Design by Ziemowit Maj

By Richard Allen

Did you read about the plans for Icelandic volcanoes to supply the UK with low-carbon electricity? Or that the UK and Denmark are discussing a big, wind-powered hook-up?

These projects will be part of a Europe-wide supergrid, in which, generally speaking, power generated by the wet and windy north and power from the sunny south, with volcanoes and nuclear thrown in as well, will combine to give an ample supply of low-carbon electricity.

There are already connections in place between the UK, France and the Netherlands. And in the autumn of 2012, Wales will be connected to power supplied by Irish windfarms.

There are several more connections planned. One of them is between Britain and Norway, a project in which excess wind power will pump water into reservoirs on higher ground, which in turn can be released to flow downhill to power hydroelectric turbines. Another plan connects tidal power from Alderney to England. And so on.

You can easily overlook the complexity in all of this. All of the aforementioned projects draw upon highly developed skills, techniques, knowledge, mapping, data, powers of negotiation and who-knows-what else.

How do you even begin to construct the high-voltage cables? What complications are involved with them? Isn’t copper supply under pressure because of high demand? So much so that copper theft is a serious problem in the UK. (The Chinese economy usually gets the blame for the high demand, but every nation on Earth uses the stuff.) There must be expert procurement and contracts people on board to secure enough copper at a good price.

Then the cables have to be laid across ocean floors. That means that the planners have to understand, in some detail, the ocean floor itself. There’s a great crack in the earth’s crust just off Iceland, between them and us. How is the cable-laying organised and achieved?

The grid will take in power from several sorts of technologies, each of which can fluctuate in performance. And the grid has to supply electricity to different countries and regions, across different time zones, each with its own consumption behaviours, with different peaks and troughs of demand.

And these are just a few thoughts off the top of my head. I can’t begin to imagine the scale of these projects, nor the true degree of complexity. A lot of unknown, hard-to-fathom things have to happen so that we can have electricity.

As long as the experts find the answers, we don’t give much thought to electricity supply, beyond local arguments about the location of windfarms. Let them discuss and negotiate and plan and build and we’ll just get on with our lives.

Our relationship with electricity starts with a flick of a switch and ends with a bill. Energy Saving Trust research shows that a lot of people are casual about their electricity use. Gadgets are left on standby, chargers are left on when the battery is full, energy-efficient products are sometimes seen as a green light to consume more electricity, and so on. The bills can be hefty, but at least there is, you know, plenty of electricity out there.

Our ancestors must have taught their children about fuel: you find it here, you store it like this, you use it this way. These things had to be learned for survival. There must have been a personal engagement and sense of responsibility with energy supply and consumption.

Today, fuel supply and security are still very big problems. But they’re a national worry more than an individual concern, and so we delegate our worries to politicians, lawyers, civil servants, engineers, scientists, financiers and so on. Personal worries are confined to escalating costs of energy bills and, for the most vulnerable households, keeping warm.

We can’t see electricity, very few of us know how it is generated, and even fewer know what it really is. Would there be less wastage if we knew what happens behind the switch?

I want to explore this further, if the day job allows me enough time and if I still have my old library card. I’ll keep you posted.