Powerful lessons

Tower Retail Park and the Crayford clock tower during the power cut
Tower Retail Park and the Crayford clock tower viewed from across the nearby roundabout at 10.20pm on the Wednesday of the power cut.

Thirty-two hours’ continuous power, and counting: it looks like the great Bexley and Dartford power cut of 2009 is over. So what lessons can we take from it?

On the one hand, there have been some particular frustrations over the past few days. Among the more irritating were the incessant burglar alarms affected by losing and regaining power. What possible benefit can there be to anyone from a burglar alarm being designed to sound for hours at a time? If a concerned neighbour hasn’t called the police after ten minutes’ screeching, it seems unlikely that they will do so after 180 (unless, perhaps, they wish to ask them to slap an ASBO on the noise-polluting alarm).

Another frustration was the inaccuracy of the power rota schedules issued by EDF. On both Tuesday and Wednesday I arrived home at what should have been the start of three hours’ electricity, but no power was forthcoming. On the other hand, though, despite an obviously major incident and the repairs being done in power rota schedules issued by EDF. On both Tuesday and Wednesday I arrived home at what should have been the start of three hours’ electricity, but no power was forthcoming.

On the other hand, though, despite an obviously major incident and the repairs being done in an awkward location, we still had power approximately as follows:

Power off Power on
13.15 Monday 23.00 Monday
09.00 Tuesday 21.00 Tuesday
03.00 Wednesday 09.00 Wednesday
12.00 Wednesday 15.00 Wednesday
18.00 Wednesday 00.00 Thursday

That’s a total of almost 37 hours without power, and 22 hours with power, between the first and last of those times. Given the circumstances, this doesn’t seem all that bad. We were in the fortunate position of having family members outside the danger zone to whom we could pass our freezer’s contents, but we haven’t had to throw anything out from the fridge (and aren’t ill from using our milk – yet).

What some may have called a cynical power rota established by EDF to avoid paying compensation to as many of us as possible, I prefer to think of as a victory for Ofgem, the energy regulator. By stipulating that people deprived of electricity for longer than 18 continuous hours would be eligible for compensation, Ofgem encouraged EDF to ensure this didn’t happen to as many affected households as possible, giving people just enough power to keep their fridges ticking over. [Incidentally, I do know that some areas were not so lucky – parts of Dartford and most of Slade Green were without power the entire time, for reasons I don’t think were ever really explained.]

That’s not to ignore the achievements of EDF in the past few days – whether cajoled into them by Ofgem or not, they’ve managed to do what, er, they themselves described as the work of three weeks in three days, with 240 people working in shifts around the clock on repairs and temporary supplies. As in my own (somewhat less high-profile) financial systems office, where my manager came into her element in the crisis, helping ensure as near as possible to a normal service was provided, it looks like workers at EDF really pulled together to dig the area out of its black(ed out) hole.

Crayford station during the power cut
Crayford station, running off a generator, was an island of light amid the darkness at 10.30pm on the Wednesday of the power cut.

All that said, there are serious questions to be asked about how this happened in the first place.

Some News Shopper commenters may be quick to blame the widely reported ‘vandalism’ (which has incidentally long stopped being ‘suspected’ or ‘alleged’ apparently without any new evidence coming to light) on local ‘youths’, but it’s hard to imagine this was some amateur gang of hoodies playing with matches – I think there might’ve been one or two fried, hooded cadavers amid the wires if so. It seems far more likely to have been deliberate sabotage by people who knew what they were doing, or at least people trying to steal metal for resale.

But even putting aside the fact that such people were able to get into the cable bridge – despite its doors, which EDF have been at great pains to emphasise the heaviness and well-lockedness of – the question most troubling me is why there exists such a big, exposed, single point of failure for such a big area of south-east London and Dartford in the first place.

Last night I loaded up Google Earth, stuck a pin in the cable bridge and zoomed out until I could see the whole affected area. By that point the entire bridge was well obscured by the little pin icon and it just seemed astonishing that something so apparently insignificant could cut off all power to such swaths of the suburbs in one fell swoop. Power companies perhaps need to pay more attention to their supplies’ resilience – which perhaps means Ofgem need to start specifying standards for this, too!

One final lesson from all this, though, is perhaps that of the value of microgeneration. If we all had solar panels and/or wind turbines powering our homes’ basic demands, perhaps even feeding back into the grid (earning us the new feed-in tariff while we did so), there would then be no single point of failure any more. If the grid goes down, sure, you might not be able to power three PCs, a plasma screen, an air-conditioner, a vacuum cleaner and a hair-dryer at once, but you could certainly keep your water hot and your freezer cold. I’m hoping to see some nicely targeted leaflets, offering discounted solar and wind powered installations and making reference to the ability to keep going during a power cut, dropping through local letterboxes in the coming weeks – as soon as the local print firms have finished powering up their equipment.

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One Response

  1. […] Powerful lessons […]

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