Unpicking the energy pathways

  • The ‘motorway’ of power
  • You, your toast and the breakfast peak
  • Future-proofing our energy supply

 

Words: Lauren BravoImage of Lauren Bravo

Lauren is a writer who contributes to publications and websites such as Huffington Post, Mirror Online, jamieoliver.com, Time Out and Completely London.

 

As someone with little understanding of electricity beyond what I can see, do, eat and watch with it, I’ve never given much thought to the national grid.

I have vague ideas about an actual grid, like the light-up dancefloor at a regional nightclub. I imagine there might be a big red button somewhere with my address on it. But beyond that, all is dim.

So off I went to the top-secret home counties location that co-ordinates the nation’s energy, ready to be illuminated…

 

00:00

It’s midnight and all is calm in the National Grid control centre.

But then, things are usually pretty calm here. While we imagine cries along the lines of – “Wardrobe malfunction on the X-Factor final, ALL HANDS ON DECK!” – it turns out the reality is far more about skill and precision than manpower.

Likewise, at times when most of the country is snoozing, staff still need to be totally alert, managing the supply minute-by-minute. After all, the energy spike for those 1am cheese toasties is important too.

 

05:00

There’s no natural light in the control room, but the sun announces its presence at around 5am with a dip in energy demand, as street lights click off across the country.

Meanwhile, I’m grappling with analogies. National Grid, I’ve learned, is like a motorway, while local networks are the A and B roads, supporting lorry-loads of energy from the country’s many generators and suppliers.

The control room is divided into three teams: strategy, transmission and balancing – the latter micro-managing our safety cushion of surplus energy (it can’t be stored ) and sending out alerts every time supply looks at risk of falling short. I like to imagine these as an email saying, “Guys? We need some more power.”

 

06:00

Morning alarms judder into action on bedside tables across the country. On go the kettles, the radios and the hairdryers, and up, up, up go the National Grid graphs. 

“We see lives playing out in front of us, through the demand for energy,” says Nick Easton, of National Grid. It’s almost poetic, unfolding in red, blue, purple and yellow lines, coded by voltage, across a 30ft screen. It looks more like a giant game of Pacman than the UK as we know it, but the workers can tell at a glance which areas are guzzling up the most power.

 

08:15

Around this time on weekdays, National Grid climbs the ‘breakfast peak’ – the extra slices of toast, the final glances at the TV. This is followed swiftly by another peak, ‘the 9am pull’, as people emerge at the other end of their commute and settle down in the office. 

 

10:00

On top of the daily certainties, it’s National Grid’s job to think about uncertainties too; a section of the team is dedicated to future-proofing the country’s energy supply against possible crises.

“Like Armageddon!” I suggest. No, comes the patient reply, more like a lightning storm.

“We have to remember that our systems are out in the environment, at the mercy of weather,” says Nick. National Grid works closely with the Met Office to track all types of weather – especially wind, which now provides almost 10% of the country’s energy.

 

13:00

Lunchtime! Like a lot of shift work, being a National Grid controller is a job big on camaraderie…and eating. On Christmas Day they even cook a roast with all the trimmings – though no sherry on the job, obviously. Not when Her Majesty has a speech to broadcast, and millions of turkeys will be filling ovens nationwide.

 

17:00

Mid-afternoon marks the bottom of the ‘daytime trough’, when our energy demand typically slumps, before beginning to climb steadily again at dinnertime.

In winter, when the demand for light is much higher, the ascent is much steeper – known by the thrillingly Game of Thrones-esque moniker, ‘the Darkness Peak’. Brrr.

 

20:30

By mid-evening, the country is buzzing with energy. Traditionally it’s when we turn on, tune in and drop… well, everything except the remote.

But of course, we don’t all watch TV en masse these days. So is the legend of the TV pick-up – that sudden communal squeeze on the grid as everyone immediately puts the kettle on after Eastenders – a thing of the past?

“The advent of streamed and on-demand TV has meant that those large pick-ups have been supressed by people’s ability to stop midway through when their mum phones,” says Nick. “But there are still times when people want to experience the same TV at the same time – football matches, tennis, the Olympics…”

“Eurovision?” I ask. Yes, he reluctantly agrees. And Eurovision.

 

22:00

As we chug on towards midnight, my eyelids are drooping but the control room is as energised as ever.

And that’s the curious thing about working at the heart of UK power ­– while following every high and low of the country’s energy soap opera, National Grid has to stay unflinchingly constant. “We’re like swans,” says Nick, “Paddling frantically under the water so that all stays calm on the surface.”

 

00:00

Finally I head home, thoroughly enlightened – and ready to create my own tiny energy pull with a 1am cheese toastie. Thank Grid for that.

 

 

From around the web

National Grid’s homepage

National Grid’s blog

BBC feature on the history of the National Grid

The Independent charts the secret life of the National Grid

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