Sustainability First Blog

JUL
22

Resilience: time for a new approach?

  No one wants power cuts, water restrictions or sewer flooding.    Equally, a one-hundred per cent service guarantee is neither feasible nor affordable. Drawing on the latest New-Pin discussion paper on Long-run resilience in energy and water, Sharon Darcy explains why approaches to resilience that focus on risk management and adaptive planning are becoming increasingly important.

Until recently, most discussions about resilience in energy and water were largely focused on the reliability of infrastructure and the security of big bits of kit.  This mirrored the frequently traditional approach to ensuring resilience through supply side solutions where ‘hard’ engineering interventions were able to bring a degree of certainty to service delivery.

Led by the energy sector, ‘softer’ demand side approaches are now getting more traction, along with an increasing focus on consumer and commercially led solutions that can help to address the supply / demand balance in a sustainable way.  Some people argue that demand-side measures may turn out to be less dependable than those on the supply side. But, faced with uncertainty about the future, demand-side developments may also offer diversity and flexibility for both sectors.

As approaches to resilience have evolved, so too has the way in which the issue is ‘framed’ in discussions.  There is now broad agreement that as well as having a technical dimension, resilience also has social and environmental dimensions, for example, which recognise that energy and water are part of wider services and systems.

Climate and technological change, and the significant unknowns these bring, are driving new ways of thinking about resilience in energy and water.  Most visibly, this can be seen through the impact of extreme risks - such as intense rainfall leading to flooding, or thinking on cyber crime. Responses to each are highly dependent on effective approaches to public communication.

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APR
22

‘Public interest’ use of household smart meter energy data

Sustainability First launched a short ‘research challenge’ last year, together with the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol and the academic network, TEDDINET.  We asked two university researchers – Simon Elam from UCL and Jess Britton from Exeter University- to look at the ‘public interest’ agenda for smart meter data.

Most current thinking about smart data is focused on commercial innovation by energy companies and others - but we may miss an opportunity. For the first time, in every home, accurate time-related energy-use data will be recorded at the meter (half-hourly for electricity and daily for gas).  Smart meter data could clearly serve a wider ‘public interest’ agenda in many helpful ways. But, with much effort rightly being devoted to getting the smart-meter roll-out ‘right’, a wider public benefit dimension does not currently get the attention it deserves.  That is why we launched our challenge.

We have now published the excellent papers that Simon and Jess have written.  Here is a taster of their findings.

What might an improved energy usage evidence base deliver for different actors?

Better targeted advice - nationally, locally - for consumers & households.For government: improvements to energy models and demand-side inputs, to evidence-based energy policy; to better targeted interventions. Better evaluation of outcomes: for the fuel poor, for energy efficiency, heat, self-generation, including the distributional impacts of policy.For energy companies, networks and regulators: better-targeted investment for smart grid and smart energy systems and community energy projects.For cities: better evidence to support local energy schemes, to target energy efficiency, to plan and develop infrastructure for electric cars, for heat, for housing development.Better-targeted local services for the elderly, the fuel poor, young families, students; and better-informed partnerships - with social landlords, the health agencies.Better insights from academic research and the not-for-profit sector.

Today’s official data for energy consumption remains fairly basic, being derived from customers’ anonymised annual consumption figures. Local-level data, and some limited half-hourly data from trials, is also available. Today’s annual consumption data can also link to other data sets: for example, on the housing stock, demographic or deprivation data.

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APR
11

Trust: on tap and down the pipes and wires?

It’s an old adage that trust is hard won and easily lost.  But what does this mean in the energy and water sectors?  Sustainability First’s lead associate on the New-Pin project, Sharon Darcy, summarises a major new policy paper and the Network’s February workshop on trust and confidence in energy and water.

Trust is a relational concept.   Based on an assessment of ability, motivation and integrity, it is built up over time.  It is not something mechanistic or transactional that can be dictated or reset at the behest of a single actor. In energy & water, trust is built on a complex web of dynamic relationships between consumers / the public, companies, investors, government and regulators.  There are strong inter-dependencies here.  Problems with trust in one area can have knock-on impacts on trust in the ‘system,’ creating a context where confidence can easily be undermined.

Trust can mean different things to different stakeholders. To have trust in energy and water companies, consumers generally want quality and resilient services and value for money; getting these right first time is important.  Given the long-term social and environmental impacts the sectors can have, the wider public may also expect a voice in these services and the systems that they are part of.

People understand that problems with services can sometimes happen. How companies and others respond to events is key.   Being proactive, open and honest in the face of unplanned disruptions, for example, can actually build trust between companies and customers.

If service providers handle these things badly, however, the public may take a greater interest in ‘aggravator’ factors such as lack of choice or poor market behaviour.  Whilst competition can help build confidence by putting a downward pressure on costs, the complex disaggregated value chains in energy retail markets, for example – and different views on profits and costs – can erode trust.

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JAN
19

Keeping future energy and water bills affordable

Following a workshop of New-Pin sponsors and supporters in October, Sustainability First has published the first of its major New-Pin policy papers, on long-term affordability.  Sharon Darcy, Sustainability First’s lead associate on the project, summarises the paper below.

Robust energy and water services are essential for individual and environmental health and vital for a strong economy.  Although a significant minority of people currently struggle to pay their bills, we all have an interest in ensuring bills are affordable, fair and acceptable – both for today and tomorrow.

In the coming decade, two thirds of the projected investments in the energy sector and nearly all of the projected investments in the water sector will be met through consumer bills.   At the same time, some are predicting that households in low-income groups may see their incomes decline.

Looking ahead, the energy sector faces a step change in costs as it seeks to cut its climate emissions and weather proof its services.  There is significant uncertainty around future wholesale costs, the price of carbon, and the effectiveness of energy efficiency measures that are designed to offset these. If this uncertainty leads to a delay in low carbon investments, risks and costs could increase, potentially making energy even less affordable for future generations.

In water, costs are likely to increase more incrementally and be driven by the need to adapt to both droughts and floods.  However, the ‘unprecedented’ weather of recent weeks is a sobering lesson that the future is not always the same as the past. Key uncertainties are around the scale of future sewerage costs and the quantity and quality of water resources.

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JAN
11

Good Reasons for Sceptics and Deniers to Support Renewables

A perspective from Sustainability First’s Chair of Trustees The vast majority of the thousands of scientists around the world who have studied climate change confirm that man is by far the most likely culprit and that the problem has to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The 2015 Paris Climate Summit with around 200 nations represented also accepted this position, and the pressing nature of the threat.   Despite the now high level of agreement, there are still a number of sceptics and deniers who are often given airtime for views that often have little basis in scientific evidence.

However, there are good reasons to support a shift to renewable energy and cutting emissions, which should convince even the most contrary of the contrarians to support a new approach to energy supply. An economy based on renewables would herald wider changes, especially by giving communities more control.

A shift to renewables has a number of collateral benefits:

First, renewable energy not only produces fewer greenhouse gases, but is also far less polluting at local level. Smog in China and the levels of nitrous oxide and particulates in urban environments across Europe have recently been recognised as real threats to health. The simple fact of the matter is that burning of fossil fuels adds to the pollution of all environments to a greater or lesser extent and increasingly poses a real threat to human health.

Second, a switch to renewables also changes the whole nature of power distribution and depends upon much more localised production. This shifts us away from the top down grid system and gives power back (literally) to individuals, social enterprises and communities. This is especially important in developing countries and rural areas where power grids either do not exist or connection is prohibitively expensive. Renewables can actually become part of the local economy. It also engages people in their local environment and begins to reconnect them to natural processes which have been lost in much of our recent development.  A lot of the sceptics and deniers seem to disapprove of state intervention and support calls for a ‘smaller state’ – well here is their chance to commit to the devolution of power.

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DEC
15

Looking over the horizon - together

Sustainability First’s New Energy and Water Public Interest Network (New-Pin) has been set up to explore the long-term public interest in the energy and water sectors.   This rather begs the question: what is the public interest and how can such an amorphous concept be of any use when making real decisions?

Discussions about energy and water services in GB have frequently focused on consumer interests.  In the early days following privatisation, these tended to be interpreted as the interests of current consumers and were often viewed as short term and transactional.

Things have changed in more recent years with regulatory duties being extended to include the interests of future consumers, sustainability and most recently in water, resilience.   Unlike in Ofcom, however, the remits of Ofgem and Ofwat have not been extended to include the interests of citizens.

Several trends are now starting to blur the differences between these different groups.  As policy costs are increasingly met through bills rather than taxation, what is a consumer versus citizen issue may become less clear-cut.  Digital technologies are also changing boundaries.  With social media, you no longer need to be a customer of a company to express your views and have a direct impact.  An increasing interest in localism, regionalism and nationalism is raising questions about identity and what sort of services different communities want.  This is coinciding, particularly in the energy sector, with the emergence of new technologies that enable people to join together to generate their own supplies or to become individual ‘pro-sumers’.

Given these changes, thinking of the public interest as an amalgam of consumer, citizen, environment and investor interests may be sensible.  The timescale over which the public interest is viewed would also seem important.

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DEC
03

Sustainability First is fifteen

Sustainability First celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2015 with a reception at the House of Lords, kindly hosted by Lord Teverson.   We were delighted to see so many partners and colleagues join us for this event.  As part of the proceedings, we asked five key players in the sustainability arena (Simon Roberts, Cathryn Ross, David Baldock, Simon Anderson and Pip Roddis) to give us one big or new idea on what is needed to tackle sustainability over the next fifteen years, which those attending voted on.  We have now published a pamphlet (also available at http://www.sustainabilityfirst.org.uk/index.php/other-publications) containing their contributions as a way of sharing these thoughts with colleagues who were not able to be present.To whet your appetite, here is a shortened version of the introduction to the pamphlet by the Chair of our trustees, Ted Cantle:“At Sustainability First we like to think of ourselves as a ‘think-tank’s think-tank’. Whilst we don’t shout from the roof tops, we continue to have credibility and influence, driven by our expertise and the substantive contribution we make. We provide authoritative, in-depth research that helps shape ideas early on, often choosing areas that are overlooked by mainstream policy circles or that require substantial thought to progress. We have been at the forefront of thinking in some key areas, most notably on the energy demand side; sustainability and regulation, customer engagement, and smart meters, smart grid and energy savings.“We have also developed new thinking on long term issues for the water sector.“Fifteen years is a long time in sustainability.“We were established in the year 2000, which is just a blink of an eye in environmental terms, yet since this time we have seen some amazing changes, not least in the use of technology. The next fifteen years will witness huge changes again and will herald some important national and global decisions on how we deal with energy demand, climate change and environmental degradation. This year itself is a crucial one for the environment, with the UN climate summit in Paris and new Sustainable Development Goals.“We hope that Sustainability First will continue to weave its magic behind the scenes during the next fifteen years. We still maintain a very active interest in the energy demand-side and how that will play out in terms of practical implementation.  Much of our work over the next fifteen years will focus on the long-term public interest, both in energy and water, with a current focus on the New Energy and Water Public Interest Network (New-Pin), which brings public interest groups together with regulators and companies to develop a more clearly-articulated ‘public interest voice’ to underpin both the short-run operation and the long-run investment programmes of the water and energy sectors.“We sincerely hope to be able to celebrate Sustainability First’s next fifteen years with you all in 2030. Or, if not, that by then sustainability issues are so mainstream that the organisation is no longer needed.”
JAN
26

Customer-Led Network Revolution reports important new results

Apologies to our readers for a quiet autumn on the Sustainability First blog.  This was largely due to a concentration of work supporting the completion of Northern Powergrid’s smart grid project, the Customer-Led Network Revolution (CLNR).CLNR is a £54 million project, part-funded through the Low Carbon Network Fund, led by Northern Powergrid, with partners British Gas, Durham and Newcastle Universities and EA Technology.  It explored combinations of smart network technology, smart meters and appliances, and different customer incentives to find cost-effective solutions to operating an electricity network in a low carbon economy.  Sustainability First has been involved from the outset in several ways.  Northern Powergrid has been a key sponsor of our GB Electricity Demand Project, and thinking on the two projects has run in parallel.  We have provided an expert challenge role to the project to help ensure robust findings that take account of similar work done elsewhere.  And we have produced several one-off pieces of work such as our report on customer recruitment challenges and a report on lessons from the installation of smart appliances and monitoring equipment.This highly ambitious project has finally reached its conclusion and published a set of key reports that set out its findings (CLNR-L246 - domestic and SME customers, CLNR-L247 – industrial and commercial customers, and CLNR-L248 – optimal network solutions provide a comprehensive overview).  They are all well worth a read.There are a number of important findings of relevance to demand-side response.  DSR trials were successfully carried out with a range of industrial and commercial customers and Northern Powergrid will now be seeking to use DSR as the first choice option for addressing network constraints.  On the domestic side, CLNR was able to analyse the electricity demand profiles of a wide range of domestic smart meter users.  The analysis revealed a relatively consistent annual average demand across the different domestic demographic groups, with much higher variability within groups than between them, although there were clear differences on daily use profiles between different socio-economic groups.Time of use tariffs were popular with and easily understood by domestic customers, where the majority saved money (60%) and average demand in the 4pm to 8pm peak was up to about 10% lower than the control group, who had smart meters but a flat rate tariff. Interestingly, though, there was little difference in peak demand between the two groups on the days of highest network demand.  The trial provided a safety net for the 40% that did not save money, and they were guaranteed to pay no more than a standard flat tariff.The restricted hours and direct control trials tested customers’ willingness to accept a time-based restriction on the use of a smart heat pump or washing machine. The technology was proven, but the benefit from smart washing machines was limited and whilst the heat pumps successfully reduced peak load by 2.5 kW, there were technical issues and problems of customer acceptability.These reports are now available for consultation and peer review until 20 February.  The findings will need to be assessed alongside the emerging findings from the other LCNF projects.  It is a mark of a ground-breaking smart grid project that it raises new questions as well as providing answers, and there are plenty of areas that now need further investigation as well as those findings that can, and will, be applied straight away.Jon BirdAssociate
OCT
08

How can households participate in the demand-side electricity markets?

Sustainability First’s GB Electricity Demand Project, a major three year study into the demand-side electricity markets is drawing to a close.  Looking back over the three years or so of the project, it is clear how much the electricity demand-side has risen up the energy policy agenda over that time and how our understanding has developed.  While others are now working on different aspects of the subject, notably a team with wide industry involvement under Ofgem’s leadership in Workstream Six of the Smart Grid Forum, Sustainability First’s recent  Paper 12, on how households can participate in the demand-side market, continues to break new ground, raising issues that will require more detailed attention if this market is to develop successfully.  In this and the next few blog items, we shall be looking at these findings.The analysis in this paper leads us to the conclusion that, in the period up to 2020, the largest overall value from the demand-side rests in the wholesale electricity markets (ie in avoiding the cost of expensive on-peak generation), but that this value has yet to be unlocked to any significant extent.  Once customers have smart meters, the opportunity is there for suppliers to offer time of use tariffs for peak avoidance.  The problem is that for individual households, other than those using on-peak electric heating, the ability currently to shift load and therefore to cut bills is limited.  After 2020, there will be a significantly higher proportion of inflexible electricity generation.  Together with the widespread use of smart meters and the potential for modest adaptations to settlement, and, perhaps, eventual half-hourly settlement for domestic customers, the opportunities for domestic customers will grow.  In addition to benefiting from exposure to the wholesale market itself, domestic customers, either directly or through the involvement of aggregators, may be able to engage in the capacity and balancing markets.  The opportunities here will significantly add to the value which an individual customer can obtain from their demand-side actions.  Households will also be able to assist distribution networks through DSR, but the opportunities are likely to be very location-specific and the value to a particular household may be relatively modest.  Smart meters could, potentially, also allow domestic customers to reduce the transmission charge part of their bill through TRIAD avoidance.The opportunities for taking part in these markets will certainly exist and the technology for it to happen will also be in place, but are the commercial drivers likely to develop?  Although a number of trials of tariffs and other interventions are currently taking place in projects under the Low Carbon Network Fund and elsewhere, there does not seem to be much appetite by energy suppliers yet to develop commercial DSR offerings to households.  But they will need to develop strategies to deal with the considerable uncertainties they are likely to face in the market going forward.Another important factor that significantly weakens the commercial incentives for suppliers to encourage domestic customers to embrace DSR is the fact that so many individual components of the final electricity bill are socialised. In other words customers pay their suppliers an average price, not the actual cost of providing them with that service.  First, a flat standard p/kWh unit-rate retail tariff makes no distinction between the cost of generating the electricity at different times of day or year. Second, low voltage transportation charges payable by suppliers to distribution networks may vary to some extent between network operators, but within a particular distribution area, distribution charges do not distinguish between rural and urban, or peak and off-peak usage by households.  Third, the government levies on the bill to pay for the Renewable Obligation, the Energy Company Obligation, the small scale Feed-in Tariff and in due course the FIT Contracts for Difference are recovered from customers either as a fixed amount or as a standard p/kWh sum, regardless of a customer’s location or the time of day they use their power.  Only the levy to recover the costs of the capacity market has sought to incorporate in its design some limited peak-related price-signal for suppliers. DECC estimate that the levies will amount to 33% of the bill by 2020 and 41% of the bill by 2030.  This is a very sizeable bundle of charges which are not time-differentiated for suppliers to simply ‘pass through’ to their customers. The sum of these ‘fixed’ charges relative to the differential between on-peak and off-peak prices in wholesale prices risks reducing the overall incentive on suppliers to encourage their customers to take part in DSR.But if electricity prices are perhaps made more cost-reflective, won’t there be losers as well as winners?  And how do we protect those who are less able to change their behaviour?  Would an alternative be simply to ensure that the electricity supply companies become more directly exposed to more cost-reflective and variable versions of these ‘fixed cost’ elements?  This would place the risk of responding to cost-reflective incentives largely with the suppliers - who might be expected to be able to understand and react rationally to these stronger price incentives. These companies, making use of the growing body of understanding of customer behaviour, could then each work out their own best strategies for encouraging DSR among their retail customers.These basic questions of principle regarding development of household DSR markets are ones we shall be addressing in blog items in the coming weeks.
SEP
17

Demand side essential to deal with the energy trilemma

We return after the summer break to a world where there is still no single definition of sustainability that appeals to everyone but where the need to deal with the trilemma of energy security, affordability and climate change remains as important as ever.  On energy security, with two nuclear stations currently offline, fires at Ferrybridge and Ironbridge coal-fired stations and Barking gas-fired station to close, National Grid will have its work cut out this winter. On affordability, Ofgem’s August projection of an average dual fuel bill for the twelve months from August 2014 is £1330.  And Edward Davey’s statement on the Government’s position for the Paris climate change conference shows as strong a commitment as ever to the need to decarbonise the world economy.In each of these areas the demand side has an important, if not essential, part to play.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee launched an inquiry at the beginning of July into demand-side measures with a call for evidence, and it is equally unsurprising that, given the amount of work on the demand side that Sustainability First has undertaken over the last three or so years in its GB Electricity Demand Project that we submitted written evidence to the Inquiry.The Committee took oral evidence in early September and Tim Yeo, the Committee’s chair, has written to Matthew Hancock, the Minister of State at DECC, about steps needed to make DSR a reality in the capacity market.  Our own written evidence to the inquiry provides a useful introduction to the topics dealt with in the most recent twelfth paper from the Electricity Demand Project, on household demand-side participation in the GB electricity markets, that we shall be covering in more detail in our next few blog entries.We told the Committee that, while near-term market interventions for the demand-side in the capacity market and the EDR pilot were clearly important, the findings from the GB Electricity Demand Project suggest that if the electricity system as a whole is to benefit from electricity demand-side measures, then wider and longer-term issues also need to be considered, including in relation to household electricity demand-side measures.Given how much emphasis the Government is placing on energy efficiency measures to reduce the impact of price increases on customers, reducing electricity demand is absolutely central to minimising the increase in electricity system costs and therefore to reducing the impact on customer bills. There are major risks for customers’ bills if we fail to drive forward successfully on product standards and on appliance stock turnover.Modelling for the GB Electricity Demand Project by Brattle has indicated that the technical potential for load shifting across all sectors today may be up to around 18GW out of a total of 54GW on a January weekday winter evening and around 10 GW of 35 GW on an August weekend evening. In the business sector, commercial conditions and market arrangements are developing and there is growing interest in load turn-down and turn-up solutions in addition to the previous emphasis on embedded generation. But, for the household sector, which represents around one-half of winter-evening peak load, there is still some way to go before there is sufficient commercial interest from market actors plus more demand-side ‘pull’ from customers and consumers themselves.Demand-side response is increasingly useful to all parts of the electricity value chain:  by electricity suppliers to avoid the need for expensive power generation at peak times and / or low-wind periods and to avoid the risk of costly ‘imbalance’ penalties; by distribution network operators to avoid the need to reinforce the network where it is constrained or close to its physical capacity and to keep down the cost for customers who require new connections to the network; as well as the more traditional uses by National Grid for balancing national supply and demand.It will be difficult for domestic customers to engage with DSR unless the actions they take can be measured and they can be properly incentivised to take these actions. Smart meters should provide the means to achieve this. However, this will need to be done with care. Customer incentives for DSR are bound to increase complexity for the end-consumer. And we need to take care to protect those customers, such as the fuel poor and the vulnerable, who may be less able to change their behaviour and may therefore face price increases without the ability to react to such increases.Network operators and third parties will need fair access to end-customers via the smart meter set-up.  Electricity suppliers will be responsible for installing household and small-business smart meters and for communicating with the meter - and with the related switches for appliance control. If companies other than suppliers wish to control customer appliances by making use of the smart meter arrangements and the auxiliary load control switches, then, initially at least, they will need supplier cooperation.Community projects are of great interest in themselves and widely popular. They also provide a useful and enthusiastic test-bed for the introduction of low carbon technologies and experimenting with demand-side response. A number of these projects were reviewed in Paper 10 of the GB Electricity Demand Project.  However, we identified a range of detailed commercial, regulatory and administrative matters that will need to be resolved to enable local matching of supply and demand to become a reality at scale.
JUL
14

Sustainability First and Foremost

In a recent blog, Richard Adams recommends focusing on adaptability as a better defined and more active goal than sustainability. I see his point, but I do not fully agree. Relying on human adaptability is not a sufficient answer to the problems facing the planet. It is necessary, but it will never be sufficient. Sustainability and the delivery of demanding sustainable development goals must still come first. Properly understood sustainability is not a passive concept. It is a call for another industrial revolution.

Adapting as best we can to the many changes taking place in the world around us is of course necessary. For example it is right and proper that the climate change community is devoting increasing attention to the action that needs to be taken around the world to cope with the consequences of the climate change that is already taking place. And enhancing our capacity to make such adaptations - human adaptability - is indeed a vital task.

But many changes to the global environment do not just happen ineluctably through natural processes. Most of the changes currently taking place in the world are caused by human activity and in particular by the remorseless pursuit of economic growth and resource consumption. And since some of these changes are at the same time actively damaging to the global environment and to the future well-being of humanity as a whole we absolutely do need to get our act together globally to alter the direction of some of the changes and mitigate their damaging impacts.

Adaptation by itself is a kind of appeasement of the economic forces that are leading to destruction of the environment. But economic forces are insatiable and can never be appeased. We need to identify and confront these blind forces, to divert them from their destructive pathways and to guide them to a more sustainable future.

Making the transition to a more sustainable world frequently implies incurring some extra cost in the present or short term in order to secure longer term benefits or avoidance of longer term losses. Forestry management provides a good example. There is a growing global demand for timber and other forestry products. But we no longer allow this to lead inexorably to the destruction of the world’s forests, adapting to this loss as best we can. On the contrary sustainable forestry management is now the norm in many parts of the world and is gradually spreading more widely.

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JUL
11

Unless we show adaptability, we will not achieve sustainability

In late June those with an interest in global sustainability may have become aware of the headlines that greeted the publication of the UN’s World Investment Report for 2014. A typical article would be headed “The UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) will fail unless governments and businesses find an extra US$ 2.5 trillion a year to support them.” It would then be pointed out that the predecessor Millennium Development Goals only had a shortfall of $120 billion a year leaving readers to draw their own conclusions, conclusions which no doubt would feature a meditation on the theme ‘hope springs eternal in the human breast’.

Over the last 15 years I’ve become less certain about what sustainability is. It’s not that there is a shortage of definitions or a poor supply of related economic models, business practice or even supporting political theory. My problem is that, by most measures, our world – specifically the great majority of humanity – continues to augment the way they live in a style that negate the definitions. I am beginning to wonder whether our focus on sustainability is the right approach.

Sustainability is a word that implies continuity, it’s a rather comfortable, passive, plodding sort of word. In evolutionary terms any life form that concentrated on sustainability would probably become extinct. Perhaps we should be paying greater attention to a more functional adjective, adaptability. The big advantage of adaptability is that it can be defined relatively easily and doesn’t need to have goals or objectives – which themselves become the subject of intense debate and dispute. Adaptability is itself the goal, the objective, the ability of an entity or organism to alter itself or its responses to the changed circumstances or environment.

In fact much of the work undertaken by Sustainability First has pointed to adaptability as the key to sustainability itself – a necessary precursor. Unless we, as individuals or organisations, have the capacity to change then treading lightly on the earth or meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs will remain wishful thinking.

Richard Adams

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JUN
28

More needs to be done to break down the barriers community energy projects face

With levels of confidence in the Big Six energy providers close to an all-time low, it is perhaps not surprising that increased attention is being given to how to help community energy projects establish themselves.  DECC published their Community Energy Strategy in January this year, which was a promising start but only indicated what more needed to be done if these sorts of projects were to attract wider support.  And this week, on 25 June, environmental law organisation, ClientEarth, published Community Power: Model legal frameworks for citizen-owned renewable energy, which argues that community power is an essential element in Europe’s low carbon energy transition and needs the legal and regulatory measures to realise that potential.  All of which suggests that it would be useful and timely to reprise the conclusions of Paper 10 of SF’s GB Electricity Demand Project:  The Electricity Demand-Side and Local Energy, published in January this year.

The paper explored the intuitive premise that underpins many community projects - that it would be somehow “better” if local demand for electricity could be met by local generation of electricity - but took this a stage further by recognising that this local matching has also benefits for the rest of the electricity system and therefore could earn income as well as creating a cheaper local source of power.  Being able to reduce local peak demand (net of local generation) at a particular location has benefit to the local electricity distribution network operator in avoiding the need for network reinforcement.  And reducing net local demand at times when electricity generation costs are high across the overall electricity system has benefit to the electricity suppliers in keeping those costs down.

But can these benefits be realised? The paper reviewed a number of community demand-side case studies, from the Ashton Hayes low energy village through commercial demand-side trials to energy balancing on the Isle of Eigg.  The short answer appears to be not completely yet, unless you are a large commercial user of electricity.  If you are, then your electricity price already contains a locational element and is priced according to time of day and year through a meter that records your usage on a half-hourly basis.  So you are already paying the full cost of your electricity and anything you can do to change your pattern of usage brings direct benefit.  With a little extra reward from agreeing arrangements to help the network operators at times of emergency or extra high load, the system is already in place and it works.

It is different if you are a domestic electricity user or even a group of consumers: be that at a street, neighbourhood or community level.  The network charge element of your electricity bill is different in different parts of the country for historical reasons; but it does not distinguish between rural or urban locations or, whether your part of the network is heavily loaded or under-utilised.  Unless you are on Economy 7, your electricity is the same price, day or night, winter or summer, and so you would get no benefit from avoiding peak times or from assisting your local distribution company to avoid local network reinforcement.  That is, even if your efforts could be noticed, because it will not be until we all get smart meters that the time at which you use or generate your electricity can be recorded and, as a result, perhaps be incentivised or ‘rewarded’.  And the current regulatory and commercial framework was not set up with smaller, community-led projects in mind.  While the weight of detailed licence conditions is an overhead that large companies can bear and may indeed be needed for the larger companies, it is a massive and unnecessary burden for small projects.  Although some encouragement has been provided with the introduction of Licence Lite, much greater focus is needed from the Government and Ofgem on removing the barriers if community projects are to succeed.  This would be worth the effort because, not only are community projects good in themselves and politically popular, but, as Paper 10 argues,  they provide a useful and enthusiastic test bed for the introduction of low carbon technologies and experimenting with demand-side response.  

So, for community projects to be able to get the full benefit of local balancing, we need to get the technology in place, remove the administrative barriers and, ideally, make some move towards making electricity prices more cost-reflective.  But here we reach a dilemma, which we will be exploring in a later paper and blog:  the general feeling at present is that electricity tariffs are currently too complex and need simplifying.  And is it fair to charge people high prices for their electricity if they are not able to respond to the price signals, for instance, because they are house-bound?  Will we have achieved enough if we only rely on the enthusiasts who are willing to change their behaviour?  And if only the knowledgeable and well-informed change their behaviour and reap the benefit, will this just push even more costs onto the people who are least able to afford it?  This brings us back to community energy projects and the “free rider” problem:  what do we do about the people who do not want to take part in the project, but because the benefit is gained by the whole community they get the benefit in any case?     

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JUN
19

What do we mean by sustainability these days?

For an expression that is used more and more by an ever-wider number of people, sustainability is getting harder, not easier to define.I was prompted to this thought by attending the 20th anniversary celebration of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme at St James’s Palace recently.  I had taken part in the very first of these programmes at Madingley Hall, Cambridge in 1994.  In fact, apart from Jonathan Porritt and Polly Courtice, the indomitable Programme Director and Director of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, I was the only one present who had done so.  The programme was called Business and the Environment then and was concerned largely with environmental pollution and the scarcity of natural resources.  Over the years since then, climate change has become a much more significant issue and the need to address social as well as environmental issues has been widely recognised.  Hence the change in title for the Programme.In this context, it was interesting to compare the issues raised by the speakers that I noted down.  Jonathan Porritt was concerned by the central role, and not always a positive one, big business had taken over the last 20 years in the political arena.  He made the obligatory reference to Thomas Piketty’s recent book, but acknowledged that nevertheless the business community as a whole had made significant strides to embrace sustainability.  Terry A’Hearn, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, focused on the need for regulation but referred to his attempts to get companies to go beyond mere compliance to adopting good behaviour.  Philippe Joubert, ex-President of Alstom Power and Chair of the Prince’s EU Corporate Leaders’ Group, saw climate change as the major challenge for business but said that if business was to be able to make the investments needed to deal with it, it needed stable long term policies from the politicians.  Idar Kreutzer, CEO of Finance Norway, spoke of the increasing importance of ESG issues in financial investment. (For those who are not fund managers or pension trustees, ESG stands for environmental, social and governance issues.)  The Prince himself, as always, seemed modestly surprised at the momentum he had succeeded in generating, but felt that the battle was far from over;  the next twenty years would be more difficult than the last twenty years.So is sustainable development still as defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987:  “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”?  Is it now focused solely on climate change as described by the Stern Report as the greatest market failure ever seen?  Or does it include all the non-financial issues not usually contained within the financial parts of companies’ reports and accounts?  Or is it simply that we all have different ideas about what the “needs of the present” might be?  Over the next few months as Sustainability First approaches its fifteenth anniversary, we shall be exploring these issues in this blog.let us know what you think.Jon BirdAssociate, Sustainability First
JUN
13

President Obama’s plans to curb US carbon emissions major step forward but leaves the job half done

The Obama administration announced plans on Monday, 2 June, to cut US carbon emissions.  These plans give an extremely important new and much-needed lead in an area where the US has in the past been reluctant to move forward.  The announcement by the US Environmental Protection Agency will aim to cut carbon emissions from existing and new power stations and improve energy efficiency.The EPA says that the Clean Power Plan will cut carbon emissions from the US power sector by 20% by 2030, cut pollution and, as a result, improve health, and reduce energy bills by about 8% by increasing energy efficiency and reducing energy demand.While these aims are still modest compared with actions being taken in Europe, for example, they are a major step forward and will give a powerful lead at the climate summit in September 2014 in New York and COP21 in Paris in 2015.But concentrating on emissions reduction is only part of the story.  Without action to limit production of fossil fuels, we shall be no further forward.  We have seen what the impact of shale gas in the US had on US coal prices and the resulting increase in coal burn in Europe leading to higher carbon emissions in the UK and elsewhere in 2012.  Reducing coal burn in the US without reducing US coal extraction will have the same impact on coal prices.  And, if the coal is not burnt in Europe, because of closing coal-fired power stations, it will go elsewhere.  The availability of cheap coal will make it politically much more difficult for countries not already committed to reducing their carbon emissions to do so.Cutting back on fossil fuel production is far from easy for any country.  Economies and jobs depend on it.  But it is simple Economics 101 that if demand is reduced while production is not curtailed, prices will go down.  In the absence of global agreement to reduce carbon emissions, cheaper coal will be just too tempting to some countries.  Some solution must be found.Bard Halstad  has suggested that countries committed to emissions reduction should buy up fossil fuel deposits to leave them in the ground.  This may not work, but at least he has focused on the problem and started a debate.Two aspects of what are needed are clear, however.  Help must be given to those regions that currently depend on coal-mining to assist them through the transition.  And, as the Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Committee recommended last month, we need to fast track decisions on carbon capture and storage.
JUN
10

Better coordination of innovation efforts needed if domestic customers are to benefit fully from demand-side response

Activity on innovation projects to help encourage demand-side response is at an unprecedented level, but needs better coordination, and greater focus on customer reactions to innovation,  if customers are to benefit fully.  This is one of the key findings of Paper 11 of Sustainability First’s GB Electricity Demand Project, which was published in April 2014.

This paper explores how, in the longer term, innovation could best serve the customer on demand-side response. It considers the approaches adopted by the current innovation funds (such as the Low Carbon Networks Fund) and related projects, and investigates in detail the potential for two practical examples of domestic customer-facing innovation, automated control of electrical devices and household-level thermal storage.

Innovation funding, and the LCNF in particular, has given a major boost to electricity demand-side research. The LCNF has required cultural change in both the network companies and in Ofgem, and has fostered collaboration, often with partners from outside the industry, and emphasised the need for value for money.  Knowledge sharing is taking place, but there may be a need for some soul-searching as to how far some of the outcomes may prove truly innovative in the end. From a customer perspective, it is perhaps disappointing that LCNF (with some exceptions) tends towards funding technology projects rather than projects which are primarily end-customer focused. The Technology Strategy Board however was seen by those we have spoken to as useful for funding smaller innovators and customer-facing initiatives. One finding in our paper is a need for better coordination between the different funding bodies in their support for electricity demand-side research. This includes a need for greater understanding about where the gaps in knowledge lie, where applied R&D is likely to have greatest impact, avoiding duplication and ensuring value. Lessons from the many smart projects and trials need distilling, analysing across the projects, and feeding into the development of policy and measures.

Both automated control and household-level thermal storage offer significant opportunities for the future, and there is no shortage of potential suppliers of equipment.  However, there is not sufficient value in today’s energy market for market actors to attract many domestic demand-side customers just yet.  And to equipment manufacturers, it was far from clear how quickly the opportunity will develop.  Evidence from innovation trials of the extent of customer interest in innovative products is still limited – especially when it comes to customer appetite for automation and / or household-level storage.  More research is needed, particularly on the customer commercial proposition – and in particular on how the vulnerable customer can benefit from innovation developments. Vulnerable customers should be a focus of electricity demand-side innovation funding. There should also be more proactive dissemination of innovation project results.   

It is however encouraging that Ofgem, government departments and the research councils are starting to work together to improve on current coordination between funding streams –and hopefully to draw out some systematic lessons from the many smart research projects and trials. 

JUN
10

Welcome to Sustainability First

Welcome to Sustainability First’s blog.  This is a new venture to set alongside our more studied and detailed research, to offer views and comment on topical issues in the energy and sustainability spheres.If you have arrived at this site, you probably already know something about Sustainability First and its work.  But for newcomers, Sustainability First was set up fifteen years ago. It is a UK-based think tank with a focus on policy and practical solutions in the energy, water, waste and other sustainability areas.  It concentrates largely on UK issues, but draws on evidence and experience both within the UK and abroad.   Sustainability First is concerned to ensure that the consumer’s voice is heard, and works closely with government, regulators, consumer groups and companies to provide an independent and balanced view. Completed research includes reports on smart meters, demand response, energy efficiency and ensuring the water consumer’s interests – near and long term – are properly taken into account.Part of the strength of SF’s work is the breadth of knowledge and understanding of its Associates, Trustees and project sponsors.  Individually, they have wide experience of the energy, water and environment industries, the Government and regulatory sectors, and consumer issues.  By working together, they pool this experience to create robust and well-respected research.SF’s most recent and ambitious work is the GB Electricity Demand Project.  This is a three year project to investigate the contribution that customer-driven demand reduction and demand response could provide to the developing low carbon electricity market.  Its sponsors and partners have been drawn from throughout the electricity and related sectors and the work has been coordinated through quarterly meetings of the Smart Demand Forum, comprising project sponsors, consumer bodies (large & household), Ofgem and DECC.  Eleven of the twelve project papers are now available on the SF web site (http://www.sustainabilityfirst.org.uk/gbelec.html).  The project has made a major contribution to the developing electricity demand-side debate, and its widely-cited papers are an important resource for policy thinkers and academics alike.We shall be using this blog to give you short summaries of our recently published research work and comment on national and international sustainability issues.  Feel free to add your own comments. If you would like to know when we have posted a new blog or have published a new paper, you can follow SF on Twitter (@SustainFirst) or, if you are not yet a member of the Twitterati, let us know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we will keep you in touch by email.