Here’s a draft proposal for a computer science group project that I’m thinking of submitting…

Could we power the entire of the UK electricity grid on renewables alone? What about a mixture of nuclear and renewables? How much would this scenario cost to build? Or what about going to the other extreme and switching our power generation to 100% coal? What implications would that have?

Discussions about energy are becoming quite common in the media. Questions like those listed above are frequently asked but it’s hard to find good answers. One of the big problems in communicating energy issues to the wider public is that people have little sense of the scales involved.

The aim of this project will be to build a kind of “SimCity” game to allow members of the public to explore different energy scenarios for the UK (or for the whole world if you’re feeling very ambitious!). Users would be allowed to input any scenario and the game would simulate the consequences. Points are lost for triggering power blackouts or excessive environmental damage. A random selection of things you could play with (none of these are compulsory!):

  • variables that users can modify (the range limits for each variable should be physically realistic; e.g. don’t allow users to add more off-shore wind turbines than we have available coastline):
    • power generation mix (x% renewables, y% nuclear, z% gas etc.)
    • grid storage (electric car batteries etc)
    • modifications to load (Add 10 million electric cars? Replace 50% of the nation’s gas boilers with ground source heat pumps? Replace all incandescent lights with LEDs?)
    • population
    • remove / add industrial users like steel fabrication works etc
  • Output the financial and environmental implications for each user defined scenario
  • simulate grid load based on historical power data (see the section below on “Sources of data”) and add simulations for likely future trends like efficient lighting, electric cars and electrified heating
  • Add a “disaster” button which randomly throws in extreme events like very cold winters, floods or terrorism knocking out large numbers of power stations, sudden price spikes in the cost of gas / uranium / oil.
  • Automatically generate alarmist tabloid headlines(!) (e.g. see the “Daily Mail-o-Matic” automatic headline generator)
  • Include “pre-set” scenarios e.g. energy scenarios from various political party’s manifestos and from groups like Greenpeace (is it really practical to turn off all nuclear?)
  • Automatically generate scenarios which optimise certain criteria (e.g. a user could opt to minimise cost or minimise environmental impact)
  • You could use Sankey diagrams to visualise the flow of energy through the system, see these examples of energy use in 2007 and projected use in 2050.

Scope of this project

One of the fun but dangerous aspects of this project is that you could easily spend many years developing this project. But, on the other hand, you can make significant progress with nothing more complex than an Excel spreadsheet. In other words: the scope of the project can scale from relatively simple to a huge beast. My recommendation would be to start with relatively modest ambitions and add complexity only if time allows.

Sources of data and information

  • Prof David MacKay’s excellent book “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” (available free online and I have a paper copy I can lend you)
  • DECC’s “2050 pathways calculator” and the associated My2050 game - see the comments for some discussion of DECC’s “My2050” game; and many thanks to Oli for mentioning My2050!
  • We have been collecting power data from 5 homes, including from many individual appliances.
  • The UK government have collected individual appliance power data from 250 homes in their Household Electricity Study.
  • AMEE - free data on the environmental cost of lots of products and actions