Transformative technologies in energy, buildings and transport

Eleanor Drabik reports back from Sussex Energy Group event at Central Hall, Westminster

The event hosted by Sussex Energy Group (SEG) on 7 February 2019 brought together high-level professionals in industry, government and academia to discuss the topic of transformative technologies in energy, buildings and transport. SEG took this opportunity to also present the newly edited book ‘Transitions in Energy Efficiency and Demand’, which brings together five years of research from the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) funded by the RCUK Energy Programme. The event was chaired by Benjamin Sovacool, Director of both SEG and CIED. This blog post provides some of the key messages presented during the day.

Professor Benjamin Sovacool introducing the Sussex Energy Group
  • Despite being challenging, the adoption of demand-side technologies coupled with behaviour change is crucial for achieving the low-carbon energy future that we all desire.

Individuals will have to adopt many of these technologies and therefore they must be what people want. Joanne Wade of the Association of Decentralised Energy (ADE) even started her presentation announcing that she is not going to talk about technology, but rather humans as we need to start thinking about the people-side of this transformation.

  • A pivotal question is how can we encourage people to participate in the energy sector and choose low-carbon technologies and services?

One way is to deliver better energy services that simultaneously provide superior comfort levels and are low-carbon. In other words, give people the comfort that they wish for through low-carbon technologies. Following a government-backed research trial conducted by Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) that explored how smart home technologies could cut household energy use as well as improve customer services, Bristol Energy has launched a novel business model called heat-as-a-service. Here, households are offered the chance to buy a ‘Heat Plan’ tailored to their individual lifestyle. Those who wish to buy the plan will pay for warm hours per month rather than units of energy. The intention is to provide a better service to households and at the same time incentivise commercial suppliers to heat homes as efficiently as possible using low-carbon technologies. It may seem intriguing, but who knows whether it will work? With the rules of the game changing, it might make it harder for suppliers to profit, which could cause a problem to novel business models.

  • A prerequisite for new initiatives like heat-as-a-service is the collection of data, important to help researchers and service providers understand how the system of people and buildings works to provide better services.

Debbie Hopkins, researcher at the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford and editor of the CIED book with Kirsten Jenkins, claimed that currently a lot of research and innovation is based on poorly understood behaviours and practices. Some practices we will be able to change, but it is uncertain if these practices will change in the timeframe necessary. We already have a tremendous amount of data from smart meters, but the question is are we going to use it properly? Are academics and researchers going to get access to it? We also have to be very careful as to how the data is used and how this is presented to the user.  

  • Another prerequisite to innovating effectively is funding.

Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, argued that quite a bit of public spending is necessary to scale up and drive down costs at the very early stages of deployment and we need to spend more money on large scale trials. We have seen that spending has driven down the cost of other low-carbon technologies such as offshore wind, solar PV and lithium-ion batteries and we should mimic this for demand-side low-carbon technologies. Will public policy makers be brave enough to spend the money when it comes to these technologies? Head of Energy Social Research at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Jeremy Vincent tried to answer this question stating that between 2015 and 2021 BEIS expects to invest up to £505 million on the Energy Innovation Programme. The aim of this programme is to accelerate the commercialisation of innovative clean energy technologies and processes. From this portfolio they plan to invest £90 million for more cost effective energy efficiency and low-carbon heating. At the same time, they plan to spend £180 million on nuclear, £70 million on smart energy systems and only £15 million on renewables, revealing their agenda for the future UK energy system.

  • The focus has previously been on low-carbon electricity, but the energy sectors are becoming increasingly intersected and strategies are required to decarbonise them all.

Alex Gilbert, a representative of Transport for London (TFL), expressed his big vision to make everything that happens in regards to infrastructure at TFL broader than just transport. Infrastructure itself is not too exciting, the integration of energy, buildings and transport as well as innovation is where it becomes a lot more interesting. Policy makers must adopt a systems approach to take us through this transition to a low-carbon energy system in the timeframe necessary.

Dr Kirsten Jenkins, who edited
‘Transitions in Energy Efficiency and Demand’ together with Dr Debbie Hopkins, presents as part of the panel on buildings

The key takeaway message from the event is that we need to systematically and radically change the way we live in a way that we have not conceived of before. Kirsten Jenkins – formerly University of Sussex and CIED researcher now based at the University of Brighton -advocated that when talking about socio-technical transitions, the “socio” bit is particularly important. It is vital to try to get policy makers on board with the message that we need to get people to live in a different way. But it is hard to have these conversations. Currently exchanges with policy makers focus on technological change rather than the harder conversations about fundamental changes to behaviour, yet it is necessary to start these discussions .

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A new study will explore public perceptions of “fracking” just as exploration resumes in Lancashire


This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Energy World magazine, published by the Energy Institute,

There could not be more timely circumstances for the launch of a new interdisciplinary research programme into hydraulic fracturing (commonly termed ‘fracking’). After a seven year gap, Cuadrilla began high-volume hydraulic fracturing at their Preston New Road site in the Fylde region of Lancashire earlier this month – the first use of the controversial technique in the UK since Cuadrilla caused two small seismic events at nearby Preese Hall in 2011. Read more ›Follow Sussex Energy Group Facebooktwitterlinkedin

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Smart meter rollout in the UK: towards a low carbon future?

Nora Blascsok reports back from the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) event on ‘The smart meter rollout: progress and challenges ahead‘.

On 19 November consumer rights group Which? published a report warning energy suppliers that they need to triple the current rate of smart meter installation to meet the target of replacing existing meters in every UK home by 2020. This would mean installing 30 smart meters per minute every day for the next two years to replace the existing 46 million meters, which is a challenge to say the least. Back in August 2018, Citizens Advice was already calling for the deadline to be extended for another three years. Read more ›Follow Sussex Energy Group Facebooktwitterlinkedin

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Fracking democracy, criminalising dissent

This blog was originally published on The Ecologist. Written by Andrea Block, Dr Amber Huff, Dr Judith Verweijen, Professor Jan Selby, Professor David Ockwell, and Professor Peter Newell.

The anti-fracking victory yesterday should not distract from disturbing trends in the criminalisation of dissent.

Three anti-fracking protesters – Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou – were sentenced to 15 and 16 months in prison for ‘causing a public nuisance’ in late September this year. A fourth protester, Julian Brock, received an 18 months suspended sentence after pleading guilty to the public nuisance charges.

The ‘Frack-Free Four’ had been arrested during a ‘month of protest’ in the summer of 2017 that aimed to disrupt exploratory drilling activities at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire. The four climbed onto lorries that were delivering part of a drill rig and remained there for up to four days impeding the vehicles’ movement to the fracking site.

Their sentences were overturned, with the judge acknowledging that they were “manifestly excessive”.  It was a huge victory for the anti-fracking movement, and for everyone concerned about the right to protest in the UK and beyond. Read more ›

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Reaching the tipping point: 1.5 degrees and the 10th Anniversary of the Climate Change Act

Last week showed that the full impacts of climate change are approaching us faster than thought before. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees sending a message that we need to act now, not tomorrow. The previous plan to curtail global temperature change to 2 degrees is too risky, and the IPCC posits we need to aim at 1.5 degrees instead to reduce the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, human health and well-being.

This week, which is also the Green Great Britain week, I participated in the Annual Conference of Energy UK held in Westminster, London. I was invited to a panel discussing the “10th Anniversary of the Climate Change Act – celebrating successes and preparing for the future”, alongside Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, Tony Juniper, Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF UK, Jillian Ambrose, Energy Editor of the Telegraph, and Shirley Rodrigues, the Deputy Mayor of London. The conference was well attended by diverse energy industry actors, and the discussions addressed the future of energy generation, the Electricity Market Reform, the power of data and democracy and the needs of customers.

The UK Climate Change Act

The Climate Change Act has been – and still is – a visionary policy that is extremely important for the directionality that is needed in energy systems change, as well change in other associated sectors such as housing and mobility. This is because companies need policy developments they can foresee and anticipate in order to invest and innovate in green solutions meeting future policy requirements. The binding framework of the Climate Change Act, reaching over electoral cycles, is a crucial enabler of this kind of directionality for innovation.

However, we need more than technological change to transition away from a high-carbon energy system. We also need changes in institutions, practices and culture. The Climate Change Act, coupled with the Committee on Climate Change as an independent statutory advisor, has been an important institutional innovation to drive transition to a low-carbon economy.

Especially in its early years, the Climate Change Act resulted in a lot of momentum for change in businesses and communities. For example, regarding low energy homes, we have seen business innovation in terms of new cooperatives emerging, established construction companies piloting sustainable construction and new energy services being set up. In turn, cities and communities have seen the emergence of informal networks and the spread of learning on zero carbon new build, whole house retrofits and community energy. These changes were further supported by zero carbon homes and retrofit policies until 2015.

Losing momentum

To maximise impact the Climate Change Act needs to be coupled with a mix of both cross-sectoral and sector-focused policies addressing heat, buildings, mobility and industry to create new markets for low and zero carbon solutions. The latest progress report of the Climate Change Committee highlighted the success in decarbonising the UK’s power sector, but also noted the lack of similar efforts in housing and mobility. The significant policy cuts in 2015 concerning renewable energy and low energy homes have reduced many companies’ incentives to invest in green energy solutions and slowed down market creation for energy efficiency. We lost a bit more of the momentum that existed 8-10 years ago. Even before this, rapid policy changes and complex policy mixes have caused uncertainty for a range of actors.

Partly similar points as those above were raised by the keynote speakers in the conference. Paul Massara from Electron said that industry and investors need clear signals of the direction of travel – some already provided by the Clean Growth Strategy and the phase-out plans. Rachel Reeves MP, the Chair of the BEIS Select Committee stated that constructing large scale energy infrastructure requires much greater policy stability from the government than we have seen so far.

The UK low-carbon energy transition: challenges and opportunities

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this event. The UK energy industry has progressed well in decarbonisation so far but also acknowledges the challenge ahead; calling the UK government for consistent policies regarding the direction of energy system change.


So what are the things that could be improved, in terms of policy? I suggest the following:

  • A comprehensive policy framework and a mix of instruments to support change in sectors causing high carbon emissions, i.e. housing and mobility. A well-managed policy mix can create new low-carbon markets and incentives for customer-side efficiency.
  • We need to better exploit synergies in tackling the policy goals for decarbonisation, reduction of fuel poverty and improving energy security. Energy efficiency has often been neglected as a solution contributing to all three.
  • We need to remove policy barriers that slow down low carbon innovation, when policies have not been coordinated across energy supply, use, housing, mobility and so on. For example, established rules for taxation, grid connection and permit procedures may not easily allow the setting up of novel energy or mobility services, creating barriers for their introduction or broader uptake.
  • New collaboration across sectoral boundaries both in industry and administration is a necessity. For example, the delivery of novel mobility and energy services will create future market opportunities but will require supportive policies and the removal of barriers.
  • Support for energy intermediaries that create new connections between actors benefiting from innovations and their uptake is also highly important. Such actors can provide impartial and trusted knowledge to different actors, coordinate fragmented supply chains when needed, and promote the uptake of government programmes.

There is also cause for optimism in many areas. The opportunities digital innovation enables for the decentralisation of the power and heat sectors, and the increasingly low cost of wind and solar-powered generation supporting such changes, are good examples. However, these changes also bring forward new questions about how customers can benefit from the ongoing energy transition and about democracy related to data. Both the Big Six and the new entrants have important roles to play in the low carbon energy transition – and at least those at the Energy UK Annual Conference seemed to be largely in consensus on where we are heading.


Paula Kivimaa is a Senior Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and the Sussex Energy Group. She is also a Senior Researcher in the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).Follow Sussex Energy Group Facebooktwitterlinkedin

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

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