Energy shortages vs the always-on society

(Colin Bell)

Two articles in today’s Telegraph caught my eye. One, a feature article by Matt Ridley, reflecting on the service disruptions to mobile phones following a break-in in Basingstoke, went on to discuss how mobiles, even smart-phones are assumed to be needs in our always-on society. Certainly if you intend to attend student protests… a police representative on Today said that they would be tweeting locations of violence and safe exit routes for those who didn’t want to get caught up. No suggestion that anyone there might not have an internet-enabled phone! This is the world we’re in.

The more interesting article was tucked away in News in Brief on page 15 entitled “The era of permanently available electricity may be coming to an end”. It was reporting on a talk to have been given the previous night by Steve Halliday, CEO of the National Grid to the Royal Association of Engineering on the challenges of moving to a more renewable-heavy mix of generation and its associated uncertainities in reliability of supply. He said

“We are going to have to change our behaviour and consume [electricity] when it is available and available cheaply.”
“As a society, we all need to be clear about what we can and cannot afford.”

These are things those of us versed in sustainability debates know, but helpful to have it raised from an industry source. But the question really is: how can our always-on society cope with these kinds of disruptions? Of course, mobile devices run off batteries which can be charged when power is cheap, but how about the infrastructure the internet depends on and the servers the sites run on. Or, put another way, how does society decide who is prioritised when electricity is in short supply? Just one of many governance issues which will emerge in the new era.

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