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IT Strategy: Power shortage coming your way

THE UK used to enjoy a well-designed, maintained and operated power grid where outages were a rarity and blackouts unheard of. It was well-balanced, with nuclear supporting the base load, more responsive coal supporting additional base and diurnal load, and oil and gas plants filling the shorter peak demands. Operating margins were proportional and roughly equal to 20% to account for plant failures, maintenance and severe winters. In short: it had all been ‘engineered’ by professionals who understood what they were doing.

Then a new influx of people started to change the industry in the mid-90s. These folks were motivated by finance, politics, and, worse, ‘green’ ideologies. And so 2015 sees a grid shaped by wallet, doctrine and heart, and therefore destined to fail. With a ludicrous mix of ageing nuclear plant, dying coal, oil and gas, and the supposedly green wind and solar farms, we have an unstable system. Misplaced and missing investment in energy storage seems to have us staring power cuts in the face.

In early December, UK power demand peaked at about 48GW, prompting this (much condensed) internal system notification to be issued:

From : Power System Manager – National Grid Electricity Control Centre
NOTIFICATION OF INADEQUATE SYSTEM MARGIN
From 16:30 – 18:30 Wednesday 04/11/2015 System margin shortfall 500 MW

Our backs were to the wall: no wind power was available and we were down to a 0.5GW excess capacity, but we made it – just.

The best estimate UK peak (bad) winter demand is roughly 56GW, but our total projected energy supply capability across the UK (2016-17 figures) is only about 53GW. Without factoring in a single plant failure all winter, which is extremely unlikely, we are looking at an estimated shortfall of 3GW (5.3%). If we lose just one big plant due to a failure, this will rise to at least 4GW (7.1%). Early December saw industry being asked to prepare to back off demand as we neared the failure threshold, and it wasn’t even cold yet. So what is the grand plan? Rolling blackouts? Reduced working weeks? Industry closure days? The UK is about to become a laughing stock – a world leader that can’t even produce enough power.

Have people really only just discovered that the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time? Or is it that they know nothing about power grids and think it is just like running a burger bar? Their ignorance and arrogance have certainly not been factored into the national grid configuration. So if the winter is to be cold, or even a tiny bit severe, you had better start stocking up on batteries and candles – and buy a camping stove if you haven’t already got one. Oh, and please don’t rely on the internet, mobile and WiFi because their battery back-up is limited. This is all going to cost a ‘green’ and ‘financial’ fortune in extra carbon burn, lost jobs, slowed and closed business, not to mention lost orders and reputational damage.

There is no fast fix; we need a 20% operating margin, but new power plants of the size needed take at least five to ten years to build, even when all the bureaucracy is complete. And please don’t tell me that there are these new ‘green’ technologies and solutions – I’m a professional engineer motivated by real solutions that reliably and cost-effectively satisfy need. By the way, my contribution to global pollution is about to go up: I installed my petrol generator last year – I cannot work and run my business without power.

Every day I seem to see a headline proclaiming that the UK leads the world in this or that. But with inadequate roads, rail, airports, mobile and broadband networks, and now unreliable power, how can this be so? We certainly have the engineering capability, but not when it is constrained by economic, political and ‘green’ ignorance.

The UK is, in fact, underperforming, and this has all the potential to be more than a small blip in the UK GDP.

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and the former chief technology officer at BT

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