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A small island
January 6, 2013 8:59 PM   Subscribe

Britain from Above was a 2008 BBC TV program that used aerial photography and data visualization to depict British transportation, land planning, police management of public order, ecology and much else. Of particular interest: the effect on the national electrical grid of millions of tea kettles being switched on simultaneously at the end of a popular soap opera airing.

The BBC Archive also released a related collection, Aerial Journeys, which includes historical broadcasting in radio and television from the air. Some parts of that collection may only be available in the UK.
posted by grouse (17 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fuck you, BBC, for not putting up complete clips. You suck terribly.
posted by Malor at 9:28 PM on January 6, 2013


Oh, they DID put up the complete clip, but their stupid player bombed out right at the spot where the engineer is reacting to the link from France going down. Just, suddenly, stopped, and showed related videos. It looked very deliberate, that they'd cut it at the tension spot to make you go buy the program or something.

Now I'm wondering if that grizzly shot from a couple days ago was actually as short as I thought it was.
posted by Malor at 9:31 PM on January 6, 2013


I fancy a cuppa after watching that!
posted by chapps at 9:36 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, they DID put up the complete clip, but their stupid player bombed out right at the spot where the engineer is reacting to the link from France going down.

I'd wager flakeyness, it worked fine for me.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:15 PM on January 6, 2013


Super-cool segment, but while the specific problem of electric kettles and Eastenders may be unique to the UK, but it's hardly the only utility with pop culture-based surges. The best chart I've seen is this one of Edmonton's water usage the evening of Canada's gold medal men's hockey win in the 2010 Olympics. The water usage (all sources of water, in a city of a million people) dropped to 80% of normal usage in the overtime when we won, and spiked to 115% of normal usage after the medal ceremony. And I'm sure it was the same nationwide; flushed with victory and all that.

I have to admit I'm a little surprised that since this is a daily/weekly(?) occurrence and since the BBC is pseudo-governmental in some way I don't quite fully understand, surely they could stagger the showing of Eastenders over a 15 minute period in different parts of the country to disperse this peak load and seemingly save the whole electrical grid a bunch of strain and expense.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:32 PM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Probably millions of MeFites clicking the video play button at the same time.
posted by wallabear at 10:36 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


Surely the guy at the National Grid could be replaced by a decent algorithm.
posted by zeoslap at 11:07 PM on January 6, 2013


I have to admit I'm a little surprised that since this is a daily/weekly(?) occurrence and since the BBC is pseudo-governmental in some way I don't quite fully understand, surely they could stagger the showing of Eastenders over a 15 minute period in different parts of the country to disperse this peak load and seemingly save the whole electrical grid a bunch of strain and expense.

Not really, for the same reason that this happens in the UK and not in the US. The whole country is in one time zone and all listings and other infrastructure assumes this to be true.
posted by atrazine at 12:16 AM on January 7, 2013


One of our local channels used to have a more, um, minimalist version of this. It was basically some kind of stead-cammed remote plane and they'd fly that puppy all over Europe for a half hour. Some episodes would be little villages in the Alps, next one would be Siena, one after that somewhere in the Danube delta.

I loooooooved running to it - felt like I was a condor, or a god.
posted by smoke at 1:41 AM on January 7, 2013


Oh, they DID put up the complete clip, but their stupid player bombed out right at the spot where the engineer is reacting to the link from France going down.

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by network connection issues.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:35 AM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


It had great aerial photography, but the narration script was annoying.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:55 AM on January 7, 2013


atrazine: "I have to admit I'm a little surprised that since this is a daily/weekly(?) occurrence and since the BBC is pseudo-governmental in some way I don't quite fully understand, surely they could stagger the showing of Eastenders over a 15 minute period in different parts of the country to disperse this peak load and seemingly save the whole electrical grid a bunch of strain and expense.

Not really, for the same reason that this happens in the UK and not in the US. The whole country is in one time zone and all listings and other infrastructure assumes this to be true.
"

Except for viewers in Scotland.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:14 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Surely the guy at the National Grid could be replaced by a decent algorithm.
posted by zeoslap at 11:07 PM on January 6 [+] [!]


I wondered about that, too. I wonder if it's a liability issue or something? Like, no-one will indemnify an algorithm, whereas they're happy if they have a warm body to throw under the bus if the whole thing goes tits up.

Bit of a mixed metaphor there, but I think you know what I mean.
posted by kcds at 4:53 AM on January 7, 2013


I want to know why the frequency sags and not the voltage. But that's a cool idea for a TV program nonetheless.

A friend of mine interned for a conservative charity/money-funnel while in grad school, and he could tell when Limbaugh's show was mentioning something relevant to their mission because the webservers and donations would spike. Then, every hour as his tape delayed affiliates replayed the show, similar spikes would occur. Masses of people doing stuff are interesting.
posted by gjc at 5:23 AM on January 7, 2013


I want to know why the frequency sags and not the voltage.

Both do. Frequency is a more accurate tell, though, so they watch that. Basically, the goal is to keep the generators turning at the exact same speed, in sync, to eliminate harmonics.

When the load spikes, you need to apply more power to the input shafts of the generators to keep them turning. Until that happens, the extra load slows the generators down, and the frequency sags. Similarly, a sudden load shed means that there's now too much power on the input shafts, which causes the generators to speed up, raising the frequency.

What this engineer is doing is managing what plants are on/off line. There are basically four inputs to a power grid.

1) Base load plants. These, generally, are always on and are usually large. They also tend to have large startup and shutdown times, you really want to turn them on and leave them on. They supply the power that's always needed. The big three types here are Coal, Nuclear and Large Reservoir hydroelectric. The problem with them is that it's hard to gain or shed power with them, with the exception of hydro with the ability to close off the penstocks.

2) Peaker plants. These come online fast, shut down fast, but usually cost more to run. Oil and Natural Gas are two common fuels. Because of the cost, you don't want to run them unless you need them, but both can be online quickly -- oil in less than 30 minutes, Natural Gas can start almost instantaneously if you use an array of smaller generators.

A special category of these are small reservoir hydro plants. These can be two types -- one where the reservoir fills naturally, but slowly, and the other where you pump water into the reservoir, and let it fall back down. Unlike most peaker plants, these can only stay online for a few hours, then the reservoir needs to be refilled. Pumped storage plants, the ones you fill up, are one of the very few ways a utility can actually store grid level power, so you fill the reservoir when power load is low, and draw it up when it's high.

It's clear that the hydro plants talked about in the BBC clip are of this type -- either slow fill or pumped. Slow fill is true power generation, pumped storage is power shifting.

3) Intermittent plants -- Solar and Wind are the big ones here. The problems with them is the utility can't know how much power is going to be generated by them at a given moment. Worse, the amount of power they can provide can shift moment to moment, esp. for solar on a partly cloudy day.

4) Grid ties. Of course, these are actually one or more of the three plants above, but in terms of a given grid, a grid tie is a different form of input, in that you have limited control over it, and you are paying, somehow, for the power coming from the inter tie, either directly, or by providing similar amounts of power back at a different time.

So, here's, he's brought a number of plants either online or nearly so, in expectation of a 3GW load increase, and has contracted for 600MW from France. Unfortunately for him, the intertie "trips" -- that is, a breaker opens to disconnect the line. This causes the load to draw more power from the existing online plans, and until he can bring other plants online, and the running plants can compensate for the extra draw, the frequency sags.

The big problem is the automatic protections. If the frequency slips low enough, automatic load shedding happens to protect the grid-as-a-whole. This means someone loses power. If it goes to high, draw shedding happens. In the case of a peaker plant, this isn't as big a deal, but tripping off a baseload plant could have that plant offline for quite a while.

Surely the guy at the National Grid could be replaced by a decent algorithm.

Some of it can, but a lot of it is politics/money, which is harder. And it is a very complex problem, even with a grid as relatively simple as the UK grid. One issue is noted here -- he lined everything up for 2000GMT, but the show wasn't over yet, so the load spike hadn't started. If an autoscheduled system brought all that generation online exactly at 2000GMT, then you might have an auto trip happen, leaving you unable to access that extra power just before the load spike hits.

Grids have also had real problems with automated systems doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, causing a massive load shed, which forces a massive generation trip-off, and a major blackout. So, they're a little leery of them. They do use safety systems, but even they can go horrible wrong.
posted by eriko at 7:19 AM on January 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


Both do. Frequency is a more accurate tell, though, so they watch that. Basically, the goal is to keep the generators turning at the exact same speed, in sync, to eliminate harmonics.

When the load spikes, you need to apply more power to the input shafts of the generators to keep them turning. Until that happens, the extra load slows the generators down, and the frequency sags. Similarly, a sudden load shed means that there's now too much power on the input shafts, which causes the generators to speed up, raising the frequency.


That makes perfect sense, I can't believe I didn't think of it. Excellent overview! Thank you!
posted by gjc at 7:28 AM on January 7, 2013


I remember reading a story in an Uncle John's reader, which I cannot now verify online, that there was once a network premiere of Airport '77 and an entire metropolitan area basically saw the mainline water pressure drop to 0 as millions of people all finally took a bathroom break after some plot twist or another. Funny, the way television has instilled a circadian rhythm to our infrastructure. I wonder if this is a phenomenon that will evaporate as online viewing/time-shifting becomes more dominant.
posted by nickgb at 1:57 PM on January 7, 2013


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