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Electricity and the future for your jalfrezi

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?


8 responses »

  1. What I like about this: not only is it informative regarding how electricity supplies basically function at the moment, but it also poses a wonderfully practical problem to traditional leftist notions of alternative societies: how can something as practical as an electricity supply function safely without hierarchy?

    More broadly, is all hierarchy inherently conservative? Or could we imagine a form of hierarchy that was beneficial?

    As far as my own views on these matters are concerned, I’ve never had a problem with authority and hierarchy so long as those who are given powers are held accountable to the broader community. In this case, that would have to entail some form of independent health and safety commission – perhaps? It would also depend on communal determination of the direction for use of such resources.

    We must also remember that any new society will emerge from what we’ve got. Joe, is it feasible that the current infrastructure could be adapted to a new social outlook? Could those four moments of electricity supply (generation etc.) be unified – dare say nationalised? – and still maintain efficiency?

  2. Balls. Looks like I’m out of time this evening to reply to the one and only comment my wonderful article has so far attracted. Never fear though! After some rest, I’ll respond fully to your questions Dan, and the countless others who will have, no doubt, added their thoughts.

  3. I think renewables add an interesting dimension to the discussion. At the moment we have a relatively small number of large coal power stations (about 20) that supply the majority of electricity to the national grid, and as far as I understand it it would be very inefficient to have a multitude of very small coal power stations. The current system therefore lends itself to a more centralised control of energy.
    However renewable energy can much more realistically be implemented at a smaller level, potentially giving individual communities the ability to manage their own electricity supplies.

  4. Now this idea I like: giving individual communities the ability to manage their own electricity supplies. Would it still rely on a centralised main source of power? Or could it generate enough for the requirements of a community?

    When I say ‘individual community’ for some reason I think of a village. But would this still hold for big cities?

  5. John, you’re correct that smaller sources of generation are not connected to the national grid, and in fact anyone who can afford to build a generator and connect it to the network can be a power generator, so theoretically you could have as many power generators in this country as there are people. However you can only have one organisation that owns the distribution (the overhead lines or the cables in the ground) in any given area, as it is a single thing. Again, I guess this could be broken down into ever smaller areas that could be run by a community, but as far as I can see, there would still need to be some kind of central organisation with authority over all generators that can balance supply against demand. Also, we should remember that one of the big advantages of an inter-connected electricity network is that excesses in any area can be distributed out.

    Or am I stuck in a conventional way of thinking? Please do elaborate on any ideas you have.

  6. It depends how centralised you want to talk… Would you still classify a flippin massive wind farm as ‘decentralised’?

    I did some really crap calculations to illustrate this, which I’m not going to post, but by my reckoning a city the size of Nottingham would need more than 50 wind turbines, each more than 90 metres in diamter just to provide electricity for houses. Does this fit with anyone’s concept of decentralised?

    This whole question actually has fundamental implications for a future society. Would society be a collection of small (potentially competing) communities each managing their own energy, water and food production and sharing (or not) the excess. Or would there be a single form of government that, even if democratic, would impose certain measures on the public?

  7. I guess the ideal would be that the government takes control of the national grid (nationalisation essentially) and then also subsidises renewable developments to encourage people to build them. Excess energy could then be returned (sold?) to the grid.

    However, imagining for a second that everything was renewable, would excess be a significant problem?

    Also, some examples of small communities supplying their own energy already exist. I went to the Small Isles in Scotland in the summer, and some of them generate their own energy using renewable sources.

  8. That’s pretty much what’s happening at the moment with ROC’s and FIT’s, and whilst it’s helpful, it’s a bit like putting a plaster on a gaping, infected axe wound. I like the idea of each building having its own generation (heat, electricity and maybe even gas) and interconnecting the whole lot using the smart grid concept. But I think we have to accept that there will need to be some kind of higher authority that controls all of this (how would that be kept democratic? Now there’s a question of theory/practice if ever i saw one…)

    Excess wouldn’t be a problem, I shouldn’t have thought… there are ways to store electricity if necessary. However what would be a problem would be the actual network itself – it’s built to take a large amount of electricity from a single point and distribute it to many smaller supplies. Distributed generation, would mean a lot of the cables would need to be replaced, which is actually incredibly expensive.

    Have a look at the Western Harbour region of Malmö in Sweden, if you get the chance. They built a 100% renewable city district there a few years back, I spent some time working there last year – it’s fantastic.


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