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Can we keep the lights on?

BSRIA is a company in the know about the very real risks to the UK’s energy supplies, others, it says aren’t that fortunate. As an industry, it claims we should be educating and offering strategy plans for the worst case scenario. Here follows a review of a recent event the built environment’s test, instruments, and research organisation hosted to discuss how to keep the lights on in the UK


There has been much media speculation on the continuity of the UK’s electricity supply with the possibility of usage getting to within 2% of capacity, meaning the very real prospect of power outages and ensuing consequences. BSRIA and ECA set out to find answers, by bringing together some of the industry’s most knowledgeable experts. The event looked at the challenges and the possible solutions we face in the coming years in an effort to meet the UK’s energy demand.

The seminar took place at Westminster City Hall with ECA’s Bill Wright acting as Chair. Wright started the event with an overview of the topic in hand referring to the recent ‘Bang goes the theory’ episode which looked at the recent storms and the effect they had on the energy in our homes but also focused on the bigger picture of what we can do to secure our power. The power cuts at Christmas showed how unprepared we are as a nation to deal with long outages and lack an understanding of the bigger picture. Wright introduced the morning speakers; Julian Roberts of Ofgem and Richard Smith of National Grid to discuss the facts about our electricity supply and their opinion of what might happen in the future.

Setting the scene

Julian Roberts presented the security of supply, which is currently at ‘considerable risk’. In 2010 Ofgem’s Project Discovery highlighted a number of challenges facing the UK’s energy, one of the key challenges being the increasing costs to consumers. Some of the fundamental objectives to come from this were affordability and decarbonisation. As analysis in 2012 confirmed it was clear something had to be done, this includes environmental legislation which tackles high polluting plants and investment in wind. Wind generation is growing but there is still not enough to replace coal or to compete with nuclear power and with wind growth there is always more risk.

Roberts did emphasise that the media’s prediction of impending shortages is just one scenario and that there is actually a range of sensitivities that make up several scenarios of the future. Julian made it clear that though there is uncertainty for future electricity generation there are a number of preventative developments such as the Capacity Market and new investment in renewables. Although the future is unclear, it is not on a set trajectory that the media is currently portraying.

Something that Richard Smith from National Grid agreed with. As Smith argued, our industry is a long term industry; it’s not an industry that is looking for a quick fix but rather developments that are there to make sustainable changes. The biggest objective to protect the supply side is decarbonisation which is incredibly difficult when electricity is the dirtiest fuel. Another challenge with decarbonisation is users lack the understanding about how much energy they require and demand. National Grid like Ofgem looks at a number of possible scenarios to try to cover all eventualities such as meeting all Government targets. The scenarios try to track potentials of energy saving technology such as feeding tariffs and heat pumps to name but a few; potentials which should enable us to level the current trajectory we are on.

Smith did highlight that blackouts are not something new, although we suffered dramatically in the 2013 Christmas period, blackouts happen all over the world and can be resolved. He emphasised that in the case of the UK it tends to be weather and falling trees that drives them but that the storms of this winter have enabled them to see a higher frequency and duration and the impacts this can have. Although these issues were dealt with in the best way possible, there are lessons that can be learnt from it but despite this the future is still uncertain. Politically energy is not consistent and polarisation is expected to continue until the next general election. Economically we’re uncertain as well, although growth is expected for 2014 is it a sustainable growth we need to enable us to implement plans for electricity generation.

A key issue that is rarely considered with electricity supply is water. Tim White from Marquis and Lord highlighted the dependency water supply has on electricity generation and the fact that it’s not something we have to prepare for but it’s an issue happening now, an issue we need to work on resolving.

But how does electricity affect our water supply? As White explained there are two types of impact: volumetric and storage and disinfection. In late 2013 and early 2014 there have already been serious cases reported in various areas of the UK, incidents that will no doubt increase in the future. With microbiological zone incidents ranging from 8-9 per blackout the risks are high and need to be prepared for, as do the societal impacts that come with a lack of water supply: not only does the pressure of bottled water supply increase but there are severe hygiene issues due to the reliance of water for toilets, food preparation and personal hygiene. White did highlight that although the Government can put in measures such as the Water Safety Plan, he encourages companies to prepare an emergency plan based on the users of the building and make sure it is stress tested to account for as many eventualities as possible. When considering emergency plans also consider the risks of water storage, without electricity water runs the risk of stagnation and bacterial contamination. White encouraged users to understand the systems employed in water storage as well as looking beyond L8 legislation. And above all he reminded the audience that current Government contingency plans do not protect commercial properties, it is up to individuals to prepare for the risks to water when power cuts occur.


There are a multitude of possible solutions to the impending problem of our electricity generation. It is clear something has to be done to prevent the possibility of power shortages in the future and several possibilities discussed.

Philip Douglas from DECC introduced the Energy Savings Opportunities Scheme, this is a European Directive which obligates large enterprises to perform energy audits to establish where they are able to save and the measures that can be implemented to allow them to do that. One of the key benefits of ESOS is it incorporates much more than buildings but rather looks at transport and industrial processes.

About Caroline Hill


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