Electricity is a funny thing: Without it we wouldn’t be able to function in our daily lives at all. The use of electricity most often quoted is for lighting, however it is also the single most important component in the supply of gas, water and sanitation services (sewerage). We depend on it for food, communication, transport and shelter as well as the ability to sit in front of the TV watching X-factor whilst shovelling microwaved chicken jalfrezi into our mouths. So, I’m saying it’s important. Fine – I expect all of you knew that anyway, though maybe you didn’t appreciate just how vital it is. What really fascinates me about electricity though, is how few people there are that know even the most basic things about this fundamental resource. Nobody needs to know why the room lights up at the push of a button, they just know that it will happen.
The thing is, though, that if you have something vital like electricity you want to be fairly certain that it’ll continue to be available to you no matter what changes are made to society itself. If we live in a free, equal and fair society can we still be confident that the light comes on when you push the button?
So far, so little of information you may be thinking (and fair play if that was what you were thinking), so let me give you a rough outline of how electricity is produced and distributed in the majority of developed countries where utilities have been privatised and hopefully this will make you a little clearer on the likely problems and questions of electricity in the future.
Electricity supply comprises four different areas: generation, transmission, distribution and retail. To briefly explain them, generation is made up of any number of companies that produce electricity. Transmission is a single monopoly that operates to move electricity from the points of generation (power stations) to the main points of consumption (cities). Distribution consists of a number of companies that own a region of the electricity network and whose job it is to break the very high voltage electricity from transmission down into something more usable and then get it to homes, schools, factories etc. Finally retail exists to monitor the energy consumption of each dwelling and charge the owner, these are the companies that send you your bills.
The key issue that makes electricity distinct from other forms of energy supply, is that it has to be used (almost) instantaneously to when it is produced as it can’t yet be stored reliably. So the first point to understand is exactly how much of it needs to be generated at any point in the future and then continuously match the total amount generated across the country to the total amount being consumed. This, as you may appreciate, is quite complex. Electricity is traded using contracts that cover half-hour periods. The retailer will forecast how much of it they will need at any time and contract with various generation companies to be supplied with that electricity. So what happens if the retailer underestimates how much they need, a power station blows up or Gordon Brown unexpectedly appears on the ITN news and the population of Surrey switch their TV’s off? Well, the balance of supply demand is continuously managed by the owner of the transmission network who, if necessary, can tell the generation companies to switch things off or bring new generators online (for which the generation companies charge extortionate fees). The contracts are then reviewed after the half hour time period has been completed and any differences are settled up.
As I want to keep this to a readable length (and I’m tired, hungry and hungover) I’ll add only two more considerations: Electricity is a very finely graded form of energy: it can only be moved around if it’s at a very precise level of voltage and frequency. I can’t just plug a generator into a socket at the wall and power my house off of it, it would need to be synchronised to the correct output and connected to the correct position on the network for it to work without blowing something up. Which leads on to my final point – electricity is very dangerous stuff. Access to electrical infrastructure outside your own home is entirely restricted, with very good reason: a 400kV transformer is not something you’d want to open up to children or interested members of the public.
Hopefully you’ve already worked out where this is going: the nature of electricity supply requires large organisations and hierarchy as well as restrictions on members of the general public. How is this compatible with your view of a socialist society? Can this be achieved or do we need to rethink the way electricity would be supplied?