Visions and Fantasies of the Sustainable Future – How to Understand Narratives of the Low Carbon Transition

How do we construct narratives of a low carbon future? A new paper co-authored by SEG researchers, Imagining sustainable energy and mobility transitions: Valence, temporality, and radicalism in 38 visions of a low-carbon future, unpacks the rhetoric behind a range of possible futures available to seven innovation case studies including automated mobility, electric vehicles (EVs) and smart meters.

This blog explains how our researchers identified the characteristics of these powerful messages using tools from the analysis of rhetoric and folktales, and summarises some findings on the role these visions play in determining the shape of low carbon transition to come.

The paper draws on the work of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) and the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS). The ‘visions’ were developed from a synthesis of the work conducted by the End Use Energy Demand (EUED) Centres over five years.

What is a vision, and why does it matter?

Talk of visions and fantasies may sound detached from reality at first glance. Yet these imaginative processes play a valuable role as descriptions of a possible future, offering a coherent narrative or even a performance that can be developed or contrasted with alternative perspectives. As the paper defines them, they are no less than capable of revealing “fundamental patterns of human reasoning, and how humans communicate their thinking to others, in a future oriented context”. Alongside this, they can map out a possibility space, provide a framework to understand the issues to be resolved, and produce powerful symbols that draw disparate groups into unified coalitions capable of focused action.

Some of the terms used throughout the paper’s analysis of imagined futures

The many possible futures of freight trucking

Trucking’s future may take it far from what we think of it as today

One of the most vivid examples of the varied possibilities a single subject can generate is that of the uptake of a new innovation, automated mobility, and its application to the freight industry. The paper identifies seven distinct futures for the sector:

  • Effortless freight: The introduction of AI driving removes obstacles to maximum productivity, leading to quadrupled profits in a new world of computers replacing the antiquated human drivers at the (now metaphorical) wheel.
  • The educated trucker: Instead of widespread layoffs ejecting large numbers of unprepared truckers into a high-tech job market, truck driving is instead reimagined as a “highly skilled position akin to a ship’s captain or an airplane’s pilot” with opportunities to upskill.
  • Entrenched automobility: Noting the incremental nature of any automated driving revolution, this vision frames now commonplace features like lane assist, cruise control and automated braking as continuous developments towards a more normalised automated vehicle future.
  • Transformers: This vision emphasises the radical departure from the present a high-tech future represents. This vision heralds an imminent, pop culture infused future with breathlessly excited slogans like “science has well and truly caught up with fiction” “more Optimus Prime than human”, “R2D2-like”, and resembling “a scene from Blade Runner”
  • A perilous distraction: Does focusing on flashy technological advancements over uncertain timeframes draw attention away from issues we could solve now? This vision brings us back to the present, arguing many freight industry issues can be resolved through the mundane methods of improved pay and respect for workers.
  • Infrastructural overhaul: It is possible to take a broader approach, as this narrative does by acknowledging that the development of an automated vehicle is just one advance necessary before their widespread introduction to everyday life. Widespread infrastructural and legislative changes are needed before the road system is ready for the advent of automated freight fleets.
  • Mass unemployment: This bleak vision imagines a world where driverless freighting causes mass layoffs for truckers and related workers with the associated drop in social status, one participant fearing “the long-haul driver becomes more akin to cartoon buffoon Homer Simpson”.

These visions illustrate the dizzying number of possible futures that could lie ahead for a single industry. Truck drivers can be variously imagined here as elevated professionals, discarded entirely, ignored in favour of robotic novelties, or beneficiaries of incremental improvements in an otherwise not dissimilar industry.

Beyond the rhetorical tug of war over the nature of employment, vehicles and road infrastructure, this example can also illustrate the other factors at play. These differing narratives can be plotted at various points on a graph by their temporality, defining the range of timeframes these developments are anticipated to happen over, and by their radicalism, which determines to what extent they differ from the world as seen today.

Utopia or dystopia?

Fortunately, low-carbon transitions lean towards utopias rather than dystopias

The form these future visions take can be seen as expressing ideographs (developed by rhetorical scholar Michael Calvin McGee) which place them on a spectrum between utopian and dystopian. Utopian visions, which present a positive picture of the future, have so far received more attention from academics than their dystopian counterparts – understandably so considering dystopias feature many undesirable themes such as oppression, injustice and disenfranchisement. But the dominance of these positive visions, showing the comforting triumph of a technology-enabled future that effortlessly maintains our expectations for abundant energy, consumer lifestyles and ever-growing economies contains its own risks of indulging in optimistic dreams. These effects can be seen in several of the technology-focused visions of the future of trucking, and the paper outlines this dynamic:

“The utopian elements of technological fantasies have therefore led proponents and sponsors to exaggerate potential benefits and downplay risks of many different technologies (Corn, 1986; Sturken et al., 2004). Marvin (1988) warns that technological utopianism can also promote a ‘cognitive imperialism’ where social and political relations become reduced and technologically determined. Hornsey and Fielding (2016) analyzed reactions to different messages addressing global warming and found that optimistic or utopian messages reduce the sense of risk from global warming, and its associated distress, and are less successful in motivating action than pessimistic messages.”

Heroes and villains

Some of the parallel spectrums these narratives coexist on

In order to understand the archetypal structures embedded in the narratives the researchers identified through their case studies, they turned to Russian scholar Vladimir Propp and his structural analysis of folktales. Given the brevity and technical reliance of these low carbon narratives, not all aspects of his framework apply – Cinderella has no need for EVs with the help of fairy godmothers and woodland animals. But despite the differences, the authors found two significant ways their visions conform to Propp’s findings.

Visions almost universally contained the core antagonistic tensions found in most stories. “They almost always have the presence of good versus evil in the form of heroes (kings, soldiers, unmarried bachelors, and eagles for Propp) pitted against villains (a dragon, a devil, bandits, a witch, or a stepmother for Propp).”

Another common theme was the degree of agency: the active and passive manner the actors in these stories engage with their narrative. The climate, non-human species, society and consumer groups can all be characterised, rightly or wrongly, as passive agents responding to more active agents including fossil fuel conglomerates, dictators and smart-grind hackers. And of course, actors are not fixed in either category, or even remain discrete actors, always at risk of conflation with others. One institute can be a laudable champion in one narrative, and a despised enemy in another; EV narratives can see consumers as a solution to a problem, or place them as the problem itself to be solved.

The case studies found “‘robots’ repeatedly mentioned in visions of automated automobility, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘spies’ mentioned frequently in smart meter visions, and shale gas constantly heralded as a ‘bridge’”. The recurrent themes and characters in these narratives are valuable indications of cues, providing a “cognitive convergence” to groups by invoking a range of shared meanings.

Robots feature heavily in narratives of our low carbon future

Can stories form solutions?

Ideographs may be persuasive, the “provocative force of fantasy” having many beneficial applications, but that is not to say that either themselves or the decisions they influence are necessarily rational. Powerful actors can draw on these visions’ energising power to cloud judgement and focus on a spectacular distant future, ignoring the unglamorous options available today, as we saw in the freight industry example’s relatively light emphasis on improving current working conditions. The motives of powerful actors drawing on these techniques deserve some degree of scrutiny.

These actors’ habits of rotating across multiple axes make for a complex dynamic to analyse. However, the shifting roles of these actors (across utopia/dystopia, good/bad, passive/active, proximal/distant and incremental/transformative) can actually provide a rhetorical strength, allowing a narrative’s message to connect with diverse groups: “They need to be broad enough to enrol actors but vague enough to withstand criticism.” And beyond their valuable ability to muster support through shared meanings, these visions present solutions to contemporary issues, “possessing a [more] functional utility than merely a symbolic one”.

Coalitions formed around these broad visions can create a motivating dynamic of “promise and requirement”, developing from a shared agenda to a firm mandate, a dynamic explained by Borup et al  as “the freedom to explore and develop combined with a societal obligation to deliver in the end(2006: 290)”. These visions have a role to play in determining what decisions are to be made for a variety of industries, but it is deeply important to understand their influences and vulnerability to co-option by interest groups, while making use of the sense of hope, purpose and direction they offer.

This blog is based on the article: Imagining sustainable energy and mobility transitions: Valence, temporality, and radicalism in 38 visions of a low-carbon future – Social Studies of Science, by Benjamin K Sovacool, Noam Bergman, Debbie Hopkins, Kirsten EH Jenkins, Sabine Hielscher, Andreas Goldthau, Brent Brossmann.


Thanks to Benjamin Sovacool and Louise Sheridan for feedback and corrections.

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LANDMARC kicks-off!

This post was contributed by Delft University of Technology to mark the launch of LANDMARC.

What is the realistic potential for agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors to enhance the uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere? This question will be answered by the LANDMARC research project, which officially started on the 1st of July.  Funded by the European Commission, the nineteen LANDMARC consortium partners will spend the next four years (2020-2024) working to:   

  • Estimate the climate impact of land-based negative emission solutions, for example in agriculture, forestry, and other land-use sectors
  • Assess the potential for regional and global upscaling of negative emission solutions
  • Map their potential environmental, economic, and social co-benefits and trade-offs

Land-based negative emission solutions are expected to play a pivotal role in future climate actions and policy scenarios. To date most climate actions have focussed on phasing out fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in, for example, industry, electricity, and transport. While zero emission trajectories in these sectors will remain a priority for decades to come, it is expected that some residual GHG emissions will remain. To be able to fulfil the Paris Agreement and meet the world’s climate goals research, policy and markets are increasingly looking at land-based negative emission solutions.

The LANDMARC project will enhance understanding in the area by providing better estimates of the realistic potential of land-based negative emission solutions in agriculture, forestry, and other land use sectors.

The research activities will deploy:

  • A mix of earth observation technologies, to be able to (better) monitor and estimate the effectiveness of land-based negative emission solutions
  • A suite of climate, land-use, and economic simulation models, to better estimate the true (scaling) potential of land-based negative emission solutions, both from an earth systems and human systems perspective
  • A social sciences-based approach for effective impact assessment and engagement with local and regional stakeholders – across 14 countries and 5 continents – that are already work on implementing negative emission solutions.

LANDMARC collaborations with science and society

The LANDMARC project is actively seeking collaboration with fellow research projects operating in our study countries and regions (see map). Collaborations can include:

  • Exchanging / sharing earth observations data and information (e.g. satellite, remote sensing, in-situ)
  • Climate change and land-use scenario development and modelling
  • Assessing climate resilience and climate sensitivity of negative emission solutions
  • Assessing generic and context-specific co-benefits and trade-offs of land-based mitigation solutions (environmental, societal, economic)
  • Engaging with local and regional societal actors such as NGOs, local governments, forestry/agriculture cooperatives (i.e. co-hosting events)

We encourage researchers to contact us to introduce themselves, their activity/project and express their area(s) of interest for possible collaboration with the LANDMARC team.

Team contact details:

Contact information:

Delft University of Technology
Dr. Jenny Lieu; Assistant Professor, J.Lieu-1@tudelft.nl

JIN Climate & Sustainability Eise Spijker; Senior Researcher, eise@jin.ngo

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Lockdown Lifestyle: Does Working from Home Reduce Carbon Emissions?

Up until recently, only an estimated 9% of Americans have teleworked more than once a week. Slow adoption of teleworking has been due to a lack of consensus around its environmental benefits, the perception among workers that not being visible in the office may hinder career advancement, and fears among employers about potential drops in worker performance and efficiency.

In COVID-19’s wake, remote working across the globe has abruptly switched from a ‘perk’ offered by forward-thinking employers to a necessary practice for many workers. But before it became an integral part of public health policy, telecommuting was often seen as an employee-pleasing way to reduce energy demand and its associated carbon emissions. Emissions from daily commutes and office maintenance could be substituted by the lower emissions of home- or co-working space- based employment.

But is it really this simple? A study from SEG’s work for the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) has assessed the current research landscape to uncover the true capacity of teleworking for achieving energy savings. The results have been written up in their paper ‘A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking’.

The findings of the paper are derived from 39 studies across the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. In their analysis, they try to make sense of how these individual papers vary between those suggesting teleworking can reduce emissions by up to 77% to others that suggest it could even increase emissions.

The table below summarises the results of the review, appearing to support the theory that teleworking reduces energy use, with two thirds of the sampled papers supporting that conclusion. However, due to the scope and variety of methodologies used across the papers surveyed, the evidence is not as clear-cut as it might first appear, as we will explain below.

Understanding teleworking’s energy savings

The premise that home working saves energy relies on a simple substitution effect: transport emissions from the worker’s commute are removed in favour of the typically lower emissions of ICT enabled remote working. However, by itself this provides an incomplete picture. The act of teleworking is surrounded by a variety of factors and influences on personal behaviour, which complicate the initially straightforward equation.

Attempting to untangle this issue begins by dividing end energy use into two types:

“Direct impacts” are defined as the energy used for the manufacture, operation and disposal of ICTs.

“Higher order impacts”, on the other hand, are changes in energy consumption stimulated by ICT use. These encompass the consequences of choices made around the initial decision to work from home.

Emission savings or rebounds?

While teleworking may eliminate or reduce energy consumption and associated emissions generated from the office commute, it may also lead to increased energy use due to homeworking, a so-called ‘rebound’ effect. This may be as a result of greater use of home appliances, heating, cooling, and lighting. Teleworking may also generate higher ‘non-work’ travel, as workers use their new ‘time savings’ to take more regulars holidays or breaks.

One psychological driver of the increase in non-work travel may be the simple desire to get out of the house; indeed, many people working under lockdown conditions could identify with the statement made within the paper that “another induced travel effect could be where the feelings of isolation and sedentariness generated by teleworking stimulate a desire for movement and mobility”. Alternatively, workers may purchase more consumer items online, contributing to higher society-wide energy consumption through increased production of goods and home delivery travel.

Where teleworking is only partial (say, two days a week), the overall travel distance per week may not be significantly reduced, especially if workers live far from the office (a phenomenon that has been, paradoxically, facilitated by teleworking). To take one example, a survey conducted as part of a Finnish study noticed teleworkers lived, on average, 3.7km further from the workplace. Their commutes were less frequent, but their average journey consumed more energy whenever it took place.

Overall, although workers may save money and gain time through their reduced or eliminated commutes on days that they work from home, increases in energy consumption in other areas (such as through non-work travel and home energy consumption) may mean that the net energy savings are minimal, or even negative.

Change of scope and methodology

The complexity and scope of the teleworking impacts will therefore need much further study. Many of the studies focus on comparing weekly work distance travelled, hence neglecting non-work travel. As a result, they may overestimate the total reduction in travel distance. One paper found “vehicle travel distance is 8% lower per month for teleworkers than non-teleworkers; whereas Zhu (2012), who also considers impacts on non-work travel, finds a negligible impact on total vehicle distance travelled.”

Dr Andrew Hook, one of the study’s authors, elaborates how differences in scope and methodology impact their findings below:

“While most studies conclude that teleworking can contribute energy savings, the more rigorous studies and those with a broader scope present more ambiguous findings. Where studies include additional impacts, such as non-work travel or office and home energy use, the potential energy savings appear more limited – with some studies suggesting that, in the context of growing distances between the workplace and home, part-week teleworking could lead to a net increase in energy consumption.”


Next steps for “teleworking” research?

The notion of teleworking itself is one that predates the internet, referencing a past where innovations like telecentres and the fax machine were seen as the answer to removing or reducing arduous commutes. These terms could be attached to outdated ideas of work, failing to account for the present day of Wi-Fi enabled work from libraries/cafes/trains, flexible working arrangements, and the increased proportion of the workforce on varying “zero hour contracts”. Future studies may need to address the fact that “modern modes of flexible or mobile work have become so non-linear and fluid (but also increasingly energy intensive in places) that it has become increasingly difficult to track their energy footprint, or to compare it with a dissolving notion of ‘regular’ work (Hopkins & McKay 2019).

The use of digital services, such as videoconferencing and cloud storage, may lead to higher emissions from home working when compared to older technological regimes. The evidence base tends to lag behind recent trends, with most studies pre-dating these technologies. When we examine the benefits of home working, we therefore need to make sure the analysis is of the modern reality rather than of systems which no longer exist. The paper therefore concludes that future studies may better account for modern work practices and the uncertainties of tracking energy savings by trying to account for the complexity of new working patterns:

“Studies interested in appraising the potential of more flexible, ICT-enabled work practices should therefore aim to combine a range of methods capable of capturing the dynamic new configurations of working conditions. As well as accounting for change in commuting travel, non-commuting travel, distance between home and office, and home and office energy consumption, these studies must also consider other factors, such as the mode of commuting transport in the region being studied and the ways that people choose to use their time when they no longer have to commute to and from work. As many of these realities can only be established through qualitative methods, modellers must work together with other social scientists in order to build a better picture of the changing patterns of work and the energy saving potential of new working practices (e.g. Hampton 2017).”

Popular coverage on working from home often makes the assumption that it provides unarguable environmental benefits. This work questions that assumption, hopes to indicate where future studies need to be focused in order to more accurately account for the rebounds inherent in these practices, and understand what sustainable teleworking should look like going forward.

Benjamin Sovacool adds a cautionary addendum to those seeing it as an easy win-win:

“A scenario after the threat of coronavirus has cleared where workers will want the best of both worlds; retaining the freedom and flexibility they found from working from home but the social aspects of working at an office that they’ve missed out on during lockdown, will not deliver the energy savings the world needs”.


This blog is based on the article: A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking – Environmental Research Letters by Andrew Hook, Victor Court, Benjamin Sovacool and Steven Sorrell.

Thanks to Andrew Hook and Ed Dearnley for feedback and corrections.

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Sussex Energy Group Launches Trio of Horizon 2020 Projects

Marquee climate events like COP 26 have been notably sidelined by this year’s dramatic public health emergency. However, research projects across the globe have persisted through the pandemic, continuing to conduct their necessary work tackling decarbonisation targets across the globe.

In the next two months, three more European Union Horizon 2020 projects will commence with the involvement of several Sussex Energy Group academics. Our researchers will contribute their expertise to help inform vital decisions on balancing emission reduction with social and economic goals, both within and beyond the EU.

CINTRAN (Carbon Intensive Regions in Transition – Unravelling the Challenges of Structural Change)

CINTRAN will investigate the effects of EU decarbonization efforts on coal-dependent regions. These regions are particularly vulnerable to the economic and social upheaval (and resultant inequality) that can be caused by the deep structural changes resulting from EU climate mitigation activities.

The project focuses on four of these fossil-fuel dependent regions: Western Macedonia (Greece), Silesia (Poland), Ida-Virumaa (Estonia) and the Rhenish mining area (Germany). To minimise harmful consequences to these areas and others like them, it is necessary to understand:

  • Patterns and dynamics of structural change in response to decarbonization at the regional level
  • Parameters determining the pace of transformation
  • The capacity of regional actors to cope, adapt and pro-actively create alternative structures.

Better understanding of these areas will produce insights about the patterns and dynamics of decarbonisation and corresponding structural adjustments. These insights have relevance for all carbon-intensive regions in the EU and neighbouring countries.


JUSTNORTH (Toward Just, Ethical and Sustainable Arctic Economies, Environments and Societies)

The development of the Artic has been historically characterised by inequitable practices, further complicated today by the adverse effects of climate change. JUSTNORTH combines justice theories with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in order to evaluate the true viability of economic activities in the Artic regions.

JUSTNORTH will provide policy makers with insights from indigenous communities, local businesses, state government and NGOs of the social, economic and environmental complexities of the Arctic. The project will carry out 16 case studies, covering topics as diverse as Icelandic fisheries, polar tourism, wind farming, reindeer herding and employment. These activities will inform the creation of a “JUSTscore framework”, aiming to create transparency, documentation and standardisation for sustainable development across the Arctic, and even further into the EU.

LANDMARC (LAND-use based MitigAtion for Resilient Climate pathways)

The Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector  is responsible for about a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in a wide variety of ways, for example through deforestation, drained peatland, the application of manure or burning biomass.  Land use based mitigation technologies (LMTs)  can contribute significantly  to the global efforts in climate change mitigation and meet the challenges of sustainable ecosystems management.  Despite the presence of LMTs in  most of the  submitted Nationally Determined Contributions  (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, doubt remains on the effectiveness of mitigation measures in reducing emissions. This project will assess the potential effectiveness of Land-use based Mitigation Technologies (LMTs) as net sinks for greenhouse gases.

LANDMARC is an interdisciplinary global consortium bringing together 18 partners from agriculture, ecology, engineering, climate sciences, satellite earth observation sciences, economics, social sciences and more. The partners are based in the EU, Africa, Asia and the Americas, providing a global perspective on this far-reaching concern. The consortium will carry out 8 work packages and 16 case studies in five continents,  covering LMTs in different land use systems including agriculture, forestry, reforestation, agro-forestry and peat soils. The project will achieve this through the creation of a suite of modelling tools and a model system to inform decisions by private sector stakeholders and policymakers.


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Making sure organisations’ climate change targets are not part of a zero-sum game

Dr Andrea Smith’s thesis, What factors – external and internal – influence a firm’s choice of voluntary greenhouse gas mitigation activities?, investigated the role of renewable electricity contractual instruments (green tariffs, renewable electricity certificates, etc) in businesses’ climate change strategies. In this blog, she explains the backstory to her research and discusses her thesis’s findings based on her work with 11 large UK and German firms.

The targets set by firms in the corporate Hall of Fame

Many of the biggest and the best-known firms across the world have set ambitious targets to tackle climate change – and this means tackling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electricity use which is a significant contributor to most organisations’ carbon footprint. Many big name brands have joined RE100, an organisation that encourages organisations to pledge to using 100% renewable electricity as part of the fight against climate change. Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Marks & Spencer, Virgin Media, Zurich: the 200-plus companies that have joined RE100 reads like a Who’s Who of the corporate world. The Crown Estate is listed among them too: renewable electricity targets are not limited to the business world.[i]

The electricity through your socket: you don’t get what you pay for

Wind Turbines Near Mountain

Buying renewable electricity (RE) is not as simple as it may seem. If an organisation has its own on-site wind turbines or solar panels, it is directly consuming RE. If it is taking electricity from the grid, then the origin of the electricity coming through its sockets is determined by whichever methods of electricity generation are sending electricity to the grid.[ii]

An organisation’s GHG emissions from electricity use can be calculated in two ways[iii]:

It can be calculated by finding out which grids it is connected to and the average emissions per unit of electricity on those grids. This is known as the location method because it is the location of the organisation which counts.

There is a second method of estimating emissions. The market-based method bases emissions on the contractual arrangements (known as instruments) an organisation enters for the provision of electricity. The instrument could be a green tariff with an electricity supplier, or a contract directly between the RE generator putting electricity onto the grid and the consumer organisation, or energy attribute certificates.

Energy attribute certificates document that 1 MWh of electricity has been produced by a particular electricity generation method (usually a renewable method). A common European certificate is the Guarantee of Origin. This was created by a European directive in 2001.[iv] The GO – or GoO depending on your sense of humour –  had a troubled upbringing. There was a wrangle at European level over the best means of public support for RE: a European-wide quota system or feed-in tariffs. The quota camp lost but the GO remained in the directive with a vague, residual role as a label of RE[v]. Organisations that want to claim they were using RE buy GOs. Sometimes they are packaged with electricity or they can be stand-alone purchases. Typically, organisations use them to cover part, or even all of their electricity consumption, and then say they have reduced their emissions from electricity use.

So, what’s the problem?

Prima facie, buying GOs is positive course of action. From conversations with firms, I am convinced that some staff apply neoliberal axioms related to supply and demand and genuinely believe that the purchase of energy attribute certificates or green tariffs will incentivise more investment in solar, wind farms and other RE generating capacity. Unfortunately, research on the impact of the GO (and European green tariffs which are usually backed by GOs) does not support this. Supply has consistently exceeded demand, in a large part due to the huge amount of decades-old hydropower. Figure 1 shows how hydropower GOs dominate the market.  Norwegian hydropower pumps out certificates that are exported all over Europe. Evidence suggests that new RE capacity has been driven by financial incentives from public policy that have significantly outweighed the tiny extra income that RE generators make from certificate sales. [vi]

Figure 1: GOs issued over the period 2010-2015 by generation method.

Note: The figure is taken from Dagoumas and Koltsaklis (2017) and is based on data from the Association of Issuing Bodies.

There is considerably less research on the US certificate – the Renewable Energy Certificate. However, what there is  shows that the price of RECs has been too low to make a difference to investment decisions for new wind power.[vii]

These situations create a zero-sum game. Organisations that use RE contractual instruments typically go on to report reduced GHG emissions as a result of their use. The emission rate of the electricity used by everyone else increases commensurately as organisations buying GOs and RECs lay claim to low-carbon electricity on the grid for a small fee. While these organisations typically report their RE use and GHG emissions on their websites and in their Corporate Social Responsibility reports, the emissions of organisations that do not use RE contractual instruments may go unreported or are reported using the location-based method, which means organisations use the same emission rate irrespective of their RE contractual arrangements. The result is no net change in emissions, but the public and politicians are potentially left with the impression that organisations are driving new RE capacity more than they actually are.

Is there a solution?

Some organisations try to address the issue of supply outstripping demand through only buying certificates from RE generation facilities less that a certain number of years old, thereby trying to create scarcity in the market and encourage new supply. Other organisations enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs) directly with RE generators, undertaking to buy a certain quantity of electricity at a certain price for a certain number of years. I expect it may be easier for RE project developers to find finance for new wind and solar farms and other types of RE if they have a guaranteed income from a PPA. However, neither tactic has been investigated by academics.

Would it be better for firms not to use RE contractual instruments?

Dr Matthew Brander, Dr Michael Gillenwater and Dr Francisco Ascui have been among the leading voices calling attention to the problems of the market-based approach as outlined above[viii]. They have also raised the further question of whether use of RE contractual instruments may actually divert organisations from measures that reduce GHG emissions i.e. electricity efficiency. They argue there could be a reduced incentive to cut electricity consumption if there were no reported emissions from electricity. This question was one of two addressed by my PhD thesis.

My thesis looked at the factors influencing the GHG mitigation strategies of 11 large German and UK firms as they evolved typically over more than a decade. I focussed on the interactions between RE contractual instrument use and efficiency improvements in all types of energy use, although the effect on other mitigation measures is assessed. I found that RE contractual instrument use did not always entail any cost for these firms. Even if it did, the cost was small compared to other operating costs. Where there was a cost, a re-allocation of funds to internal mitigating activities e.g. energy efficiency might have only led to small, on-going emission reductions, although if the money had been spent on offsets instead, there would have been substantial, but one-off reductions.

I also found that the use of emission rates based on RE contractual instruments[ix] use had led to a change in focus or a potential change in focus on other GHG mitigation activities in very limited instances. I characterised the circumstances in which I found a change or a reduction in focus on energy efficiency/saving or the potential for this. This outcome depended on the intersection of circumstances (all three were necessary conditions):

1. where a reputation/moral motivation was driving RE contractual instrument use[x];

2. where energy efficiency/saving were not being driven solely or strongly by cost-saving;

3. where staff did not prevent a reduction or change in focus on energy efficiency/saving activities.

I have suggested some simple reporting requirements that could be introduced to prevent this change/reduction in focus from occurring (see this briefing).[xi]

Conclusion

In summary, the use of RE certificates and green tariffs has not been shown to have a positive effect on RE investment. However, if the firms I studied are typical of other organisations, any negative impact on other GHG mitigating activities is very limited. I would prefer that organisations spent any premium that they pay for RE certificates and green tariffs on good quality offsets instead, as they offer more certain benefits. However, offsetting’s poor reputation may make organisations wary, and carbon footprinting rules discourage this course of action.[xii]

A more promising course of action is to steer organisations towards ensuring that their use of RE contractual instruments draws on new investment. PPAs look like the contractual instruments most likely to achieve this as they offer RE generators a guaranteed income usually over several years. This may be especially useful in the era of Covid-19 where public financial support for RE may be diverted to other purposes. However, this needs to be checked by research on the efficacy of PPAs in incentivising extra investment[xiii]. Organisations need to know what characterises an effective PPA or any other RE contractual instrument. We do not have time in the battle against climate change to go down any dead-ends.


[i] Alarcon, C., and M. Reynolds. 2019. ‘Going 100% Renewable: How Committed Companies Are Demanding a Faster Market Response’. RE100 Annual Report Progress and Insights. http://media.virbcdn.com/files/5c/aa8193f038934840-Dec2019RE100ProgressandInsightsAnnualReport.pdf.

[ii] Monyei, C.G., and K.E.H. Jenkins. 2018. ‘Electrons Have No Identity: Setting Right Misrepresentations in Google and Apple’s Clean Energy Purchasing’. Energy Research & Social Science 46 (December): 48–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.06.015.

[iii] Sotos, M. 2015. ‘GHG Protocol Scope 2 Guidance – An Amendment to the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard’. World Resources Institute, Washington D.C., USA. https://wriorg.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Scope_2_Guidance_Final.pdf.

[iv] European Parliament and European Council. 2001. Directive 2001/77/EC. http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/energy/renewable_energy/l27035_en.htm.

[v] Lauber, V., and E. Schenner. 2011. ‘The Struggle over Support Schemes for Renewable Electricity in the European Union: A Discursive Institutionalist Analysis’. Environmental Politics 20 (4): 508–27., Nilsson, M., L. J. Nilsson, and K. Ericsson. 2009. ‘The Rise and Fall of GO Trading in European Renewable Energy Policy: The Role of Advocacy and Policy Framing’. Energy Policy 37 (11): 4454–62. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2009.05.065.

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[ix] I also investigated low-carbon electricity contractual instruments, specifically GO certificating the production of electricity from high-efficiency Combined Heat and Power plants.

[x] What businesses said about their motivation was taken at face value as to assess these statements was beyond the scope of this research.

[xi] See also section 12.3.1 (page 439) of my thesis.

[xii] Sotos, M. 2015. ‘GHG Protocol Scope 2 Guidance – An Amendment to the GHG Protocol Corporate Standard’. World Resources Institute, Washington D.C., USA. https://wriorg.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/Scope_2_Guidance_Final.pdf.

[xiii] See also concerns raised by Monyei and Jenkins (2018) about the wider implications of PPAs.

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