The Problem With Lots of People Drinking Lots of Tea

Tea drinking is a cultural touchstone of Great Britain and has been for centuries. Over the years, the traditional stovetop teakettle has fallen from favor, with the electric kettle—which plugs into the wall and heats up much more quickly—taking its place. In general, the electric kettle has few downsides relative to its predecessor.

Unless there’s something important on TV.

On July 4, 1990, England and Germany confronted one another in the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup, the quadrennial soccer tournament. The winner would face off against Argentina in the finals; the loser went to the consolation/third-place match against host Italy. At the end of regulation and extra-time, the two countries were tied, 1–1. The match went to a penalty kick shootout, and England’s fans sat on the edges of their seats watching.

Germany prevailed, disappointing millions of British. And many sought solace—a bit of it, at least—in a fresh cup of tea. So they took to the electric kettles, turning on approximately a million of them, all within a few minutes of each other. Suddenly, the British National Grid—the electricity network—was being asked to provide a massive amount of power, all on a moment’s notice.

This phenomenon, called a “TV pickup,” is unique to the United Kingdom. More than 2,500 megawatts of additional power may be needed—that’s roughly the equivalent of firing up three nuclear power plants, to capacity, immediately. And, according to the BBC, to time the need properly, an engineer at the National Grid Control Centre is assigned to watch TV. Some of the most popular shows, such as the soap opera EastEnders (and of course, soccer matches) do not end at a specific time, as the BBC at times fails to adhere to its schedule.

To compensate for the tea-driven energy needs, the UK has two on-demand power sources. First, France has provided as much as 600 MW of power at times. And second, there’s the Dinorwig Power Station in North Wales, a hydroelectric plant. Dinorwig, typically, is idle, and therefore produces no electrical output. But when needed, the water stored in the reservoir above it is released, allowing the power station to produce up to 1,800 MW in roughly sixteen seconds. Combined with other at-the-ready power plants, the National Grid has been able to mostly handle the nationwide impromptu tea times.

Television-viewing habits gave the phenomenon its name, but the National Grid has to prepare for other situations—and in one case, more so than at any other time. The World Cup match required an additional 2,800 MW of power, a television-related record. But on August 11, 1999, the grid requirements surged by 3,000 MW. The cause? The first visible solar eclipse in nearly seventy-five years. Apparently, the best way to experience space and soccer alike is with a nice cup of tea.

Bonus fact: Turning off power seems like a great way to save energy, but there are exceptions. In 2007, organizers of both the UK’s “Live Earth” concert and the BBC’s “Planet Earth” celebration wanted to get British citizens to participate in what they called the “big switch-off.” Everyone would be encouraged to simultaneously power down to symbolically demonstrate energy conservation needs. The National Grid objected, noting that the “switch-off” may have actually created environmental harm. As reported by the BBC, the experts at the Grid reasoned that “the unpredictability of demand during such an event could mean some people losing their electricity supply and even raise the danger of emitting more carbon dioxide rather than less.”

From the Archives: The Internet’s Hidden Teapot: A strange bit of Internet history.