This post has been updated following yesterday’s #BigPowerOff protest. It seems that this took off and has lead to a lot of traffic. Please ensure you read the update!
Last Saturday I wrote about the cost of living crisis that the UK government has inflicted on us. As I was writing, a tweet from @karenbradyuk caught my eye. It related to a novel form of protest that has apparently started to get some traction in Spain. [Editors note: I’ve not been able to validate this so take this, and any other claims about Spain, with a pinch of salt!] The UK, it seems, has it’s own version using the hashtags #PowerOff and #BigPowerOff. You can see the tweet below!
Over the last week I’ve been recovering from a throat infection, which has given me lots of time to read up on the detail. I have not been able to validate the impact this is supposed to have had in Spain. But, I have to say that it is an interesting idea. I saw a few questions about this on Twitter and Facebook last week so thought I’d explore this further.
It all started with the #BigPowerOff
It seems that the first #BigPowerOff was organised by Disabled People Against Cuts. The original DPAC #BigPowerOff protest took place on 1st April, with the goal of reducing power consumption generally for an entire day. The purpose of this was twofold:
- To spread awareness of energy poverty
- To hit the energy companies where it hurts – their wallets
The first of these was particularly powerful. DPAC included the following suggestions to help people participate that really hit him how much I take for granted:
- Turning the heating down or off
- Using a slow cooker to prepare hot food rather than an oven
- Skip bath/shower that day
- Don’t use equipment that emits heat such as hair straighteners, hair dryers
- Eating cold foods
- Leaving the lights off
- Don’t use the kettle all day.
Sadly, the above sacrifices are a reality for many in the UK today. I’m sure you’ve all seen the posts on social media this last week or so. People are literally choosing between eating and heating. And the impact on the elderly has been particularly profound.
It seems to have been fairly low key but did capture the imagination of quite a lot of people and has massive potential to snowball.
The new #BigPowerOff protest has the potential to send an equally powerful message
Building on the platform created by the first protest, the new #BigPowerOff protest has the potential to take off. Firstly, it is easy for most to take part (with the obvious medical exceptions). For most of us, sacrificing 10 minutes of energy is an easy choice. I would envisage that sitting in a dark room, even just for 10 minutes, will serve as a powerful reminder of what other people go through every day.
The synchronicity of this action also has an important role to play. Remember the power that “clapping for the NHS” had in the early days of the pandemic. The weekly ritual, at the same time every Thursday, captured headlines and the imagination of the general public. This protest absolutely has the same overtones, albeit ones shaded with a bitter irony.
Finally, the organisers claim this will hit the energy companies where it hurts most. Their pockets. But would the energy companies really care about 10 minutes?
They may well do…
If large sections of the country started to turn off power in concert, it could make things difficult. To put this into context, one of the biggest challenges for managing demand is the “TV Pickup” effect. This occurs when large numbers of TV viewers go to make a cup of tea, or open the fridge in the ad break of a popular show. This was seen during the Euros last year, but the weekly clap for carers also had a massive impact.
Forecasters work hard to account for this, letting them minimise costs. But when they get it wrong it can get expensive. On one day alone in November last year, the cost was £63.3m to balance the network. These costs are (in part) passed on to electricity suppliers, based on the load that they put on the grid at certain set times of the year.
In practice, to make a meaningful impact would require a lot of people to be involved. But there is a reason the National Grid didn’t want Live Earth to orchestrate a big switch off. Even small deviations which risk upsetting the balance will attract attention to the plight of millions. So yes, the #BigPowerOff has the potential to make a difference but don’t expect it to shut down the grid.
11th April Update
This post blew up a bit yesterday. I normally get about 40 – 50 visitors a day; yesterday saw 1,500! With that in mind, I want to make three things clear. First, I have absolutely no expertise in electrical engineering.
Second, I saw quite a lot of people scoffing at the idea that a protest like this could ever work. I disagree, but it depends on the objective. I do not think this would ever cause a black out. It also would need a lot more momentum to impact energy costs. But if the goal is raising awareness then it has already succeeded. ITV news, LBC and dozens of other outlets picked up the story today. The National Grid even provided comment. Whilst this (thankfully) validates that they are prepared to manage the strain, the fact it is even on their radar is a sign that people are paying attention.
Finally, I’m sad to say that as with anything social media driven, this has attracted a rather suspect element. There have been allegations of spreading fake news around “Spain”. There also seem to have been some bots promoting the hashtag and making claims about the expected cost impact which I am struggling to validate. I have removed a large chunk of text in the middle of this article, as I believe it was being used to back up these claims. All of this risks undermining the protest.
So to reiterate my answer to the original question – could something like this work? If the aim is to build awareness and raise media attention then it already has. The goal of peaceful protest is to create a political environment for change. It seems that the organisers of #BigPowerOff have tapped into something that has struck a nerve. Hopefully they can stop the seedier elements from derailing it.