The health of our critical power infrastructure in the UK could be said to somewhat questionable – and I don’t think that’s something any of us really want to hear.
It was encouraging (and some will say surprising) to discover that one day in the last quarter of 2014 the UK achieved more of its power generation from wind than it did from nuclear. That sounds pretty healthy, doesn’t it? But it was actually the sickness of the rest of the system that allowed this to happen.
On the day this record was achieved the wind was blowing strongly and more than half of the country’s 15 working nuclear power stations were offline or restricting their generation for one reason or another; some technical failures, some refuelling, some for maintenance. Add in a huge fire at Didcot B power station, in Oxfordshire, that will see half of it’s capacity out of action for an indefinite period and you can see how vulnerable we might be if only a handful of other unfortunate occurrences come our way.
That’s why recently revealed moves by the New York Power Authority, in the US, are a development we should be watching closely. It is planning for and investing in moves towards microgrids, with the key aim of keeping its power supply in a healthy state come what may.
Microgrids are defined sections of the infrastructure that can stand alone if they have to. They can make use of a variety of generation methods which would normally include a mix of renewables but could also include, for example, a smaller gas-fired power station. In the case of New York, which can and does experience a variety of extreme weather events, this could be the difference between the lights going out and everyone staying warm and safe, or at least limiting damage and disruption to smaller areas.
It is also a model that could very well suit us in this country. Smaller, more flexible and agile power providers, creating energy for a distinct market would serve a number of very noble purposes. Distributing anything as important as power generation is a good idea, especially as each generating organisation could still be linked by the national power grid that we already have. They can feed into that grid with any surplus or draw from it in times of deficit, and they would be more accountable to the communities they served – possibly even owned by them.
The control of our power generation and distribution would be taken out of the hands of a few big companies, new projects would have to include a healthy proportion of renewable methods in order to meet European quotas and the economy would benefit from the investment and the creation of such infrastructure, which doesn’t have to be completed and paid for overnight or from one pot. Community investment, by businesses, individuals and even third-sector organisations could see everyone benefit.
Of course there are drawbacks, there are obstacles and there would be setbacks to overcome; this is real life after all! But New York could be showing us the way to a more resilient and democratic approach to generating electricity that will keep both our power supplies and our planet healthy.