THE BLOG

UK Grid Infrastructure: Not a Leg to Stand On

13/01/2014 11:20 GMT | Updated 14/03/2014 09:59 GMT

A staggering 750,000 UK households were hit by power cuts over the festive season, and as nice as a candlelit Christmas may sound, in practice it is at best an inconvenience and at worst a complete nightmare. The situation was so dire for some that energy distributors offered to foot the Christmas dinner bill for families whose absent power supplies forced them to head to pubs and restaurants rather than enjoy the day they had planned at home, and millions of pounds in compensation is now being written up for those affected.

Whilst these power cuts were ostensibly the result of severe storms, an entirely separate issue, what the subsequent disruption reveals is a fundamental lack of grid resilience that must be addressed. Thanks to our decrepit system, one faulty line may cause blackouts for entire districts rather than figure as a small glitch to be traversed without incident.

A 21st century grid should be able to feed power wherever it is required, rather than operate rigidly in a fixed direction, and should be flexible enough to adjust accordingly when a piece of the puzzle is rendered unusable for whatever reason. As was made abundantly clear by the December storms, this is not the current state of play.

Not only do the current transmission and distribution networks lose power at every juncture, they are also inflexible, passive, and sized according to a theoretical load that means there is only ever a loose relationship between demand and supply. The archaic system also operates above ground, creating vulnerabilities to the pressures of extreme weather such as that seen in the last few weeks. Sufficient investment has been remiss, with little thought given to the proper integration of low-carbon technologies or the replacement of ageing infrastructure, and all of these factors combine to spell out an obvious fact: the grid is in need of complete overhaul.

A modernised system, of course, will not come cheap, and with public money still amounting to little more than pocket change it makes an uncomfortable topic for consideration. However, with problems mounting, practicable solutions are now a matter of urgency even if financial constraints necessarily dictate a stepped approach.

A nationwide blueprint that takes into account Britain's changing energy use must be developed and rolled out as it becomes commercially possible to do so; unless development gathers momentum in this way, the UK is at risk not only of further power cuts but long-term economic repercussions. Businesses looking to expand are dragging their heels, unsure of whether the capacity crunch we're currently in the grip of will be detrimental to their continued operation. How can anyone hope to kick the economy back into gear with fundamental concerns such as a reliable supply of electricity holding it back?

An intelligent, responsive grid is absolutely essential for the maintenance and growth of British energy supply. We can't continue with the anachronistic system we have now, it simply isn't fit for purpose and it is costing us all money. The sooner an integrated and well-thought approach is put in place, the better for businesses and households alike.