Football fans across the country have been busy this week stocking up their fridges and hanging out their St George’s flags ready for the start of the World Cup. But while most will be sitting down to enjoy England’s first group game on Saturday night; electrical engineers up and down the UK are keeping a watchful eye on the tournament for an entirely different reason – ‘television pickup’.

The World Cup attracts some of the highest viewing figures of any major sporting event or ceremony and with that comes an unprecedented rise in the demand for electricity. An estimated 13.5 million people in the UK saw England crash out of the World Cup in 2010, losing 4-1 to Germany. Viewing figures reached a peak of 17.5 million during that game but it wasn’t enough to eclipse the largest TV pickup ever recorded, which occurred at the 1990 World Cup when England lost to Germany in a penalty shootout.


The phenomenon is often attributed to viewers who get up during the advert breaks to get a beer from the fridge, flush the loo, or make a cup of tea. There’s a common misconception that the number one driver of TV pickup is the use of kettles up and down the country being switched on at the same time by viewers using the interval to make a hot drink. In fact, this only creates a pull on the local network for a short period of time until the water has boiled and can therefore be managed relatively easily by engineers. Flushing the toilet causes a surge at our local water pumping station, as the pumps start up to refill our cisterns, and opening the fridge door means that cold air escapes and the refrigerator’s compressor then spends the next 20 minutes driving the warm air out to bring the temperature back to normal. These loads are more problematic and mean that getting a beer from the fridge or getting the milk out for tea or coffee demands more energy and is therefore more of a concern for network operators that need to make sure this demand is catered for.


National Grid operates Britain’s electricity transmission system and manages power surges by lining up big hydro power stations before big events so they can offer an immediate response and provisions of electricity when needed. The same process applied back in 1990, and despite the strides forward we’ve made in the development of new and innovative smart grid solutions, as a nation we are not quite ready to handle TV pickup and other demand surges in any other way.


The integration of new smart grid technologies such as energy storage and demand side response initiatives could change all that, though. Across the UK there are many exciting trials that I’ve been involved in aimed at testing these solutions to see if they could help facilitate the transition to a low carbon economy. So instead of relying solely on power stations, we’re aiming to move into an age where the supply and demand for electricity is managed by control systems that can supply power when and where it is needed through a mixture of demand response measures, energy storage devices and renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power. Achieving this diversity in our energy mix would make the grid greener and more efficient and the benefit to consumers is that it could also mean cheaper energy bills.


Brazil 2014 has come too soon, unfortunately, so we’ll be relying on the traditional methods to keep our TVs, kettles and fridges working properly. If England do find themselves in a penalty shootout after the group stages it’s a very real possibility that we could even see a new TV pickup record being set. So if it does happen and you make a quick dash to the fridge, spare a thought for the engineers working hard to make sure its contents stay as cool as we hope England’s penalty takers will be.

Dave A Roberts is Future Networks Director at EA Technology