Electricity is like water. Without it, our complex society would very rapidly grind to a halt. In fact, water would not gush from our taps and waste water would soon back up. What is more, our mobile phones would stop working, our roads would grind to a halt without traffic lights, hospitals would stop operating, and schools would close. The interdependent consequences of a prolonged break in the continuous flow of electricity are immense and potentially catastrophic.
A small illustration of some of the consequences was revealed on 9 August 2019 when a 45-minute break in electricity supply affected more than a million people in the UK. (See Resilience First News articles here and here). Thankfully, such interruptions are rare in this country. However, a larger power failure in Texas in February 2021 was the result of three severe storms sweeping across the USA and caused shortages of water, food and heating at the height of the winter. More than 4.5 million homes and some businesses were left without power for several days: at least 151 people were killed directly or indirectly.
When reflecting on the continuous supply of electricity, three factors come into play. Reliability, resilience and sustainability form three interlocking circles in a Venn diagram, with each playing a different role and having its own connotation.
Reliability can be considered to be the ability to deliver electricity in the quantity and with the quality demanded by users on a continuous basis. It means that lights are always on in a consistent manner, and any minor interruption is quickly resolved. In the UK, reliability has increased in recent years, with power interruptions previously of 52 minutes duration on average having declined to 26 minutes in some areas.
Resilience, on the other hand, is an electricity system's ability to withstand shocks such as storms and cyberattacks, and come back online after a major outage as well as adapt for the better as a result. Here, resilience has decreased as more demands are placed by society. The time for restoration has declined in the UK from 24-48 hours in the 1990s to up to seven days now. This may change to five days by 2026 under plans for the first major nationwide resilience standard for the electricity industry.
As Robin Maclaren in an article published by the National Preparedness Commission in May (see here) makes clear: ‘…there is a trend of escalating risk in a power system which is transitioning away from traditional, centralised generation and becoming increasingly reliant on new technologies associated with weather-dependent generation e.g. onshore and offshore wind and solar PV. These technologies not only make the power system less resilient to large or coincident multiple losses of infeed (i.e. from generators and/or interconnectors), they would also make it much more complex and slower to restart the system should a nationwide shutdown occur.’ Our ability to withstand, recover and adapt to shocks is critical to the concept of sustainability and sustainable development.
Sustainability, the third leg of the triad, is the ability to meet the electricity needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability helps businesses take concrete steps to help people, the planet and profit. Renewable, carbon-neutral power sources confer such sustainability but have, for the reasons given above, some downsides in terms of resilience. Furthermore, managing the network in the short-to-medium term has become a real-time challenge through balancing renewable energy sources with traditional ones.
While we strive for solutions that confer net-zero carbon targets, they are but one element in the whole sustainability equation. As Jonquil Hackenberg outlines in an article in Forbes (see here): ‘Taking inspiration from the uptick in zero-carbon pledges, businesses can start by applying a net-zero approach to all aspects of sustainability. Starting with decarbonisation is great – but it should just be the start. Packaging, product, water, and waste are just as worthy of our attention.’
In a recent paper by Inspired Energy, titled ‘Sustainability in the C-suite’, it states that: ‘The pressure on organisations to prioritise sustainability is growing from all angles’ and ‘the direction of travel towards sustainability is a step change from the days when cost alone was the primary factor for consideration.’ In a ‘roadmap’ for sustainability success, four actions are recommended: (i) a good grasp of usage (ii) think long term (iii) prioritise plans, and (iv) actions speak louder than words.
To reap the full benefit of combining reliability, resilience and sustainability, the relationship needs, first and foremost, to be both understood and appreciated. The benefit of combining all three is now more pertinent than ever as we emerge from Covid-19 and adapt our activities and electricity demands to face new challenges ahead.