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What happens if the lights go out?

Light bulbs against blue background

Britain’s energy regulator issued the first of its annual Electricity Capacity Assessments. Its conclusions could have wide-ranging impacts on energy prices and has provoked rumours of potential black outs in 2015.

Ofgem expects some coal-fired power stations will have to stop generating electricity because of long-standing environmental legislation. The power stations are deemed too environmentally damaging to keep operating and may have to be closed before the winter of 2015-16.

This means that the amount of spare electricity capacity in the network to keep your kettle boiling could dip from a comfortable 14% to a much more risky 4% in three years time. The risk of power cuts then becomes much greater.

Risk of power cuts

Power cuts and possible price hikes – sounds like something needs to be done. In fact, the issue of electricity capacity has been on the political agenda for some time. And in May the government published a Draft Energy Bill to deal with this (the full legislation will be published later this year).

The Energy Bill will aim to address the issue of a shortfall in electricity, the idea being that it will put in place mechanisms to secure the billions of pounds worth of investment that we need for new power generation like wind farms and nuclear power plants.

Ofgem also urged the government to make a decision on what is known as a capacity mechanism which is basically a way of ensuring a certain amount of capacity is available. Of course that’s all essential if we want to keep the lights on but who foots the bill for that investment? You guessed it, we, the consumer are picking up the tab.

Affordable energy for everyone

We want to see the government put affordability for the consumer at the heart of the reforms to the energy market. If you’re already struggling to pay your bills you cannot be expected to stump up endless amounts of cash. We will be pressing the government to make sure affordability is high on the agenda in the Energy Bill.

Domestic energy bills have been on the up in recent years and that’s unlikely to change in the near future. This is partly due to the need for investment in new power generation. And even if we don’t make this investment, prices are likely to go up due to our reliance on gas generated abroad.

Time and again you’ve told us that rising prices for gas and electricity are one of your major concerns so we want to make sure that no further strain is put onto household budgets this way. Do you think the government is doing enough to make sure we have an affordable energy system?


Energy saving bulbs are useless for people with poor eyesight!!!!
I am keen on energy saving light bulbs and use them even though I find them very ugly. It annoyed me that I had to put on two or three lights and still didn’t get a decent light in my bedroom and sitting room as I have poor eyesight and couldn’t see to read or do anything. My sister told me I could still buy ‘old-fashioned’ light bulbs so I bought a supply and now use them in these two rooms and what a difference it makes. I do use the energy saving bulbs elsewhere. I have never noticed a saving in my electricity bills for the whole time I used energy saving bulbs all the time.

Di is right regarding brightness. The rating system intentionally creates the impression they are brighter than they are. A 20W CFL is not as bright as a typical 100W incandescent and the former gets dimmer as it ages.

In the mid 1980’s I started using Phillips CFLs. In those days they cost £8 a time, a lot of money in real terms, especially for an electrical engineering student on £1800 a year. Phillips enclosed a questionnaire with each bulb and I commented about this ‘over optimism’ then. Nevertheless, even at £8 a bulb and electricity at 5p per unit, there were savings to be had.

LED lighting will help reduce the chance of the lights going out.

Tim, Electricity is an expensive fuel to use for heating, whether it is a light bulb or not. I accept that if you have no other form of heating then a radiant heater, like a reflector lamp, saves a lot of capital outlay. but that is the exception – gas is cheaper by a substantial margin for most people. And a radiant heater does not work well over a large area.
Good quality CFLs (generally the well known brands) have reasonable power factors. However I made an earlier comment that we should be promoting CFLs with a separate electronic ballast that are both more energy efficient and have power factors close to unity. The replacement lamps would also be cheaper as they do not have an integrated ballast. They are widely available as they are used in commercial installations. Why they are not promoted for home use is probably because initially you would have the outlay for an electronic ballast, or a new light fitting that would include one.

Useful advice Malcolm, yes a radiant heater/lamp is only sensible in certain applications, such as an electricity only household. Yes, I expect separate ballasts will have a better power factor, good point.I have gone back to flourescent tubes in my kitchen, with tubes that really resemble natural light. I also agree about LEDs in your post below, they have a little way to go yet before they can be used without other lights to supplement them.

Regarding lumens, I haven’t investigated at all, but do you know whether the range of light frequencies produced by a bulb and the human eye’s response is taken into account in such calculations?

CFL brightness – what matters is how much light (lumens) the lamp emits, not its brightness. An 18W CFL is declared as 1100 lumens, equivalent to 82 Watts of incandescent. So a CFL is roughly 4 to 5 times as good at turning electricity into light.
All lamps – including LEDs, lose light output as they age. Incandescent bulbs gradually deposit tunsten from the filament on the glass and ruduce their output – look at the blackening when you replace one.
LEDs are more efficient than CFLs, and have a very long life – probably 20 years if the electronics don’t give up first (so buy quality brands). But their colour is still in need of improvement – what looks white does not necessarily show colours – particularly skin tones – well as their spectrum is not continuous. But they will improve, just as fluorescent lamps did.

Tim – in response: lumens represents the amount of power emitted by a light source at different wavelegths weighted according to the eye’s response. So red and blue light has less effect on the eye than yellow and green, for the same power. Incandescent lamps owe their inefficiency partly due to their high output in the red and infra red, whereas cfls produce more light in the yellow green area. We like incandescent because they are similar to candle and oil lamp colour, we are told.

Incandescent bulbs, including halogen bulbs, produce light over a wide range of frequencies – a continuous spectrum. CFLs and fluorescent tubes produce light in various narrow frequency bands, depending on the mix of phosphors on the inside of the glass tube. You can see these bands using a simple hand spectroscope.

For years the yellow light of an incandescent bulb (colour temperature 2700 K) has been seen as ideal for domestic use. Many people are happier with the higher colour temperature of halogen bulbs and there is an increasing demand for higher colour temperature (up to 6000 K) CFLs and fluorescent tubes in the home. Whether you like these or not, and whether you are young or old, higher colour temperature CFLs and fluorescent tubes are a lot brighter than 2700 K versions. Whereas CFLs are generally available in only two colour temperatures, it is clear that we will have more choice with LED lamps.

There is plenty of discussion about the technicalities of CFLs on the relevant Conversations….. 🙂

Derek says:
16 October 2012

Most of the comments on this thread don’t seem to me to indicate any real grasp of the gravity of the situation. It is all very well to try to reduce energy consumption but that means following a multiplicity of policies affecting different things & many people. No way is it going to solve the problem in the time available.

The Ofgem report makes it clear that the first activity which will be affected is industry – which will be cut off before the lights go out. Then the economy immediately starts to suffer, & we end up suffering with it. All Governments for the last 10 – 15 years have been kicking this problem into the long grass, wasting time & money on wind farms (which – due to the intermittent nature of their contribution – can never solve the problem) etc.

In my view the solution is blindingly obvious & I cannot understand (other than ritual obeisance to the great god EU) why it is not being shouted from the rooftops. As a couple of other contributors have said we should keep our coal & oil fired power stations running until we have introduced secure (& I don’t mean wind) new supplies for the future. These stations are not at the end of their life, yet they are to be closed purely because of an absurd EU diktat. We should tell the EU what we are doing & why; we should ignore the inevitable screams of indignation & refuse to pay any fines they try to impose.

1. Lamp colour – be careful about confusing brightness and light output. Higher colour temp fluorescent (6500K) are often marginally less efficient than mid range – so less light output. And I would not recommend this colour for home or office; 3500 – 4000K (commonly known as white or cool white) are generally used and more acceptable.
2. The main issue is whether we will have sufficient generating capacity to cope with demand, which means peak demand. I agree with Derek’s sentiments that we should not shoot ourselves in the foot by decommisioning existing generating stations until we have replacements in operation. But unless we have deadlines the urgency to replace them will not be there.
3. Tidal generation seems to offer the most reliable form of “green” energy – they are a bit like Dinorwig, offering an energy store (a head of water) behind a suitable barrier that can be released between high tides to generate power. Is a barrier better than unsightly wind farms?

Agree almost completely Malcolm
2. The deadline must surely be a couple of years before the lights go out?
3. Most definitely and I cannot understand why numpty HMG is throwing money at already heavily subsidised railways by promoting the consumptive HS2 Rail project when it is a no brainer to build the full version of the Severn Barrage – entirely productive and we get another Severn crossing into the bargain!

Imagine, what would happen if the Green Movement along with its suffocating policies on energy had to be shut down as early as 2015 instead of power stations? Jobs, economy and consumer spending would start to rise, while gas and electricity bills would fall. Great Britain would once again become a prosperous nation within a few short years.

Fair comment!
But bear in mind they’ve already seen the light [no pun] re nuclear.
Given time, they could well realise they have it wrong on the other extreme, ill-founded views they hold, without any fall out [no pun, again].
Having said that we must generate and build for it responsibly – to do otherwise just costs more in the long run.

There is one thing that we could perhaps persuade our innumerate Government to do. We are heading towards installation of a ludicrous increase in dependenency on wind. The only sensible solution at the moment is to regard wind energy to be a combination of the wind farms PLUS new Gas Turbine generators (GTG) (like jet engines ‘cos they are the only source capable of responding to the rapid fluctuations of wind energy – but they only have 29% efficiency). This combination has been shown in the US, to produce more expensive energy and more CO2 than the use of Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (which uses the jet engine exhaust to boil water for a conventional; steam turbine and works at 60% efficiency), just to burn the same amount of gas for electricity but without any wind. That argument is based on using fracking gas!.

So if we are stuck with stupidity and more wind then it is important to avoid the escape of the first flush of methane escaping from a fracking well when the initial rush starts. This is because methane is so much more of a greenhouse gas than CO2. The US rules require that any pipelines linking the fracking well to a GTG have to be built before drilling a well. In our case, since the next round of drilling in Lancashire is imminent, we should lobby for the new wind-supporting GTG to be built alongside the well. That will bring a bit of employment to the area!

Am busy translation the US document into UK conditions and costs but will publish when I get back from lecturing to half-term grandchildren!

Some home owners have made efforts to reduce their consumption of energy and others have been forced to do so as a result of rising prices.

More effort needs to be put into energy conservation in offices, shops, pubs, public buildings etc., where individuals don’t have to pay the bills. In many cases, lights are left on all night and rooms heated excessively even when unoccupied. I cannot understand why the phase out of old fashioned light bulbs only applied to homes.

There would not be a risk of blackouts if organisations and individuals behaved more responsibly and treated power as a valuable resource that should not be wasted.

I so agree with you Wavechange but all this talk about CFL, lumens etc is rather like trying to bale out the Titanic with a teaspoon. After all, our individual electric energy consumption in the home is less than three percent of our whole individual energy consumption. I know we are talking about electrical blackouts in this conversation but at the same time it would be nice to think that we understand the whole picture. Then we might be able to do something about our shiny-eyed and innumerate energy Minister and his cohorts. It’s not about politics just the level of education of parliamentarians who seem to be able to spot useful numerate accountants to look after their tax and expenses claims.

Obviously the whole picture is important, and you have pointed out the extent of hidden power use. We damage the environment whatever source of energy we choose and it is high time the human race got round to behaving more responsibly and making an effort to reduce power consumption as far as is practicable.

lobro – according to the electrical energy consumption statistics published by Dept of Energy, domestic use accounts for around 35% of final consumption, industry 32% and commercial + others 33%.So saving at home will have a big impact. Industry and commerce have clear incentives to save energy use as it directly impacts their costs and profits.

Thanks Malcolm. A problem with non-domestic use is that although the company or other organisations may want to reduce costs they are often dependent on employees doing things like switching off heating and lighting when they are not needed.

Wavechange – we all suffer from that. But companies with large energy bills can afford to fit more sophisticated controls. I used occupancy detectors and daylight sensors on lighting to automatically switch and dim it; apart from being energy responsible, they had a good payback period. I know you go past Canary Wharf and see it lighting up most of London, but my experience is that many see the cost benefit of automatic controls. You cannot rely on individuals controlling it.

I agree we must move towards automated power management to decrease waste, Malcolm. The university I worked at until last year was absolutely dreadful for leaving lights on in the departments that did lab-based research, with a few people calling in to tend experiments and not bothering to turn lights or equipment off.. Only since I left has there been much progress on fitting occupancy sensors. The wasted heat was and still is a much bigger problem.

Then I would drive home past the Aldi store that has left every light on throughout the night for years despite closing at 8pm. Their head office was extremely grateful where I reported this but have not managed to do anything about the problem.

I used to do research with companies that left equipment powered up continuously even where it had not been used for several years.

Some contributors to this discussion seem to have no interest in reducing waste and only think about how to generate more power.

MR – Canary Wharf’s occupied mostly by the financial sector – you didn’t really expect a more responsible response?
Wavechange – ” …dependent on employees …”?
Shouldn’t it be “dependent on company procedures”?

Companies can have all the procedures of the day but that does not mean that employees follow them. Many people ignore laws when it suits them, so it is rather unrealistic to trust all employees to follow company procedures.

Wasn’t a problem for employees in any of the companies I worked in.
Their operations were built around a well constructed but mouldable QA and customer delivery ethos which everyone embraced, for the greater good, from cleaners to CEO. All with an English foundation and heritage.
Is that somehow alien to you?
We found that loose cannons didn’t stay too long – the working environment just didn’t suit!
Needless to say I, thankfully, have never been employed by LA, HMG, QUANGO, privatised utility, financial, retail or trade union infiltrated organisations!

I have never worked in a company, except during the vacation when I was a student. I am glad to hear that utopia exists, at least in certain companies.

Anyway, this Conversation is about the risk of demand for electricity outstripping supply. I am sure that many could provide examples of waste by companies, and there are plenty of obvious examples provided by companies involved in retail sales.

I have been reading all the comments about the possibilities of the ‘lights going out’ and have been surprised that several points have not been made.

Thus, whilst I agree it makes sense to use less power hungry light bulbs, surely these will have a minimal impact upon whether the ‘lights go out’ or not, as it is heating and cooling devices that use significantly more energy. Thus, if we could perhaps get more people to insulate their homes properly and thus to use less power to heat or cool their properties, this would have a much bigger impact. Then, what about getting people to use Microwave Ovens rather than conventional Gas or Electric Ovens !! Microwaves use far less power and cook much faster, retaining much more flavour in the food. OK, microwaves cannot be used for everything, but for many cooking situations, they are not only cheaper, using less power, but better – which a lot of people do not seem to appreciate.

Then turning to alternative ways to store energy, there is the very real possibility of using any excess electricity (say from wind turbines at night) to electrolyse water producing Hydrogen and Oxygen, The Hydrogen is then separated and compressed and can be stored in tanks for later use when it can be burned in air to release heat (and hence electricity) and produce exactly the same amount of water that it was made from in the first place. This system is very green, in that no Carbon is involved at all and there is no need for pumped storage systems, such as that at Dinorwic, which rely upon particular, rare, geological formations.

Indeed, I feel that Hydrogen, which is a clear, colourless, odourless gas and just happens to be the most abundant element in the universe, is almost certainly going to be at the heart of our energy systems in the long term. Already Hydrogen is used widely in the chemical industry, especially for making fertilisers, but also in the production of plastics, drugs, dyes etc.. It can be prepared commercially in many different ways and so there is already an abundance of knowledge in the Chemical Industry as to its properties, storage, handling etc.

At present, Hydrogen is not used much outside the Chemical Industry, as it currently cannot economically compete with such things as natural gas, coal, oil etc. But when the prices of these rise significantly, as they surely will, then Hydrogen will become a real economic proposition.

As to the preparation of Hydrogen in the bulk quantities that are necessary for its widespread use, this is likely to eventually be by using sunlight to split water into Hydrogen and Oxygen, using a process which mimics that essentially used by plants in Photosynthesis. In this, plants take in Carbon Dioxide and Water and, using sunlight and biological catalysts, convert these to Carbohydrates (which ‘fixes’ the Carbon) and Oxygen, which is released into the atmosphere for us to breathe.

Methods for using light (not necessarily bright sunlight, although this is better) to split water using chemical catalysts are already known, but at present these processes are not efficient enough to economically compete with the polluting fuels we currently use. However, given time and enough research money, chemists WILL, as Science always does, improve on the efficiency until it IS an economic proposition – just look at any scientific discovery and see how, over the years, gradual improvements are made so that in time, it is hard to believe how poor, inefficient, even ridiculous the original process was !

So, I believe the problem here is more about convincing Politicians about the great potential for the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ than anything else – given the money, Scientists WILL come up with the answer! Just think of the potential for British Industry etc. if we could crack this one – it could be the answer to all our current economic woes !

Derek says:
22 October 2012

I don’t pretend to understand the science relating to hydrogen, but it is clear from your post that – if this is a solution – it is a long term one. No way can it be an answer to the potential problem of lights going out from 2015 onwards. (The same applies to al the other suggestions about light bulbs, insulating buildings etc. – whatever emphasis is put on these they will not be acted on sufficiently in the necessary timescale.

I can only repeat what I said before – we should not close down power stations which are not at the end of their useful life until we have sufficient secure supplies (which means, not depending on the vagaries of wind) to replace them.

Governments of all parties have been woefully irresponsible in the energy policies they have pursued for years. Sadly, I see no sign that anything is changing. It is, of course, we the consumers (& the businesses) which will suffer as a result.

The problem is, Derek, that if we do keep these older power stations going, not only do they continue to pollute, but it gives the Politicians another excuse to do nothing ! However, you are right that we cannot expect to produce enough Hydrogen to totally take the place of these power stations by 2015, but we could make a good start. For, if the will was there, the technology already exists and, if government were to invest money in it, they could kick start the whole process. The government of Iceland have done this and, because of their large resources of clean, geothermal and hydroelectric resources, they already use these to produce Hydrogen on a large scale without any pollution at all. They have also been running Hydrogen powered cars and buses on their roads for more than 10 years now.

Of course the Oil and Coal Industries and the Power Generators are not too keen to change to the new technology, as it will replace their current markets, so it needs government to do it, which will eventually force the hand of these companies.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is fully behind the attempts to get decision makers to put more money into this sort of research and have been running a public information campaign on this subject this year. Amongst many other interesting things they point out is that, the Sun delivers more energy to the Earth in ONE HOUR than we in the whole world currently use from fossil fuels, nuclear power and all renewable energy sources combined in ONE YEAR. This demonstrates the huge potential for the use of Sunlight to produce our energy needs and particularly by splitting water to give Hydrogen. It already provides all the energy needs of all plant life on Earth, so why not for all humans as well !

Another interesting fact about Hydrogen is that, weight for weight, it has about two and a half times the amount of energy in it as Petrol/Diesel/Aviation Fuel. This has big implications for transport, particularly aircraft, where the weight of fuel needed to travel a given distance could be reduced by a factor of about two and a half or put another way, the aircraft could fly about two and a half times the distance on a given weight of Hydrogen compared to Kerosene. Aircraft powered by Hydrogen were being flown and tested as long ago as the 1960’s, so it can definitely be done. Also, Hydrogen could be burned in normal petrol cars, after small modifications such as is currently needed to run on LPG and again cars were being run like this in the 1960’s. This would be a much cheaper way to go than to try and provide electric cars to all those in the world who currently have petrol or diesel powered cars.