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.

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. 


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 (  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.