets hold of as many units as possible to sell to us. Electricity, in that view, is seen as a commodity like a bag of flour or tin of beans. But we individuals are all networked – literally – into an electricity system where each electricity-related action affects everyone, however slightly. This would be the case even if British citizens simply consumed electricity. It is even more true now that they also generate it with solar PV panels, store it in standalone batteries or electric vehicles, and are shareholders in windfarms, solar farms and hydro plants.

The situation calls for an approach that takes demand at least as seriously as supply; it makes more sense than ever to foster a sense of belonging to the system and having a stake in making it work for all. A little encouragement and timely information, along with support for those least able to cope with high energy bills, could keep blackouts at bay and ensure basic services for all.

Banner photo credit: Valentina Locatelli on Unsplash

You may also be interested in…