The Great British kettle surge: exploring our increasing need for exporting energy

In his first article of a short series exploring energy consumption in the UK, Tom Simpkins discusses the energy phenomenon known as ‘TV pickup’, examining how the UK requires exported energy and where this surplus of power comes from

The UK viewing public’s trends are fairly predictable, thanks in no small part to our almost universal cultural love of making a cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that those working at the National Grid have an easy job. Having to combat the phenomenon known as ‘TV pickup’, the National Grid has to be able to predict whether millions of people will suddenly require a surge of energy; often brought on by big televised events and the need to boil a kettle before or after them.

This means that our cultural need for a cup of tea during commercial breaks requires a substantial import of energy, but how much energy does this Great British Kettle Surge really use?

What to make of megawatts

Judging from the megawatts that have been required for historical TV pickup demands, roughly 14,000 additional viewers to a conventional viewership during the evening translates to an additional megawatt requested. The largest TV pickup recorded in the UK required a whooping 2,800 megawatts during the 1966 England v West Germany FIFA World Cup match, particularly during the semi-final penalty shootout. A conservative estimate would say that this massive surge of power would power approximately 2,332,000 kettles across the country.

Thanks to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, the number of people watching prime time television doesn’t reach the dizzying heights they used to, but the tea time energy surge is still fresh in the public conscious. One would expect the viewership numbers, and thus the requirement for an extra surge of imported energy, would even out across the hours of the evening and throughout the week, but it’s hard to ascertain exactly when and where any redistributed energy needs would occur.

Since Netflix expanded into Europe in 2012, this was the year that saw the greatest decline of traditional television viewing in the UK. The final hurrah was the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony, with 24.46 million viewers, which was followed by 2013’s New Year’s Eve fireworks display, with 13.53 million viewers, and the figures have been lowering ever since.

Picking up on viewing figures

Compared to the England v West Germany FIFA match, these TV pick up surges didn’t require nearly as much energy, but they still required a substantial amount of imported energy. This energy is often imported from France and the Netherlands, imported via interconnectors that provide electricity. France is widely recognised as the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, gaining approximately €3 billion a year from their mostly nuclear energy, which means that there’s a good chance that when you’re boiling your kettle during an ad break, it’s French nuclear energy powering the process.

Regardless of this decline, the need for a consistent energy flow is always essential, as the National Grid Energy Operations Manager Alan Smart states: “The way to think about it is to imagine you are in your car and your challenge is to keep the car at exactly 50 miles an hour. You press on the accelerator as you go up the hill, and you ease off on the other side.”

Despite many audiences consuming media in the form of the aforementioned streaming services, recent TV pick up surges suggest that our dependency on external energy is almost as prevalent now as it was in the days of televised specials requiring large imports of energy. Whilst the demand doesn’t require as staggering an amount of energy, annual records almost reach these dizzying heights. The closest comparison would be the UK’s 10th most-watched television special, the 1994 Torvill and Dean Olympic Ice Dance Championship, and the most viewed television broadcast of 2012, the Summer Olympics Closing Ceremony, having approximately 24 million viewers and approximately 24.5 million viewers respectively.

The stats and their greater meaning

According to Eurostat, our dependency for importing energy has skyrocketed since the turn of century, with our need for imported energy going from 0% to 40% within the decade between 2004 and 2014. Oddly enough, this correlates with the government’s own appraisal of energy use, as their 2016 Digest of UK Energy Statistics revealed that, apart from the extremely cold winters of 2010 and 2013, energy consumption has roughly reduced by 17% in the period between 1998 and 2015.

So how does this relate to the Great British Kettle Surge? The answer to this is surprisingly simple, as even though as a nation we’ve embraced both energy-efficient technology and renewable power, the UK has seen a large decline of energy-intensive industries. This means that even if we’re advancing in terms of more eco-friendly energy, the consumption of our established habits, such as viewing television and enjoying a cup of tea during the break, has persisted at the same rate or even increased over the years.

When even the most recent large TV pick up, the 2018 England v Croatia FIFA World Cup semi-final, requires an incredible 1400 MW of additional energy, enough to power well over one million kettles, it shows just how much energy we still need. This doesn’t say that wanting to put the kettle on during an ad break, or even when Netflix asks us if we’re still watching, is the smoking gun behind our increasing need for exporting energy, it merely showcases how our nation is continuously on an upward trajectory for needing energy from sourced beyond our shores.

Tom Simpkins is a Representative at SMART meters and prepayment metering systems supplier Energy Controls Energy Controls, frequently discussing energy consumption & energy saving methods for both domestic & commercial industries.

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