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Picture of an aerial view of London at dusk

An increasingly strained grid will power the lights of London and the rest of the United Kingdom, as the country shuts down its coal plants and awaits new ones.

Photograph by Jason Hawkes, Getty Images

Thomas K. Grose in London

For National Geographic

Published August 29, 2013

London at night sparkles with beautiful lighting, from the 11,500 lights that brighten the Edwardian facade of iconic department store Harrods to the 4,000 that illuminate the outline of Albert Bridge, spanning the River Thames. But are these popular tourist attractions—and the rest of the United Kingdom—at risk of going dark?

British authorities have been issuing some dire-sounding warnings. In February, the man then in charge of Ofgem, Britain's industry regulator, warned of an impending "near-crisis" of energy supply, calling the situation "horrendous" and likening it to being on a roller coaster headed "downhill—fast." Deputy Minister Nick Clegg was quoted saying that he was working to "keep the lights on." (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.")

In June, Ofgem released a capacity assessment warning that "risks to electricity security of supply over the next six winters have increased since our last report in October 2012." The report warned that Britain's ability to provide spare electric power capacity could plunge to between 2 to 5 percent, about half what it is now.

The main reason for the possible crunch: Britain is closing a number of aging coal-fired plants—as well as some oil and nuclear ones—to meet European Union environmental laws. One fifth of the existing power stations are scheduled to close over the next ten years. According to Reuters, the U.K. is set to lose more than 12 gigawatts of generating capacity in the next two years.  Currently, the country operates 13 coal plants, but nearly half are slated to close by 2015, and all of them could be shut down by 2023, according to government figures.

Higher Prices and Supply Pinches

Though Britain does face a bleak shortfall of energy in the coming years, "consumers are more at risk from higher prices than blackouts," said Wilf Wilde, executive director of the Durham Energy Institute at Durham University. Indeed, Ofgem was quick to say in its recent assessment that it "does not consider disruption to supplies is imminent or likely, providing the industry manages the problem effectively."

Major industrial electricity users, such as makers of aluminum and fertilizer, might feel a heavier impact. Wilde said that larger power users face a 30 percent chance of losing power within the next few years because many of them have "interruptible contracts," paying a bit less for power while accepting that power suppliers can cut them off, if necessary.

But any blackouts that cause key industries to go dark, even for short periods, could greatly disrupt the U.K. economy and likely inflict lasting damage at the polls for whichever political party is in power. "There would be political implications, none of them very good," Wilde said.

Just how bad the energy gap will be depends in large part on demand. While Britain will be losing significant generation capacity, Ofgem said peak demand has fallen over the past seven years by about 5 gigawatts because of Britain's sluggish economy, along with improvements in energy efficiency.

The electricity and gas company National Grid predicts peak demand should fall by another 3 to 4 gigawatts by the 2018-19 season. If that happens, Ofgem admits that would indeed compensate for the lost generation capacity. But that estimate, it notes, is far larger than National Grid's previous forecast, and it assumes "a more pessimistic economic outlook." In other words, the grid operator is banking on the U.K. economy staying in the doldrums to keep power flowing without interruption.

Rocky Transition From Coal

Ofgem first warned that electric power capacity was tightening back in 2009, but it now says that is happening "faster than previously expected." That's because the U.K. recently went on a coal binge, taking advantage of dirt-cheap coal from the United States, where a shift to natural gas has sent coal producers looking for other markets. As a result, 39 percent of the U.K.'s power came from coal plants last year, up from 30 percent in 2011. (See related story: "As U.S. Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Abroad.")

That burst of coal power came at a price: The U.K. is maxing out on the number of coal-plant operating hours it was allowed under EU law more quickly than anticipated. (See related story: "Obama Unveils Climate Change Strategy: End of the Line for U.S. Coal Power?")

Should a supply shortage come, there are several short-term remedies that National Grid could put into effect to ensure consumers wouldn't experience rolling blackouts. "A huge number of things would happen before the lights went out, as it were," said David Newbery, director of the Electricity Policy Research Group at the University of Cambridge.

One solution, according to Ofgem, is for Britain to keep in reserve some of the coal plants it plans to mothball, so that they could be re-fired, if needed. But that would require retrofitting the plants to keep them from violating pollution regulations, a costly exercise. Still, Newbery said, "If [electricity] prices were high enough, there might be a willingness to clean up noncompliant plants." Alternatively, Britain could put the plants back on line as they are and risk paying large EU fines.

Another possibility, Durham's Wilde said, would be to make high-use industries bear the brunt of power outages. To avoid being cut off altogether as part of their interruptible contracts, industrial power customers could be offered financial incentives to sell back unused power to the grid at peak demand times, effectively earning a premium to cut back on power usage when demand is high.

Also, Newbery said power companies could be asked to exceed their capacities during peak periods, or conversely, to reduce voltages by 3 to 5 percent in certain areas to keep the grid stable.

Gas Plants in a Holding Pattern

Currently, the United Kingdom gets 30 percent of its electricity from gas-fired plants, but that's expected to rise to 60 percent. Some existing gas plants that had closed or reduced operations could come back, and new additions are expected.  "Constructing a gas plant is fairly simple," said John Mitchell, an associate fellow for energy, environment, and resources at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. "It's an easy add-on."

A new gas plant typically takes just 18 months to build. The U.K. already has in place a gas distribution infrastructure that could handle the extra demands, Mitchell says, and it also has sufficient terminals to handle additional liquid natural gas (LNG) imports. (See related story: "U.K. Dash for Shale Gas a Test for Global Fracking.")

But outside the United States, gas prices are high, so an increase in LNG imports would likely hit British consumers hard. And power suppliers are for now dragging their feet on constructing new plants, mainly because of uncertainty over what will be in the final version of a new energy bill slowly working its way through Parliament. That bill is designed to unleash £110 billion ($172 billion) of investment for new generating capacity. It's also expected to guarantee minimum prices for power supplies.

While power companies wait to see what prices the politicians ultimately decide to set, they're in no hurry to build new plants. cites a report by AT Kearney, a London consulting firm, which says construction of nine gas plants, capable of producing nearly 20 gigawatts of power, has been delayed while the legislative debate continues.

Newbery noted that power companies have one other reason for not building new plants: "They don't think demand is going to be there." Forward pricing, he says, indicates that the industry doesn't see a shortage looming. They're betting that National Grid's pessimistic forecast that the economy and demand will remain weak is accurate.

If they're right, the U.K.'s current Conservative Party-led coalition government may not have to sweat out close encounters of the blackout kind after all—but that means it will be sweating out a still-faltering economy instead.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Keyto Clearskies
Keyto Clearskies

Mark Goldes' proofless claims regarding his Aesop Institute's make-believe strictly ambient heat engine do not represent any new technology, or even a new pretense - they merely represent a rather old pretense.

"Before the establishment of the Second Law, many people who were interested in inventing a perpetual motion machine had tried to circumvent the restrictions of First Law of Thermodynamics by extracting the massive internal energy of the environment as the power of the machine. Such a machine is called a "perpetual motion machine of the second kind". The second law declared the impossibility of such machines."

"A perpetual motion machine of the second kind is a machine which spontaneously converts thermal energy into mechanical work. When the thermal energy is equivalent to the work done, this does not violate the law of conservation of energy. However it does violate the more subtle second law of thermodynamics (see also entropy). The signature of a perpetual motion machine of the second kind is that there is only one heat reservoir involved, which is being spontaneously cooled without involving a transfer of heat to a cooler reservoir. This conversion of heat into useful work, without any side effect, is impossible, according to the second law of thermodynamics."

Goldes' make-believe ambient-heat-powered engine would be a perpetual motion machine of the second kind, as defined above. Goldes is not developing any such engine; he is merely developing a pretense - as usual.

Goldes' ambient-heat-powered engine would not merely "circumvent" the Second Law of Thermodynamics - it would actually DISPROVE the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

An engine that uses ambient heat would need to be able to DECREASE the entropy of the universe. The Second Law tells us that we can never decrease the entropy of the universe, or of an isolated system.

As a consequence of this law:

"It is impossible for any device operating on a cycle to produce net work from a single temperature reservoir; the production of net work requires flow of heat from a hotter reservoir to a colder reservoir."

In the make-believe ambient-heat-powered engine there are not two heat reservoirs at different temperatures; no reservoir would be available at any temperature other than the ambient temperature. No matter what cycle we design with this constraint, we will find that the cycle would have to be able to decrease the entropy of the universe in order to do any work.

The formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a constraint on entropy change is one of the most beautifully simple, and well-established, laws of physics.

The Second Law tells us that we can never build an engine that does some work with heat taken from a heat reservoir, without also transferring some heat to another reservoir at a lower temperature.

An equivalent statement is that we can't decrease the total entropy of an isolated system.

The entropy change differential due to heat transfer to or from a reservoir is inversely related to the temperature at which the transfer occurs. The consequence is that transferring heat INTO a cold reservoir produces a larger GAIN in entropy, than the LOSS of entropy that occurs due to transfer of the same amount of heat FROM a hot reservoir. This noteworthy and remarkable inequality enables a heat engine to use some heat to do some work without violating the Second Law - as long as it can make use of two different heat reservoirs, at different temperatures. The ambient-heat-powered engine only involves a single reservoir, at a single temperature (at any given moment). When it reduces the entropy of the reservoir by using some of the heat to do work, it has no way to compensate by increasing the entropy anywhere else. Therefore we know for certain that the engine will disappoint us. It will never be able to do any work.

In Mark Goldes' patent application for his "POWERGENIE" horn-powered tuning-rod engine, he described the tuning-rod as "an energy transfer and multiplier element."

But of course, for the tuning-rod to "multiply" energy, it would need to disprove the law of conservation of energy. (Obviously the Patent Office should never have allowed such a  description.)

Goldes' use of the term "energy multiplier element" reflects his pretense that the "revolutionary breakthrough" of the amazing "POWERGENIE" could disprove the law of conservation of energy, by presenting the world with a working "energy multiplier."

Goldes even claimed in 2008 that the POWERGENIE had been demonstrated already in an electric car, driven 4800 miles by his energy-multiplying horn-powered tuning-rod.

But it seems that most people, for some reason, had difficulty accepting the notion that the law of conservation of energy could be proven false.

And Goldes no doubt noticed that the Second Law of Thermodynamics - that "the entropy of an isolated system tends to increase with time and can never decrease" - is much less clear to most people than the conservation of energy.

So now, after leaving aside the pretense that he could somehow "multiply energy" with a magnetized tuning-rod, Goldes has chosen to focus, instead, on the pretense that he can disprove the Second Law with an engine powered by ambient heat.

There is no "new science" in any of Goldes' "revolutionary breakthroughs." There is only pseudoscience and pretense - and nothing new, at all.

Rick Fischer
Rick Fischer

How dense can you be? Reduced industrial activity is exactly the goal of the Greens. And high prices plus low availability of energy is one means of reaching that goal. When will you wake up to the fact that their idea of Utopia is a miserable future for the rest of us? 

Rick Fischer
Rick Fischer

 How dense can you be? Reduced industrial activity is exactly the goal of the Greens. And high prices plus low availability of energy is one means of reaching that goal. When will you wake up to the fact that their idea of Utopia is a miserable future for the rest of us? 

Keyto Clearskies
Keyto Clearskies

How to detect fraudulent nonprofit organizations, such as Mark Goldes' Aesop Institute:

Most nonprofit organizations are probably reasonably truthful, and many are quite admirable. Unfortunately, there are also some very fraudulent nonprofits. How can you tell whether you've encountered one?

Well, for starters, it may be helpful to find out what conclusions have been reached by people who are NOT receiving income from the organization.

Here is a great web site in which you can simply search on the name of the organization, such as Aesop Institute, and see what conclusions other people have reached:

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

The Switch Energy Project makes energy fascinating and engaging to encourage a balanced national understanding of our energy future and its economic and environmental issues.

Join Dr. Scott Tinker on a spectacular journey through the world’s leading energy sites, from coal to solar, oil to biofuels, as he discovers the realities of energy today, investigates the challenge of transitioning to alternatives, and gets straight answers from international energy leaders. In the end, he lays out a path to our energy future that is both surprising and remarkably pragmatic.

Keyto Clearskies
Keyto Clearskies

Aesop Institute is a wonderfully elaborate fraud, operated by Mark Goldes.
Mark Goldes, starting in the mid-seventies, engaged for several years in the pretense that his company SunWind Ltd was developing a nearly production-ready, road-worthy, wind-powered "windmobile," based on the windmobile invented by James Amick; and that therefore SunWind would be a wonderful investment opportunity.

After SunWind "dried up" in 1983, Goldes embarked on the long-running pretense that his company Room Temperature Superconductors Inc was developing room-temperature superconductors; and that therefore Room Temperature Superconductors Inc would be a wonderful investment opportunity. He continues the pretense that the company developed something useful, even to this day.

And then Goldes embarked on the pretense that his company Magnetic Power Inc was developing "NO FUEL ENGINES" based on "Virtual Photon Flux;" and then, on the pretense that MPI was developing horn-powered "NO FUEL ENGINES" based on the resonance of magnetized tuning-rods; and then, on the pretense that his company Chava Energy was developing water-fueled engines based on "collapsing hydrogen orbitals;" and then, on the pretense that he was developing ambient-heat-powered "NO FUEL ENGINES." Goldes has even claimed that Jacob T. Wainwright already patented an ambient-heat-powered engine 100 years ago - even though Wainwright himself certainly never made any such claim, at all. Wainwright's only patent for a turbine or engine was not for any ambient-heat-powered engine, but for a pressurized-gaseous-fluid-powered engine. The innovation of the patent was the use of water to reduce speed - not for any use of ambient heat.

Goldes' forty-year career of "revolutionary invention" pretense has nothing to do with science, but only with pseudoscience and pseudophysics - his lifelong stock-in-trade.

Brian Bevan
Brian Bevan

UK's ability to maintain healthy Power Generation irrespective of system is because of useless politicians, attorneys and Europe. GB was the WORLD leader in the design of any type of generation system. What Has Happened?

You should have listened to ENGINEERS and ENGINEERING CONSULTANTS. This situation could have been avoided.

Weak Government who allowed Company takeovers by Foreign Companies who were in direct competition with British companies.

IE. AEI taken over by ALSTOM a lousy company that absolutely ruined AEI and for proof just visit Rugby and talk to any ex AEI worker from shop floor to senior management.

WE need to get out of Europe and go back to the Commonwealth Friends who we deserted. I still am quite amazed they still stuck to us.


Mark Goldes
Mark Goldes

Coal can be left behind much more rapidly than might be imagined..

Revolutionary new technologies are en-route that can turn future cars into power plants, able to sell electricity when suitably parked. No wires needed. Cars, trucks and buses might even pay for themselves.

Since these are hard to believe breakthroughs, a surprise has been required to increase support for the best of them.

An engine has been invented that needs no fuel. It could trigger a perpetual commotion.


Since these engines will not get hot, after a prototype is validated by an independent lab, small plastic desktop piston engines are planned that will run a radio and recharge cell phones.

Metal versions are expected to power homes 24/7 and replace diesel generators. They also may provide emergency generators - and perhaps an on-board recharge for electric cars. Later replacing wind turbines of all sizes.

See MAKING THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE that opens the AESOP Institute website. 

It describes a remarkable new path to rapid reduction in the need for fossil fuels.

And can increase support for other revolutionary new science which can cost-competitively supersede the need for fossil and radioactive fuels.

Charles Higley
Charles Higley

There is oddly no mention of the wind farm debacle that is leading to this problem with the energy supply. The UK needs to ditch totally the EU.

Bonni B.
Bonni B.

Keep in mind that chaos tends to occur as great changes are happening. The thing is not to panic during these times. We are not only witnesses to these shifts, we are active participants, and how we respond and communicate will determine whether we rise, or fail.

Brian Bevan
Brian Bevan

@Bonni B. You are so right, we are listening BUT and a big BUT is the people in control are incapable and rudely ignorant to the real truth. So many examples of the errors made by idiot MPs. Unfortunately this is our fault because no thought has put them there.

Nate Whilk
Nate Whilk

@Bonni B.Yes, it's going to be so inspiring to have electricity prices skyrocket and to be in the cold and the dark thanks to EU regulations.

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