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Blacking out the facts

Why do fears of impending power cuts dominate thinking about energy supply in various European states? Antti Silvast reports from Helsinki.

Antti Silvast

Topics Science & Tech

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Finnish citizens use more electricity than most Europeans. This is both due to Finland’s cold climate and long distances, but also because of the high standards of living in this Nordic, industrialised nation. One commentator has written that ‘the use of electricity and energy increases concurrently with welfare’ (1). This attitude conveys the idea behind Finnish electrification, namely that power networks should be the social right of all citizens, not merely a technical novelty (2).

The times may, however, be changing. As in the UK and the European Union, these days the ‘security of power supplies’ has become a cornerstone of the energy discussion in Finland (3). A foresight project at the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (4) has recently dedicated an entire chapter to infrastructures and security, talking about the paralysing effects of technological system failures and malfunctions, and predicting rapid and dramatic changes in how services should be provided.

The Green Paper on a European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy (5) paints the ‘new energy landscape’ as being threatened by insecurities, ranging from import dependency to changes in Europe’s climate to risks of natural catastrophes, terrorist threats and interruptions of supply. In 2004, BBC’s dramatised documentary If… The Lights Go Out allowed UK safety and energy experts to imagine the consequences of a one-day power interruption (6). In the documentary, power failures apparently cause mass panics, with commuters trapped underground, lifts stuck mid-floor and telecommunications and transport failing.

But before we get carried away by these panic scenarios, we should recall that from 2001 to 2004, the UK had, on average, less than one unplanned interruption in electricity supply per customer per year (7). Admittedly, Finland’s number of interruptions (three to seven) is considerably higher, but still hardly disastrous compared with the past. Even so, a Finnish green-leaning activist magazine (8) has suggested that dependence on energy has always been ‘part of a move towards social decay’.

Yet modern lifestyles require energy and we are supported by a vast material system of switches, services, wires, tubes and ducts – the city’s often ignored underground realm – which all functions because of the energy network (9). Whether this, as some would have it, makes us vulnerable to the core or not requires more thought.

It seems like many utilities personnel today have taken this concern onboard. Many, especially in Finland, seem to see themselves more as social workers than engineers and are very concerned about those ‘vulnerable’ customers and ‘at-risk groups’ who supposedly cannot handle power interruptions; those who may cause – or will be rendered helpless by – power outages because they are too blasé, have too many appliances, are elderly or have other needs and infirmities (10).

At the same time, some people are actually relaxed about power interruption, seeing it as a sort of enforced break from work. Though there may be nothing inherently positive about this fatalism, it does slightly counter the notion that terror will reign when the lights go out. The New York blackout in 2003, for example, saw a moment of mutual aid and people ‘keeping things ticking over’ (11). And since the New Orleans power cuts, there has been a baby boom in the area, indicating that many people were more relaxed than was thought at the time (12). One commuter in the 2003 London outage noted: ‘A bit of the Blitz spirit is kicking in and people are talking to each other, which is nice’. (13) We can, it seems, rely on social as well as personal skills if the systems fail (14).

Of course such disruption would not be viewed too positively if people didn’t trust that the electric power would come back on. An average Finnish power failure lasts for half an hour (15), though storms have caused considerably longer outages, extending to several days. Sweden’s longest failure, after a storm in 2005, lasted for several weeks in some areas (16). Yet, even after this, people get on with their lives and use electricity without giving it too much thought.

Unfortunately, utility companies want us to always remain aware of the possibility of power failures and play our part in minimising the risk of it happening. One Finnish utility spokesman compared power failures to a natural catastrophe. In his view, humanity ought to be prepared because both large technological systems and nature have ‘a will of their own’ (17). Unfortunately, the debate about electricity provision in the new millennium is generally not a positive one (18), as it too often focuses on how to ‘save’, or minimise, the use of electricity.

Looking back at history, electrification was always about extending the reach of man’s control over nature as far as possible. As an engineering project it often reached near-heroic scale. Thomas Edison stated that he wanted to ‘make electricity so cheap that only the rich can afford to burn candles’ and Lenin famously defined communism as ‘socialism plus electricity’. In the 1920s, the pioneering Finnish electric engineer Bernard Wuolle concluded that ‘the degree of electrification measures a nation’s level of civilization’ (19).

In contrast, electrical engineering heroes today are those who generate their own local electricity supplies, rather than those who want to provide it on a grand scale. When there was a summer shortage of electricity in California, for instance, ‘morally responsible’ individuals were required to conserve energy (20). The same happened in London in July (21).

The discourse on energy security will go on, and with it, the idea that utilities are engaging with society and its citizens. Not a position paper goes by without mentioning secure energy as fundamental for people’s daily lives or of society’s operation. But if anything, security talk is far removed from people’s everyday circumstances, and continues to be dominated by abstract notions of the unpredictability of large-scale technological systems. However, as the new pre-payment systems for the supply of energy to low-income households in the UK shows (22), utilities companies are keen to advocate ‘responsible’ usage; here, the broader social goals like universal provision become dim memories as we are told to use less for our own good. Petty fears about energy disruption pale in comparison with the historic ambition for the supply of national networks. However, without confronting the reasons and rationale for these contemporary fears, energy production and distribution is going to be seriously threatened.

Antti Silvast can be contacted at {encode=”antti.silvast@helsinki.fi” title=”antti.silvast@helsinki.fi”}

spiked-issue: Energy

(1) Finnish Energy Industries

(2) Myllyntaus, Timo (1991). Electrifying Finland: the transfer of a new technology into a late industrialising economy. Basingstoke: Macmillan, pp. 248–249.

(3). See Finnish Energy sector (2005). Energy – a Key for Competitiveness of Finland; UK Department of Trade and Industry (2006). UK Energy Review; and Commission of the European Communities Green Paper (2006). A European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy.

(4) http://www.finnsight2015.fi

(5) A European Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy 2006, p. 8.

(6) BBC (2004). If… The Lights Go Out

(7) Council of European Energy
Regulators (2005). Third Benchmarking Report on Quality of Electricity Supply., p. 23

(8) Sinnemaa, Jussi (2006). Takaisin kivikaudelle (“Back to the Stone Age”). Voima 4/2006.

(9) Pile, S (2001), ‘The un(known) city… or, an urban geography of what lies beneath the surface’, in Borden, I; Kerr, J; Rendell, J & Pivaro, A (eds). Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space, Cambridge: MIT Press, 263-278. See also Latour, Bruno (1992), ‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts,’ in Bijker, Wiebe E. & Law, John (eds). Shaping Technology/Building Society, Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 225–258.

(10) Silvast, Antti (2006). Keskeytyksestä kritiikkeihin: sähkönjakelun häiriöiden kokemuksia ja kohtaamisia (“From Cut to Criticisms: Power Failures as Events and Experiences.”) Master’s thesis for the University of Helsinki, Department of Sociology, pp. 34-39.

(11) Yuill, Chris (2004). Emotions After Dark – a Sociological Impression of the 2003 New York Blackout Sociological Research Online, Volume 9, Issue 3.

(12) The Sydney Morning Herald (2006). Baby boom in wake of Katrina power cuts. 31 July 2006.

(13) BBC (2003). Power cut causes chaos. 28 August 2003

(14) Wagner, Peter (2001). A History and Theory of the Social Sciences: Not All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Sage, p. 86.

(15) Finergy & Sener (2004). Keskeytystilasto 2003 (“Interruption Statistics 2003.”), pp. 5-6.

(16) Tiusanen, Pekka (2005), ‘Ruotsissa sähköt palavat taas’ (“In Sweden Electricity Works Again.”) Energiasanomat 2/2005.

(17) Silvast 2006, pp. 34-35.

(18) cf. Furedi, Frank (2002). Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation London: Continuum.

(19) Herranen, Timo (1996). ”Valtakunnan sähköistyskysymys: strategiat, siirtojärjestelmät sekä alueellinen sähköistys vuoteen 1940.” (“The Question of Electrifying a Nation: Strategies, Distribution Systems and Regional Electrification Until 1940.”) Helsinki: Suomen historiallinen seura, p. 11.

(20) California ISO (2006). Conservation, Teamwork and Planning Helped California Grid Weather the Historic Heat Wave of July 2006

(21) Woudhuysen, James (2006). ”Windmills of the mind”, spiked, 31 July 2006.

(22) Marvin, Simon; Graham, Stephen & Guy, Simon (1999). Cities, regions and privatised utilities. Progress in Planning, Volume 51, Number 2, pp. 145-149. See also Graham, Stephen & Marvin, Simon (2001): ‘Splintering Urbanism. Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition’, London: Routledge,.

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Topics Science & Tech

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