I am writing this piece on a Eurostar train, travelling at well over 100 miles an hour, heading to Paris for a meeting about railways. The train is drawing electricity, my laptop is running on batteries, charged from a socket in my hotel room, my phone likewise. Had I brought the cables I could be recharging them all from the train supply.
At half past five this morning I flicked the switch in my hotel room and the lights came on – it never occurred to me that they would not! I used one lift and three escalators, I travelled to St Pancras on an electrically powered underground train controlled by electric light signals. I collected my ticket from an electronic machine, scanned it in an electronic gate, passed through automated doors operated by an electronic movement detector. I have sent texts, swapped emails, read the news online, eaten breakfast, drunk coffee – off and on the train.
The whole of my day has been and is being enabled by the continuing availability of electricity – wherever I am, whenever I want it. It just works.
And we rarely give it a thought………
Consider how my morning would have been without it. I would have washed and dressed in the dark (or if fortunate by candle or oil lamp light), walked down the stairs of a 12 storey building, walked (or caught a steam underground train – they used to be!) to St. Pancras…………perhaps I would have had my tickets delivered to my home by the postman, or have collected them from a travel agent in advance. The train would be steam or diesel powered, the signalling system would require lots of signallers controlling the system by hand……
It would work, but not in the way we have become used to, not with the levels of efficiency we hope for, not with the levels of convenience we expect, not with the low costs that enable our life styles.
Without the electricity generation and distribution system that we rely on our lives as we expect them to be would cease. Every unrealised convenience would become apparent.
We should marvel at how ‘it just works’, not take it for granted.
We should also recognise that ensuring that ‘it just works’ and thinking about what happens if it doesn’t is a question of great importance, not just to us but to others. In January this year I participated in a research event organised by the Electric Infrastructure Security Council (www.eiscouncil.org)1 an international organisation established to address just this question. For those interested, I have placed the report of the ‘Black Sky Workshop’ here:
And my own contribution here:
We are living in a world of energy transition, the emphasis of our reliance is shifting from fossil fuels to renewable sources of various types, we place increasing demands on the system (electric cars, e-everything) and our reliance is becoming absolute while the system is arguably more fragile. Think about what happens when ‘The Machine Stops’2 ponder what you will do if it does, be grateful that it hasn’t!
As infrastructure becomes ever more complex in size, interactions and interdependencies, as we build in more telemetry and enable our lives via the ‘internet of things’ the whole becomes more costly and difficult to sustain. In my doctoral thesis3 in 1993, considering the context of developing technology, I wrote:
“the possibility of a high pace of reversionary technological change to a fundamental survival economy cannot be entirely discounted”
In other words we could go backwards, quickly, if it all fails! Given the extent of our reliance on the electricity infrastructure, its size, scope, importance and the potential consequences of failure, of which there is a higher risk during a period of transition, we need to understand what risks are we taking – knowingly – and figure out what we are currently blind to. What prices, economic, social, political, individual, we are prepared to pay? What WE might collectively be willing to do about it? What YOU or I ought to do about it?
2: E.M. Forster, 1909, The Oxford and Cambridge Review
3: J. Beckford, 1993, The Viable System Model: A More Adequate Tool for Practising Management, PhD Thesis, The University of Hull