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Don’t let the lights go out

Author : Tim Fryer

09 October 2012

The threat of power shortages is closer than we originally thought according to a report from Ofgem. In fact we may be facing blackouts in as little as three years time.

The analysis from Ofgem shows that the margin – that is the difference between capacity and requirement – is likely to fall from its current level of 14% to as low as 4%. This is largely as a consequence of environmental legislation bringing some coal-fired generation capacity to an early close. Four percent is obviously wafer thin if we were to experience a cold snap, or if the overseas supplies of gas we depend on start to slow down.

Human nature dictates that we revel in our misery about the worst case scenario, without deep down believing that it will come to pass. However, as the Californians - collectively who are probably the wealthiest corner of the wealthiest nation - have found out in recent years, being at the top of the world’s economic heap doesn’t give you a god given right to energy. If it is not there, then it is not there!

Are we in the same circumstances? Yes, we clearly are. We have left ourselves with little safety margin and there are two ways of looking at this - macro scale or the big picture. The big picture is that we don’t have joined up thinking regarding long term infrastructure planning. One Government’s drive for cost savings and environmental considerations may fly in the face of the preceding government’s desire to support indigenous fuel sources and associated jobs. The last sentence refers to the demise of the coal industry obviously, but varying opinions have equally existed about imported energy sources, nuclear and renewable energy – even if we should be using such useful substances as oil and gas for electricity generation in the first place. There are so many conflicting ideas and we have gone past the point where we need to form a long-term strategy and stick to it. The politics needs to be removed. We need to place our trust in a cross-party committee that that offers continuity in both its personnel and plan.

Human nature, as I started a previous paragraph, is a funny thing. If the lights go out we will be up in arms blaming the government, the electricity generators, the Arabs and the Russians – everyone apart from ourselves. But this is the other side of the coin. Facilities managers, as I have written about on several occasions in recent months, have a huge role in determining how much energy is consumed in the workplace. Even before looking at investing in PV panels or ground source heat pumps and the like, we are still only starting down the path of making the workplace truly efficient. As I write this I am sitting in my office, on a reasonably autumnal October afternoon, with a window open because the heating is up too high. If anyone should know better!

Typically energy savings of 10 – 20% can be achieved by tackling the low hanging fruit around any commercial premises. That is the sort of figure that represents the difference between the current electricity generation margin and the projected margin in three years time. Or to put it another way, the difference between the lights staying on or them going out.

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