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Lancaster, the night the city flooded into darkness

Dr John Counsell asks “Does resilience to climate change need a local battery to keep the lights on?”

It was 11.15pm on the 5 December 2015 when Lancaster was literally plunged into darkness. Earlier that afternoon my wife and I had travelled along the main road from the M6 into Lancaster and the River Lune had already burst its banks with the road already 6 inches under water. We just managed to make our way through to the city centre to our guest house opposite the old town hall. When we stepped out of the car, the rainfall was like no other rainfall I had previously experienced (with the possible exception of my first cub camp in 1972 in Hawkshead in the Lake District). These northern raindrops would best be described as “mugfulls” - a direct hit resulted in a drenching from top to bottom and even a golfing brolly couldn’t offer protection from rebound from the pavement. This avalanche of water was so intense that people were puddle dodging inside Boots, where the shop assistants had had to cover shelves in polythene to prevent stock from being damaged. Throughout this Global Warming’s/Almenio Effect’s literally damp squib, not for one minute did anyone expect it would result in a failing to light up the city.

Image of a car submerged in flood water A car near the River Lune in Lancaster 5 December 2015, photo provided by Ian Porter of Lancaster

As the above picture shows, cars and houses were swallowed by an ever expanding River Lune and the lights finally went out just after 11pm on the Saturday night. The only lights visible were those from cars above and below the water line. No traffic lights, no street lamps, no lights on at all - as simple as that. No power for the central heating pumps, controls and fans of modern so called advanced gas boilers and no power for fridges, freezers and worst of all no grid power for Lancaster’s famous hospital. Lancaster at the flick of a switch at a main substation was taken back to the 1970s. In reality though it was even worse than that! In the 1970s we didn’t need electric pumps for domestic hot water as many hot water tanks were pump free gravity fed systems. We didn’t all need gas central heating to stay warm as many still had back up coal fires. There was no need for microwaves because we all could cook a meal on a gas hob and most of all we didn’t need a tablet to read a book by torch light. But in particular, we didn’t rely on the internet to find out what was going on - people knew how to communicate with each other without it!

Next morning, I turned on the car radio eager to find out what had happened but both national and local news were reporting only that Cumbria was is in deep trouble. A friend from Bolton was desperately trying to contact her daughter at Lancaster University, with no success. She put out an SOS on Facebook and with just enough power and a weak 3G signal I was able to respond, only to tell her nobody that knew anything! Clearly, the fact that Lancaster is a significant city in Lancashire had escaped the nation - not a rural community like Somerset and most of Cumbria and certainly as significant as Carlisle! Three weeks later, on Boxing Day of all days, the same weather hit Manchester and parts of Bolton including my parents’ farm, pictured below.  

Image of a van and houses submerged in flood water  

And to those responsible for the whole nation’s infrastructure and not just the south east, this isn’t a rural problem confined to Cumbria, the Yorkshire Dales and Somerset but an urban and economic catastrophe for which the bill hasn’t even been received yet! Businesses in these areas lost a substantial amount of Christmas period income. Meanwhile, our centralised power infrastructure left the people of Lancaster coping alone, trying to survive the floods as best they could. The inhabitants of Lancashire’s fourth largest city and its surrounding areas were left in the dark, not just for a day, but for three days or more for most, with many relying on standby generators for a week, including the hospital. Does this sound like the 21st century Britain my grandparents dreamed of? Certainly not, more like a country deluded by its past’s heavily designed infrastructure and now taking enormous risks, especially with the most vulnerable in society.

This brings the bigger question in to light. As I wrote in BRE’s “Constructing the Future” journal, the idea that we will be short on power generation resulting in the lights will go out is total poppycock. The Big 6 utilities and clearly the government (i.e. to boost construction jobs), want us to believe it in order to justify dubious at best investments such as Hinkley Point Nuclear Power plant and many other large scale schemes which are potentially heading to be white elephants. The truth is, all our lighting will need less than a quarter the power it needed in 2008 due to the advent of amazingly efficient LED light bulbs. The same could also be true of our IT equipment, with better energy efficiency legislation on IT equipment purchasing, especially in the public sector. Better house insulation and improved car efficiency through hybrid powered engines that generate their own electricity will reduce reliance on centralised electricity infrastructure even more. So much so that there is now a new revolution of Local Energy Systems such as University of Liverpool’s CHP system that is self-sufficient in power and heat for over 80 buildings. Last year only one of the university’s buildings has had a power cut and that one was connected to the grid only!

The real truth is that we are in an era where we can take responsibility for what we use and what we generate. We can generate our own electricity and heat economically and locally (e.g. through PV, CHP, Wind or Hydro). However, we are forced to connect it to a centralised power distribution backbone. This forces all electricity generated centrally or locally to route it through one or two main grid based centralised substations: in Lancaster’s case one which became flooded by the River Wyre. Meanwhile the local hydro power generator on the River Lune which was experiencing the best yield in its history was forced to dump all the generated power as it needed a grid connection to distribute it! The same issue applied to Lancaster University’s Wind Turbine and consequently all students had to be sent home a week early. Overseas students who had flights booked for the following week were left as the Guardian reported, walking the streets of Lancaster like Internet Zombies - desperate for a 3G signal and not knowing what to do.

Not to mention the safety aspects, such as the new young generation of drivers stuck at dead traffic lights looking at pedestrians and wondering whether to drive through or not? We are a nation who needs to wake up to the fact that our infrastructures, in particular water, drainage and power, must face the reality of climate change as they are rapidly becoming unfit for purpose. We should now embark on enhancing infrastructural RESILIENCE using LOCAL SOLUTIONS for FLOOD CONTROL and POWER GENERATION. The national and centralised way of thinking is the way of designing in a central point of failure, a philosophy of design that needs to be parked well and truly in the century it came from, the 19th. This local and fully integrated systems approach to new, more economic, lower carbon emission and more resilient infrastructure needs a new age of Professional Engineer. Not an engineer traditionally pigeon holed in their mechanical, electrical, computer/IT or civil engineering silo, but one with a total systems approach using local resources for; design, integration, build and delivery - A new age of Engineering Systems Architects.

Dr John Counsell
Senior Lecturer University of Liverpool
Dr Counsell currently works closely with BRE, Arup and Peel Utilities on research in the design of resilient Local Energy Systems.