In the three part Channel 4 series The Great British Power Trip, Guy Martin takes a cross-country trip to learn more about the history, present, and potential future of British energy. From inside the boiler at the country’s largest power station, to the top of the highest pylons, to the most advanced nuclear fusion lab in the world, he will work hands-on at every stage of the energy production process.
Here Guy tells all about blowing up the Eggborough Power Plant? and driving a van running on biofuel.
Tell me how the show came about?
I originally wanted to do something about how renewable energy worked because I was sceptical about it – installing wind turbines off-shore and importing solar panels from China felt energy-intensive to me. Then we had this energy crisis business and so we went from covering renewables to all forms of power why our electricity bills are so dear.
Have you changed the way you use energy since you started the show?
I’m northern so I’m always saying ‘turn those lights off!’ I’ve always kept costs down by heating the house on waste oil and by burning wood. Since we made the series I’ve got a lot of batteries and solar panels.
Now you’ve seen the effort that goes into creating energy are you more careful with how you use it?
When we finished making the programme, and I’d seen lots spent on power generation and how complicated the infrastructure is, in some ways I couldn’t believe how cheap and easy to access electricity is.
I went down to the National Grid Control Centre just outside of London and there are a hundred people working in there, they have a load armed security and and every little detail is immaculate. Then we flew with the helicopter team who inspect electricity pylons every single day. Then you go to Drax or Sellafield and the numbers involved in logistics, storage, staff are staggering. I hadn’t thought about any of that before, so it amazes me how cheap electricity is. But in the same breath, I’m still first to be whinging about my electric bill.
You investigated all sort of power sources, which one fascinated you?
The world’s biggest tidal power generator up in Orkney got me proper excited. Tides can be predicted years in advance and are going back and forth all the time with amazing force – sticking a generator in the middle of them is such a simple way of making power.
How did it feel to detonate and destroy an iconic structure like Eggborough Power Plant?
It was an amazing honour to set the big bang off and press the button. It was just a job that needed doing! It surprised me that power stations like that have a lifespan and at the end of that lifespan they blow them up, because it’s safer than sending in workers to start dismantling knackered old buildings.
What was it like watching it disappear before your eyes?
Bloody hell. Just the energy. The part that I played was a tiny part. It was a steel structure holding up a concrete building and they had been there three weeks before plugging all the weak spots in all these steel structures and putting all the explosives in the right place. It was a very calculated affair. Nobody on the explosives crew is ever that keen to press “fire” but I said I didn’t mind.
How worried were you about the UK’s energy crisis before you started investigating and how do you feel now?
I was worried because I’m always looking at my energy bill. Now I’ve been on the inside, I’ve seen how the National Grid is 99.999 per cent reliable, so I know they’ve got that covered and we aren’t going to start getting blackouts. They have 6 different ways of forecasting electricity usage based on the weather, human behaviour, news events or whatever, so they basically know you’re going to put the kettle on before you do. That lets them cue up enough power stations to deliver power the very second we need it. They have a plan for everything that could possibly go wrong.
How do you think our homes will be powered in the future?
The only realistic thing is a big mixture of everything. No energy source is the perfect answer – wind farms are great, but sometimes the wind doesn’t blow. Solar is great, but the sun sets every day. Nuclear produces loads of power, but costs loads of money to build. So you need a mix of all to make sure the pros are covering the cons.
What is it like driving your van using biofuel, also known as HVO?
We filled my van up with it and it was great! But it’s a third more expensive than diesel so it’s not really going to stand up. Growing crops to make fuel? What are we doing?
You’ve talked about owning electric cars – is the infrastructure supportive enough for electric cars?
I’m four years into owning electric cars and the infrastructure is crap. We had a Honda that we did 32,000 miles in and now we have this Volvo that’s done 20,000 miles so that’s 50,000 miles that would have been done burning fossil fuels, so they do have their place. But the infrastructure is not there. Me and my partner Sharon went to Rock City to go and watch a band in the Volvo and didn’t have enough time to charge the car fully to get to Nottingham and back. We had to drive there and all the way back in late December with no heating on in the car because soon as you put the heating on you lose 50 miles off the range.
You accompany some National Grid linesmen 45metres up an electricity pylon on the show – what was that like?
That was bloody brilliant. I’m always a bit nervous of heights but the lads that I was doing it with were so at ease. They asked if I could talk to camera and I was sitting right on the earth wire with my legs dangling, just talking to a drone!
Tell us about the helicopter safety training where you had to learn to escape underwater so you could visit the wind turbines?
It was a bit dramatic when I got my foot stuck in a strap trying to get out but really there was no issue. No one was dying. I’ve been doing stupid things for a long time and I know when to panic.
Do you like flying in helicopters?
I don’t really go in helicopters. I’ve been rescued three or four times in an air ambulance if that counts.
Was the scale of the windfarms amazing close up?
We went to Hornsea 2, currently the biggest wind farm in the world, just off the East Yorkshire coast. To fly from on end to the other in a fast helicopter took 20 minutes – when I first clapped eyes on it all I could do was swear in amazement. When you’re on top of a turbine, you can’t see the one furthest away because of the curvature of the Earth.
Nuclear power is amazing but can be very dangerous, what did you think of the safety measures at Hinkley Point C?
The health and safety measures blew me away at every power plant we went to. I’ve never seen safety like it at Hinkley Point C – the nuclear regulator makes them build big stuff twice, once as a rehearsal to prove they know what they’re doing safely, then they build the real thing. Even if one wire fixing, the size of a shoelace, is wrong, they will condemn the entire building and start again. That’s why it takes 10 years to build a nuclear power station.
How did it feel using robotic arms to handle the nuclear matter like Homer Simpson?
Bloody hell! I couldn’t believe they let me do that. Sweeping the floor up in the reactor disassembly plant. I was blown away. I’m sure every bit of health and safety said that you shouldn’t just let some d***head off the street come in and start mucking about with your robotic arms but I was chuffed they let me have a go.
If the government asked you which power source to invest in what would you say?
Nuclear fusion! More research, more people, because when that happens, electricity will be so cheap. All the eggs should be in that basket. And it will be like a space race – invest in real high-tech stuff like that and you don’t know what spin-off benefits will be found on the way to making it all work. What will the next non-stick frying pan be?
Would you like to take part in any Celebrity reality shows?
No! I don’t want to be famous. People become TV presenters because they want to be famous. Then they’ll go and do Dancing On Ice because they’re running out of fame. I don’t really want a profile. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t measure my success in life by the number of Twitter followers I’ve got.
So you won’t be on the BBC doing a tango?
I don’t need loads of money, I’m quite happy doing what I do! I don’t have a rock and roll lifestyle. Yes, I’ve got a big shed but I’ve got a two-bedroom house, I don’t want fame… I’m a farmer. I just want my ploughing to get better.
Guy Martin’s The Great British Power Trip airs soon on Channel 4.