Why do Blackouts Feel So Ironic During a Cost-Of-Living Crisis?
When I first saw the headline ‘Experts warn Britons could face energy rationing to avoid blackouts at Christmas’, I was a little confused. Over 133,000 people have joined the Don’t Pay UK movement, where members refuse to pay their energy bills in protest at the price. So, I assumed that public demand for electricity might also fall during the Winter months, in another effort to counteract the impending hike in costs. Meaning, less power usage, relinquished strain on the Grid, and fewer subsequent blackouts. Right? Not exactly. Though nose-diving even further into the UK’s current economic state is rather bleak – and not exactly something that helps you sleep at night – the irony of state-controlled blackouts during a cost-of-living crisis wouldn’t escape me. So, here we go…
Is the energy price cap really a ‘cap’?
Our Leeds-based marketing agency is home to some big fans of Radio 1. And this week, I actually laughed-out-loud when Greg James declared that we need to stop calling the inflated energy price cap as a ‘cap’, because it’s not exactly working in our favour to cap soaring prices. Anyway, however you reference it, we’re all now aware that energy prices are to rise by an eye-watering 80% from October. With the typical annual household bill for energy projected to reach around £3,500 for the year, you don’t need a glass ball to prophesise that the ways in which we use electricity are about to undergo a rather seismic shift. If not already – the search term ‘how to save money on energy bill’ has been a breakout on Google, meaning it’s grown by more than 5,000%(!).
Unless our new Prime Minister, Liz Truss, has a magic energy wand that we don’t know about, energy prices are set to worsen in January. Because further havoc to our electricity grid that’s battling demand and supply fluctuations like never before is exactly what we need during the ‘bluest’ month of the year…
A limited landscape of the renewable realms
Gas remains the number one way that we fuel energy in the UK, with almost 40% of our homes, industries, and electricity supplied by the natural resource. The Russia-Ukraine war has provoked huge competition for gas – countries once-reliant on supply from Russia have had to look to other sources, naturally causing prices to hike. Not to mention the chance of Russia cutting off its gas supplies to Europe – one problem at a time, hey?
A way to counteract our restricted gas provision would be to look at alternative sources of fuel to power our electric dreams and needs. Be it solar, wind, geothermal, green, the list goes on. In fact, it’s incredibly vast, and largely renewable. But in this moment, does it feel too little, too late?
Despite injections of investment into the companies behind our GreenTech era over the last few years, technological advancements that hold mass potential to power a greener future aren’t quite ready on a national scale. We needed that investment tens of years ago to counteract the impact of our behaviours today.
What’s the risk of blackouts?
And the risk of blackouts is increasing, according to Kathryn Poter of energy consultancy Watt-Logic, because ‘We have been replacing thermal and nuclear generation with intermittent renewables. That makes us vulnerable in times when wind output is low. If we have those weather conditions in the winter, our system is going to get very tight and that raises a risk of blackouts.’ Despite a heatwave-ridden summer complementing solar panels, wind output in July and August was relatively low.
So, unable to construct row upon row of wind turbines in every field before the Winter months hit, the government’s come up with another ‘plan’. Pass the salt, because that’s the current state of politics for you.
How does load shedding manage energy supplies?
‘Load shedding’ is the name of the game we’re all unintentionally set to become players in during the last months of 2022. Its aim? Officials organise blackouts for prolonged time periods to manage declines in energy supplies. Naturally, when the Daily Mail caught wind, they jumped straight to advising the public to:
- ‘Cook dinner after 8pm’
- ‘Wash your clothes at morning or at night’
- ‘Turn off your lights if the WIND doesn’t blow’
All in efforts to stabilise the energy system to counteract any risk of blackouts. The government’s also considering reversing its decision to shut down gas-storage facilities and revive the Rough storage facility in East Yorkshire. We closed it in 2017 due to cost and safety concerns, but we’ve now got our tail between our legs because we don’t have enough gas stored to fuel power stations and avoid blackouts. So’s Truss – the Labour Party believe this was one of her first acts as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2017…
Yet another ‘worst-case’ scenario
The government’s latest ‘reasonable worst-case scenario’ is that we could face ‘days’ of blackouts this winter. It’s not the first time they’ve had to outline such a scene, the most recent being during the Covid-19 pandemic. So, where is this projection of ‘days’ without electricity being fuelled from?
Blackouts occur when we’ve not got enough power to meet peak demand, worsened by colder weather that can cause disruption to both infrastructure and the wider network. Our last organised blackouts were during the early 1970s – a three-day working week was introduced to counteract a lack of energy following industrial action by coal miners and railway workers. Electricity generation was limited, so conservation efforts were forced.
Mid-August, The Express reported plans found in a leaked government document – a ‘scheduled four-day blackout this winter’. And I think we’re all within our rights to be somewhere on the spectrum of rage, disappointment, and worry. We’ve been passed from pillar to post in recent months with next to no consideration for how the cap-not-cap will impact our livelihoods. The public are already stretched to put food on the table, made more obvious by the moves the big supermarkets are making to retain and attract custom. Noticed a surge in loyalty schemes? It’s no wonder with prices surging – whole milk’s risen by a whopping 28.1%. My ClubCard has never seen so much traction…
How could blackouts affect lives?
From what I’ve read, it’s clear the government is worried about this winter. And I am, too. On the surface, we might be cross that any troughs in electrical supply mean we can’t charge our smartphone and post a photo of brunch to Instagram, catch up on the latest season of Married at First Sight, or boil the kettle when we fancy a cuppa without a second thought. But it’s far more complex than these mild bouts of inconvenience.
Essential infrastructure could cripple. Transport networks might buckle. The already-sensitive economy becomes more vulnerable to yet another blow. Whilst the digitisation of many private and public services is something to be celebrated, when the supply tap’s turned off, what happens? Our office doesn’t yet have its own generator or electrical battery supply, so will we have to shut shop for a few days? Maybe. I’m going to avoid thinking about what could happen to our hospitals, but the phrase ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ comes to mind.
Why we need to revaluate the UK’s energy supplies
Let’s not sugar-coat it – it feels as though we’re set for a winter with some of the darkest nights a generation has known. And we’re all pretty fatigued by the negativity of the news. The increasing occurrence of putting something into your supermarket basket only to notice the price and promptly return it to the shelf. Of taking pinpoint note of the 5 digits displayed at the petrol pumps. But as easy as it is to feel low, we really must use this moment to find a high.
It’s never been clearer that we need to revaluate supply of energy to the UK. And look, I’m not expert, but even I can see and understand this. Like how Covid-19 prompted a spike in public interest and knowledge of looking after our own health, I think the potential’s there to happen for energy, too. If not already. I think we all know a friend of a friend with solar panel plastered to the roof of their home; I certainly know colleagues considering purchasing batteries to power their individual energy needs.
Egos vs. economics
It’s shameful the extent our hands have been forced by the price cap. By both the money-guzzling energy giants and these intended blackouts from a government seemingly more bothered by bolstering their own egos in the race to Number 10 than the needs of the public they’re supposed to be democratically serving. But maybe, this is where we’ll start to take things like energy into our own hands.
And still, the irony of forced blackouts during a cost-of-living crisis is yet to escape me. Will forced blackouts be reflected in slightly reduced energy bills at the end of the month? Every cloud, and all that. But will the price to our economy, working landscape, health, critical infrastructure, transport networks – I could go on, but I think that’s enough – be an even more significant storm?
Let us know your thoughts!