Seminar at Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex on Friday February 19th 2016 by Professor Gordon Walker
On 5th December 2015 Storm Desmond swept across the North West of England, its rainfall streaming into already swollen rivers and into roads, homes and businesses across the region. In Lancaster the River Lune broke the record for the highest flow of water ever recorded in the UK, overtopping flood defences and flowing into, amongst much else, the main electricity sub-station for the City. Grid-bound electricity disappeared at 10.30pm on Saturday evening, remained absent for 30 hours, returned at 6.00am on Monday as over 60 generators were connected up to local substations, failed again over much of the City late afternoon, and eventually returned in a more permanent but fragile condition on Tuesday. The phalanx of generators stayed in place for about a week until full national grid supply was restored. This was an extended event, a ‘blackout’, a crisis, rarely experienced on a City scale in the UK.
In this paper I provide some preliminary analysis of what can be learnt from the absence of normal electricity due to this instance of big technological system and infrastructural failure, drawing on my own reflections but also of colleagues in the DEMAND Centre and other parts of Lancaster University (which itself experienced a difficult case of crisis management). David Nye (2010) argues that ‘blackouts’ are carved out of the normal flow of time, a social experience creating ‘a new kind of social space’. They are revealing not just of normally hidden infrastructures (cables, substations, security systems, communication systems) but also of the creeping panoply of electrical dependencies, the ‘latent dysfunctionalities’ of the contemporary city and of the exercise of power through power.
I will explore some of these ideas and particularly focus on what ‘blackouts’, and the Lancaster case in particular, can tell us about the constitution and patterning of energy demand. Starting from a conceptualisation of energy as a material ‘ingredient’ of everyday social practice (Shove and Walker 2014), I consider what happens when this ingredient is missing – when expected energy is not there in order to power technologies which are integral to doing things in particular ways, in particular places, times, sequences and synchronisations? How vital an ingredient is electricity for enabling which practices and for which practitioners, and what, now, are the key fragilities of systemic dysfunctionality? Where are the dependencies, adaptabilities, substitutabilities and vulnerabilities which differentiate the experience of disruption? And when the electricity grid as an ongoing technical achievement becomes unstable, what cannot be sustained and what becomes most important to secure? In starting to work through these questions I will also reflect on the nature of demand itself, which never went away during the blackout and returned strikingly intact in its aftermath as social order, social routines and normally followed space-time pathways were reinstated.
A number of people in DEMAND and at Lancaster University have written short pieces about the power cut, their experiences and reflections. These are available at:
Learning from the making, consequences and politics of power cuts
What experiences do others have of power cuts in different contexts (times and places), maybe occurring far more frequently and with some degree of regularity? How particular is the Lancaster case? Are different power cuts different in character, implications and significance, including in terms of consequences for patterns of everyday practice and well being? How usefully can ideas of resilience be applied not just to infrastructure itself, but to wider electricity-dependent systems and vulnerabilities? What else can the Lancaster experience, and of other large scale blackouts, tell us about for example the changing nature of electricity dependence, the scope for active demand response and the broader politics of energy-related discourses focused on crisis-making, energy gaps and the threat of ‘the lights going out’