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Activism

What is the Big Power Off and what could it mean for your energy bills?

Social media users are urging each other to join in The Big Power Off. But what’s it all about?

On April 10, social media users were encouraged to switch their power off for ten minutes, between 10pm and 10.10pm, in a collective protest against the rising cost of energy and wider cost of living crisis. In what has been dubbed, the Big Power Off, this action aimed to generate enough of an imbalance in the National Grid that it would garner attention from the government and push them into providing support.

Another Big Power Off protest has already been planned for next weekend, on April 16 at 7pm, with the goal of disrupting power supplies and damaging companies where it matters the most – their bottom line.

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What is the Big Power Off?

The Big Power Off was initially organised by the Sheffield branch of Disabled People Against Cuts, a disability rights group formed in 2010 after mass protests against austerity and its impact on disabled people.

The first Big Power Off was organised for April 1, the day that household costs were set to increase significantly overnight, including energy bills. In fact, the 54 per cent increase in the energy price cap from Ofgem led to nearly a £700 annual increase in energy bills for many Britons.

Organisers are encouraging people to turn off their power for 10 minutes in protest of these rising costs in what they’ve called a “non-partisan action protest”. It’s hoped that this action – which has also been described as a more inclusive form of protest – will cause disarray for both utility companies and the National Grid by providing an imbalance in energy consumption.

How does The Big Power Off work?

The National Grid operates on a ‘balancing mechanism’ when it comes to energy input and output. Simply put, the amount of energy going into the National Grid has to equal the amount of energy going out. But because this isn’t always the case, the balancing mechanism exists to fill the gap.

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When a change in energy use is small, the balancing mechanism can fill this gap without major issue or cost. But when the changes in energy are significantly bigger, the National Grid has to front the cost of balancing energy input and output, paying energy companies to amp up the power supply if needed. In December 2021, LCP Energy Analytics found that the cost of the UK’s balancing mechanism reached £967 million between September and November 2021.

And so a mass of people switching their power off for ten minutes and then back on, all at the same time, could cause a power surge which has the potential to be quite costly to the National Grid..

This is something that the grid already has to face with what it calls the “TV pickup” effect, which happens when large numbers of viewers go to make a cup of tea or open the fridge in the ad break of a popular TV event, for example, during the England v Germany EUROs 2020 football match.

Will The Big Power Off actually work?

An Energy Guide spokesperson told the Big Issue that the Big Power Off protests may cause some “significant inconvenience” but “in reality they [National Grid] can likely cope quite well with such a move, since they are already used to dealing with surges in demand. For instance, when millions of people tune in to watch certain TV shows.” Yet, it may still prove quite the costly feat for the grid if these protests become a regular occurrence.

They went on to say that “the Big Power Off Protests is a great way for everyone to show solidarity at their frustrations with the current energy/cost of living crisis.”

A National Grid ESO spokesperson told ITV that the protest had no “noticeable impact” and they don’t anticipate any similar events in the future causing issues.

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Why is it happening?

The cost of living crisis has significantly impacted UK households since April 1, with energy bills making up a large proportion of the increase in living costs. In fact, National Energy Action estimated that 16 per cent of UK households were already in fuel poverty, and with the increase in price cap this will likely jump to 24 per cent – almost a quarter of all households unable to adequately heat their homes.

The government is giving households a £150 council tax rebate for April to cover some of the costs and will also give households a £200 “discount” – a loan to be paid back over five years – on energy bills this October. But many experts have warned the government that this won’t be enough to support people through the cost of living crisis.

On April 11, the value of the state pension and benefits fell to their lowest point in 50 years, with benefits rising by 3.1 per cent but everyday prices rising by as much as 8 per cent, leaving many on low and middle incomes in a worse off position with the rise in benefits translating as a real terms cut.

The Big Power Off protests aim to highlight the rising costs for so many households, allow people to stand in solidarity with each other, and attempt to disrupt the market in an effort to attract the attention of utility companies and the government.

How could the Big Power Off make a change?

This isn’t the first time that switching off power has been used as a form of protest. Last month, Spain – another country dealing with a cost of living crisis – also experienced these silent protests as inflation rose to 6.1 per cent and soaring energy costs swept across Europe.

On 10 March, households in Spain turned their power off for ten minutes and successfully pushed their Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez into agreeing a package of emergency measures. The economic measures include €6 billion in direct aid and tax breaks, €10 billion in loans for families and businesses, rent increases limited to 2 per cent, and a 15 per cent increase in benefits.

Organisers of the Big Power Off in the UK are hoping to emulate the Spanish success by also pushing the government into providing emergency measures to reduce energy costs for all households.

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