Parents, preeners, pets and pipes: what motivates heating decisions?

Home heating is essential through any blustery British winter, especially as Covid-19 restrictions confine us to our own living spaces and deepen our appreciation of home comforts. Accounting for 37% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, the heating sector also forms a large part of the national decarbonisation puzzle.

A new research paper involving Sussex Energy Group researchers, Humanizing heat as a service: Cost, creature comforts and the diversity of smart heating practices in the United Kingdom, looks at why people heat their homes the way they do, and the underlying patterns behind personal heating preferences and practices. This blog explains some of the paper’s findings exploring the breadth of motivations to heating decisions, the many needs heat meets, and how its application isn’t always exclusively for the benefit of human residents.

Introducing energy phenomenology

‘Energy phenomenology’ is the paper’s proposed means of understanding people’s heating choices. It combines the lived experience approach with energy biographies to form a framework for understanding how experiences, practices and identities shape energy services and consumption.

The lived experience approach studies individual’s unique human actions and behaviour along with the subjective meanings associated with life events. It describes emotions and non-rational elements of behaviour not captured by many other modes of inquiry, including stated preference techniques.

Energy biographies interrogate how energy use expresses shared practices and attaches meaning to everyday behaviours which can often be taken for granted.

The paper combines both approaches to form “the energy phenomenology framework”.

Identity shapes heating use. Seeing yourself as an environmentalist or consumerist, a parent or a child, wealthy or poor, will influence energy consumption.  These identities and their associated values and priorities with domestic niceties like a warm home, a clean bathroom, a comfortable living room, or a convenient way of doing a chore will shape consumption.  “Historically shared practices, routines, habits, and norms can fuse together with infrastructure such as appliances, gas boilers, or buildings to lead to socio-material attachment. Heat practices are also dynamic and temporally complex, altering and changing across life events and stages, a process we term lifestyle changes.”

Parenting, preening, pets and pipes: what motivates heating decisions?

Researchers applied the energy phenomenology framework to experiential data gathered through the Energy Systems Catapult’s Living Lab, which provided 100 homes across Birmingham, Bridgend, Manchester and Newcastle with smart heating and digitally operable zonal heating controls.

Data collected through interviews and diaries produced hundreds of pages of qualitative data, within which researchers identified seven distinct themes recurring in participants’ energy usage.

Fig. 1: The seven phenomenological uses of smart heating controls and diversity of heating practices.

One of the most prominent themes is heat’s versatile application to provide care and compassion through adjusting a thermostat. Residents used heating to anticipate children’s discomfort, soothe arthritic joints, and relieve symptoms of illnesses or their treatments. This application of care is often extended to non-human household members, with residents recording how they would leave heating on for pets, and even houseplants, when leaving their homes otherwise empty.

Once the wellbeing and comfort of the inhabitants had been assured, residents often applied heat to the needs of the building that house them. Several households explained how their use of smart heat intended to prevent structural damp and protect pipework from the possibility of freezing.

“It’s important to keep the building warm, you know? We haven’t got damp and one of the reasons is presumably because we’ve got the heating on.”

Social signalling can also be an element behind heating decisions, projecting comfort and hospitality. What host could pass up the opportunity to bask in the approval of their well-toasted guests, as well as the warmth of their hardworking boiler?

“I want a home that is warm, comfortable, family friendly, and homely. That’s what heat is for.”

Identity, needs, attachment and transition – what lies behind heating motivations?

How can the functional uses of heating, as used by the Living Lab’s residents, be placed within the energy phenomenology of smart heat? The paper puts forward four influences behind the motivations for heating decisions.

Fig. 2. Identity, needs, attachment and transition in the energy phenomenology of smart heating controls and practices.

Individual identity. Heat controls provide an outlet for the roles an individual assumes. Heating practices help to communicate that sense of being a nurturing parent or caregiver, or conscientious homeowner. They can even replicate rituals from childhood, with one resident keen to provide their son with heated pyjamas despite his equally heated opposition.

“I used to like it when I was little, so I have passed it along to him. Sometimes he whines, and says, ‘It’s too hot, it’s too hot,’ but it’s better than having a cold pair of pyjamas, isn’t it, really?”.

Parental identities are strong influences on heating decisions

Experiential preferences and needs. The diary entries reveal how many needs can be met through the calibration of a virtual thermostat. The paper’s most memorable example comes in the unexpected form of a cat’s birthday party, where the host’s pet-loving instincts combine with social signalling and expressions of care for elderly houseguests.

“When people come over, we want to make sure the house is warm. Especially if there is something special going on, like it being the cat’s birthday or something crazy like that. We just have a party for anything. Any excuse for a party. So when I am roasting a dinner on a Sunday or something, and then we had an excuse for a cake and stuff, people will come over. And some of our friends are old, or disabled, so we need to keep it always really warm for them.”

Socio-material attachment. Domestic habits are often shaped by a mix of personal behaviours and  ingrained behaviours formed in response to an inhabitant’s surrounding infrastructure. Smart heating proved to be no exception to this. Several residents used smart heating controls to indulge a fond concept of the bathroom as “a special room” for self-confessed extravagance. Some residents use their controls to give it “an extra boost” before use, with one even leaving theirs perpetually heated. These attachments can be more sustainable (e.g. letting rooms cool before sleeping) or less sustainable (e.g. always keeping the bathroom warm). Either way, but they are a considerable factor in heating usage.

Lifestyle changes. Heating needs and experiences shift over time and as lifestyles change. Hallmarks of adult life, such as hosting guests and raising children, can give way to managing long-term illnesses and increasing sensitivity to temperatures with age. These shifts demonstrate the changing nature of heat and offer promising opportunities for predicting and improving heat management.

Humanising heat research and policy

What does energy phenomenology’s perspective of these themes and motivations mean for how we understand heating use? This research highlights that “for occupants, heating preferences must be discovered through a process of learning, engagement and living, rather than existing as something innate or predetermined, or known in advance”. Heating users may not recognise their own heating preferences and expectations without the degree of immersive involvement facilitated by initiatives like the Living Lab.

This means stated preferences, as often derived from surveys and similar research tools, acquire only an insufficient understanding of the topic. Instead, revealed preferences can allow policymakers and planners to account for the diversity, irrationality and unpredictability of heating practices shown in the study.

The paper contrasts the arguably more successful efforts to decarbonise transport, with policy approaches to decarbonise heating. Policy developments in heat have encouraged increased efficiency and encouraged the adoption of low carbon heating systems. However, with this and other studies clearly illustrating the value of heat for a multitude of other purposes, the industry could learn from carmakers’ talent for meeting consumer needs along a range of price points. Luxury home comfort items meeting similar needs, like electric powered “fire”places, have become increasingly popular. These products point to an untapped potential to capture some of the glamour and momentum of carmakers like Tesla, the principles behind their success selling a vision of “luxurious forms of electric mobility” applied to the mundane world of boilers and radiators.

Whether it’s warming pyjamas, impressing guests, comforting the elderly or bathing in extravagantly humid bathrooms, heat and its human (and often humane) application reflect the diversity of human experience and identity. Researchers, policymakers, planners and even smart heat technologists can benefit from greater insights into how these easily overlooked factors work for and against decarbonisation objectives.

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Climate strikes back: anatomy of protesters in six cities

Climate strikes protestors, one holding a board that reads Reduce Reduce Reduce

This post was originally published in The Beam. The Beam is a tri-annual printed publication covering the energy transition and the race to a zero carbon economy.

In August 2018, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg started to strike from school on Fridays to protest against a lack of action on the climate crisis. Her actions made her the most famous teenager on the planet and sparked a historically large youth movement, leading to a series of school strikes across the world.

Over the course of one week in September 2019, striking school children, students and other grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion called for everyone to participate in a Global Climate Strike which was attended by more than 7 million people.

At the time, there was a genuine sense of a historic and decisive global shift on the issue of climate change. This momentum sadly has stalled with the arrival of COVID-19 just a few months later.

But the threat of the climate crisis has not disappeared just because it has disappeared from the front pages of newspapers. The world will need all the energy and determination of the Climate Strike movement to avert the impending global man-made catastrophe.

With colleagues at Southern Connecticut State University, University of Bergen, Imperial College London and The Foote School, I conducted the first global academic study into the global strikes to better understand the motivations of those taking part.

Conducting interviews with Climate Strike protesters in London and Brighton and Hove (UK), Montreal (Canada), New Haven and New York (USA) and Stavanger (Norway), we aimed to learn more about participants’ knowledge, emotions, motivations and actions in relation to climate change, including any lifestyle changes they have undertaken.

Our results indicate that – while protesters predominantly had negative feelings such as fear, anxiety and despair at the impacts of the climate crisis – responses to address climate change and collective action provided protesters also with hope for the future.

Interestingly strikers from North American cities were more likely to identify that they were “terrified” or felt “threatened” about the prospects of climate change, whereas British strikers were more likely to indicate that they were “hopeful” about taking action.

The lack of action from governments on the issue was a motivating factor for many climate strikers and this motivation was particularly prominent for US participants. This may indicate that the lack of policies, along with the climate denial of the Trump administration, helped grow a stronger climate activist movement in the US over the past four years.

Concern for the planet, the environment and climate was the most frequently mentioned motivation behind strikers participating. Wanting to influence public opinion and policy was the second most mentioned motivation and was especially prevalent in the UK city of Brighton and Hove, which also has a strong history of environmental and political protest.

Being part of a protest movement was important to many, while for others their motivation was less values-driven and more focused on taking part in something novel or impressing their peers.

The slight majority of respondents said that they knew quite a lot about climate change, but almost an equal number said that they only knew a little bit. In terms of information sources, the most important were the protesters’ own background or job and reports produced by scientists, indicating potentially a high level of education and access to information amongst protesters.

Respondents also mentioned newspapers and TV as information sources, but many were sceptical about the reliability of media coverage concerning climate change. Other sources of information included the social movement itself and what Greta Thunberg was saying on climate change.

Encouragingly, just under half of the protesters said it was their first form of climate action.

Equally encouragingly, our study indicated that climate strikers backed up their words with action in their own lives. Almost all of them (95%) said they were personally undertaking lifestyle changes to try and limit their own personal impact on climate change.

The most common personal responses to climate change were changes to modes of transport. These included reduced flying or giving up air travel altogether or swapping cars for bicycles or public transport. People had also changed their diets, reducing meat consumption and sometimes adopting a vegetarian or a vegan diet.

North American climate strikers were most likely to indicate an ambition to reduce personal car use or resort to public transport, despite the high reliance on private car ownership and poor public transport infrastructural investment in their countries. The fact that our interviewees lived in cities with relatively respectable public transport networks in place probably indicates this might not be a nationwide ambition. British and Norwegian respondents were most likely to have aimed to reduce their flying.

Increasing recycling and reusing, while reducing consumption in general, were also common steps. Some changes in the home, like adopting sustainable energy systems or switching to renewable energy suppliers or starting composting, also featured.

One of the most radical changes they were prepared to make was changing their working patterns, either by reducing working hours or undertaking more volunteer work. This, however, is not accessible to everyone, especially those who may be on a low income.

While many of the protesters were already taking action or were keen to make lifestyle changes, there were also many who found that structural and systemic factors were limiting their ability to bring about meaningful and major changes.

From our study, it seems clear that climate strikers are not confined to a particular type of person which might be at odds with their depiction by some in the media. Rather, there is a large spectrum in terms of how equipped people are in terms of knowledge about climate change, what emotions they feel about the climate crisis, what motivates them to take action and what types of action they have taken, are currently taking, or are considering to take.

Among the ranks of climate strikers, there is a great understanding of the enormity of the challenge, great passion to do what is right for the planet and future generations, and great commitment to take the necessary action in their own lives. All of that will be needed in even greater measures now if the movement is to regain the momentum post-2020 and convince those in power of the necessity to deliver meaningful change.

This blog is based on the article Contextualizing climate justice activism: Knowledge, emotions, motivations, and actions among climate strikers in six cities – Mari Martiskainen, Stephen Axon, Benjamin K. Sovacool, Siddharth Sareen, Dylan Furszyfer Del Rio, Kayleigh Axon, Global Environmental Change.

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SEG energy experts respond to the Prime Minister’s ten point net zero plan

This is a repost of this news article written by Neil Vowles for the Sussex news page.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his ten-point plan designed to lead the UK towards net zero by 2050.

The plan includes a ban on combustion engine sales by 2030, quadruple offshore wind power to 40GW by 2030, boost hydrogen production with the promise of a town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade, a £525 million investment towards new nuclear power and support for greener energies in the aviation and maritime sectors

The government is also proposing £1bn next year for funds to insulate homes and public building and plans to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028, an extra £200m invested in carbon capture initiatives, 30,000 hectares of trees planted every year, a pledge to make London “the global centre of green finance” and moves to promote public transport, cycling and walking.

Experts from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School have been reacting to the news throughout the day and analysing the positives and negatives of the proposals.

Steven Sorrell, Professor of Energy Policy, said: “This is a really important statement. It is a clear signal of the priority given to tackling climate change, and a significant step on the road to COP 26.

“The ban on new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030 is game changing – one of the most ambitious targets in the developed world.

“The proposals demonstrate the opportunities opened up by innovation over the last few years. To be effective and politically feasible, policy must link industrial, economic and environmental objectives. These proposals seek to do that.”

Andrew Stirling, Professor of Science & Technology Policy, said: “However many points the Prime Minister may want to include in his plan, there remain some intense challenges if the Government wishes to be seen as serious either on UK energy needs or net-zero strategies.

“If the Government is serious about the net zero imperative and the crucial importance of a robust UK energy strategy, then it cannot simply ‘do everything’. Diversity is an essential quality. But a rich plurality of renewable and efficiency options means this can be achieved without any single option having an automatic place. To spend money on slower or more costly options will divert support from those that are more effective. The plan needs to be clear about this.

“With no white paper in more than twelve years of extraordinary change in global energy markets, it would make sense for the Government to first publish its analysis, before committing to its actions. To do otherwise looks like an effort to undermine scrutiny – reflecting a fear in Government that its actions are out of kilter with the realities.”

Dr Marie Claire Brisbois, Lecturer in Energy Policy, said: “Support for hydrogen will be very useful for sectors that require high energy density such as industrial processes or long distance transport.

“However, the support for hydrogen home heating is not a good use of public funds. Direct electricity use, most likely in the form of heat pumps, is far more energy efficient and cost effective for home heating than hydrogen.

“While hydrogen for home heating will help replace vanishing revenue streams for incumbent gas companies, it will be much more costly than it needs to be for those paying household bills. It’s quite easy to see the results of industry lobbying in this announcement – but it isn’t matched by sound fiscal or thermodynamic arguments.”

David Ockwell, Professor of Geography and member of the Sussex Energy Group, said: “Whilst the ambition is welcome, there is a risk that this ten-point plan fixates on technical fixes, whilst completely ignoring the significant socio-cultural and political dimensions/hurdles of such transformative goals.

“Decades of research in innovation studies and the social sciences more broadly suggest such one-dimensional techno-fixation rarely succeeds in achieving deep socio-technical transformations on anything like the scale of these ten points.

“We need 4D (4 dimensional) policy, not 1D, techno-fix policy. 4D policy addresses the socio-cultural, political, technical and economic dimensions of transformative socio-technical change. It requires engaging with and building locally embedded networks/coalitions of actors that work towards understanding and overcoming these barriers which are deeply social and political in nature. This would nurture the broader, 4D ecosystems within which transformative changes are achieved in practice.”

Dr Andrea Brock, Lecturer in International Relations and member of the Sussex Energy Group, said: “Rather than pursuing techno-fixes, what is truly needed is planned degrowth.

“A move away from individualised transport (to public transport and cycling infrastructure, not resource-intensive e-vehicles and not HS2); decentralised, locally and democratically, not corporate-controlled energy systems (and an immediate stop to all import and mining of coal); reduction, not ‘greening’ of aviation; and staying away from offsets and carbon capture and storage (CCS).”

Dr Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow, said: “The proposed plan and investment focuses on traditional economic growth winners: technological innovation and industrial clusters, while the plan mentions nothing (vision and investment wise) about how these will be implemented locally/regionally and how these investments will link with and feed into local decarbonisations plans which are already underway.

“What is entirely missing is the whole system thinking: how are these technologies and investments going to work in a complementary way. Large quantities of offshore wind will need to be integrated into the grid, often in areas where the grid is really constrained. In regions like Sussex where there is a lot of solar, this will be expensive.

“Strategic investment and anticipatory investment (ahead of need) requires building interoperable infrastructure and place-based partnerships, innovation and cooperation at a scale significantly beyond existing levels. Developing interoperable decarbonisation infrastructure depends on place-based partnerships, innovation and cooperation, which requires sustained investment and incentives.”

Dr Matthew Lockwood, Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy, said: “The plan shows that the government takes the climate agenda seriously. However, the steps proposed still fall short of what is needed to get on track for net zero. Of the £12 billion announced funding, only approximately £4 billion of this is new, and is a small relative commitment relative to the ones made by the governments in France and Germany.

“To get the scale of installation on retrofitting homes, which is still below the 1 million+/year that the Climate Change Committee says we need, the supply side will be key. We will need thousands of firms able to do what is quite a highly skilled job of calculating heat loads and fitting complex kit. This capability does not exist in the UK at the moment.”

Dr Donal Brown, Research Fellow, said: “While the extension to the Green homes Grant is welcome, there is still a general feeling of short termism surrounding the government thinking on decarbonisation of buildings and especially homes.

“We now have an industry that is very suspicious of government policy in this space. The only way we are going to win that trust back is with a long-term plan with 10+ years of funding, regulation and training. That is the only way the supply chain will be convinced this is something worth investing time and money in. This will also encourage new people into the industry creating new jobs.”

Dr Philip Johnstone, Research Fellow, said: “The continued enthusiasm for nuclear including untested Small Modular Reactors is likely to be the latest in a pattern of consistent British industrial policy blunders that have nuclear as the common denominator.

“From AGRs, the PWR programme of 1979, and Fast Breeder reactors, the UK obsession with nuclear has consistently meant Britain and its workforce has been left behind in fully grasping the benefits of energy innovation. History repeats itself once again.”

Gordon Mackerron, Professor of Science and Technology Policy, said: “The Prime Minister’s plans for nuclear power add up to very little in practice.It is plain that despite his expectation expressed last year about nuclear fusion being commercially ready by 2040, this is simply not possible even well beyond that.

“Small modular reactors remain unproven and will remain so for several years. The Rolls Royce-led lobby wanted £2 billion of public spending on this commercially highly risky technology but overall nuclear development is to receive £525 million.This is still a potentially poor use of public money, because all potential reactors to be developed are a long shot at best.

“The role of nuclear in getting to net zero is inevitably small and likely to be much more costly than alternatives.”

Noam Bergman, Lecturer in Energy Policy, said “The investment in electric vehicles and ceasing sales of (new) petrol and diesel cars and vans is a welcome and important step. However, the transport plan is reliant on a techno-fix, and suggests a continuation of the current system of high-energy, high-demand personal transport in private vehicles, with a nod towards cleaner public transport and cycle lanes, for which no money is promised. Investments in cycling and walking infrastructure, joined up public transport, and reduced demand (e.g., through telecommuting) are also necessary, as electrification of personal transport is not sufficient to meet our climate goals.”

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Transitioning to low-carbon transport must address social justice issues alongside emissions reductions

Dr Mari Martiskainen, Senior Research Fellow at SPRU and Equity and Justice Theme lead for the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS), and Dr Max Lacey-Barnacle, Research Fellow in Energy Justice at SPRU, explain why we must think beyond reducing emissions to ensure no one is left behind in the transition to low-carbon transport.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been calls to re-think and re-design our personal transport system. Many people, motivated by a fear of infection, have opted for cars instead of public transport, and sales of bicycles have peaked.

Before the pandemic, we were already witnessing the growth of low-carbon transport, with the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the world’s roads, for example, increasing from 17,000 in 2010 to 7.2 million in 2019 – though research has found EVs are not the silver bullet to solve transport emissions.

E-bikes, meanwhile, could cut CO2 emissions by up to 50% in England (approximately 30 million tonnes a year) if people used them to replace as much of their car travel as they are able to.

With the arrival of Covid-19 and social distancing, we’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of people walking and cycling, forms of low-emission active travel which both bring added health benefits.

The UK Government has committed to investing £2 billion in active travel and promised an updated Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy this year. Pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements and cycle and bus-only corridors are becoming familiar sights as local authorities adapt transport infrastructure to reflect the ‘new normal’ and lay the foundations for permanent change.

We’ll need all these means of greener and healthier travel in our move towards a net-zero carbon society. But, if we are to build a socially and environmentally sustainable world, we also need to consider who can access them and how the technologies they require are made.

Transport poverty and why green transport design must be inclusive

In recent years, research has started to highlight ‘transport poverty’. This can be understood as the inability to afford or access necessary transport services.

Someone experiencing transport poverty may, for example, be unable to afford essential transport costs, or they may live far away from public transport such as buses and trains, having to rely on expensive private cars. This in turn could mean having to make choices in other areas of their life, such as how much energy to use at home.

Being in transport poverty restricts people’s ability to travel, for example, for work, school, caring duties, healthcare, and hobbies – it therefore directly impacts their ability to fully participate in society.

In addition, certain communities may be more at risk of transport poverty. For example, those living in rural and peri-rural communities may be more likely to encounter high transport costs due to a lack of convenient alternatives to cars. Those with pre-existing health and mobility issues, meanwhile, may also be more affected, for example by limited access to active travel options.

As we move towards green transport, we therefore need to acknowledge these inequalities and begin tackling them.

From local to global – a whole systems approach

A fair and equitable move to low-carbon transport also requires considering how green transport technologies are made.

We must ensure, for example, that certain countries do not form a ‘green elite’, with little thought given to the fact that many of the materials and minerals for low-carbon technologies like EV batteries often come from polluting mines that damage their local environment. Many such mines have also been shown to have poor working conditions which often exploit vulnerable workers, especially women and children, in the least economically developed countries.

A low-carbon transport system thus needs a whole systems approach that considers the whole supply chain, from materials and working conditions, to infrastructure and practices.

This means, at first, recognising those that are vulnerable. For example, a new EV purchased in the UK may be directly linked to child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where many children are used to mine for cobalt, an essential component of lithium ion batteries in EVs.

It also means designing transport systems that are accessible and affordable to all. For example, those with mobility issues may not be able to access the latest bike lanes built in our cities and not everyone can afford an EV or have the space to store a bike. This is where an increase in accessible and affordable low-carbon public transport, such as electric bus networks and new train and tram systems, can be essential to addressing issues of equity in the transition to a net-zero society.

Thus, the first step to creating a truly equal net-zero society is to acknowledge that issues such as transport poverty exist, and that some of our low-carbon transport options connect to injustices across the world.

While it is challenging, we must begin to recognise the inequalities in accessibility and affordability of transport systems, alongside acknowledging the whole-systems injustices a growing demand for new low-carbon technologies may create. Without this, low-carbon transport systems may risk increasing poverty and inequality.

Drawing upon a justice oriented lens and energy justice principles, we can begin to unravel the injustices embedded in low-carbon transport systems and find ways in which justice can be achieved.

Find out more about the Fuel and Transport Poverty in the UK’s Energy Transition (FAIR) project on the CREDS website.

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Nuclear vs renewable energy and the critical importance of independent research

This is an adapted version of a Nature.com blog by Prof Benjamin K. Sovacool and Prof Andy Stirling, to accompany the publication of their paper “Differences in carbon emissions reduction between countries pursuing renewable electricity versus nuclear power” in Nature Energy. A University of Sussex press release also summarises the paper’s findings and policy recommendations.

The role of nuclear power in a low-carbon future has been subject to a long and contentious debate. Is a nuclear or a renewables pathway the best way forward, or do we need a “do everything” approach where every deployable technology is rolled out to decarbonise our electricity supply as soon as possible?

Many influential climate scientists and international organisations argue that a global shift towards nuclear power offers the best pathway to tackling the climate emergency and meeting the world’s increasing demands for electricity.

Others argue that renewable sources of energy are the best pathway towards a low-carbon electricity system and assert that they are cleaner, safer and more economically sustainable than nuclear.

In an attempt to negotiate these contending positions, a frequent mantra is that energy strategies should “do everything” in order to address the climate emergency. But – as a number of commentators have noted (for example, here and here) – this would actually be a highly irrational course of action.

Where “doing everything” involves making investments that are slower or less cost effective, which divert resources away from preferable options, or which in some other way impede them, the result would be potentially disastrous for carbon emissions mitigation.

Amidst many uncertainties, the real questions we should be addressing are about which investments offer the most cost-effective and beneficial ways forward.

Our new paper, Differences in carbon emissions reduction between countries pursuing renewable electricity versus nuclear power, seeks to contribute towards this debate.

Nuclear vs renewable energy – what this paper tells us

Our paper focuses specifically on situations in which real-world constraints mean strategic choices must be made on resource allocation between nuclear or renewables-based electricity.

Our research explores this dilemma retrospectively, examining past patterns in the attachments (i.e. investments) of different countries to nuclear or renewable strategies. Our paper addresses three hypotheses:

  1. A “nuclear climate mitigation” hypothesis: that countries with a greater attachment to nuclear power will tend to have lower overall carbon emissions.
  2.  A “renewables climate mitigation” hypothesis: that countries with a greater attachment to renewables will tend to have lower overall carbon emissions.
  3. A “crowding out” hypothesis: that countries with a greater attachment to nuclear will tend to have a lesser attachment to renewables, and vice versa

Across the study countries as a whole we found that the “nuclear climate mitigation” hypothesis is not sustained by the evidence at an appropriate level of statistical significance. The renewable climate mitigation hypothesis is confirmed with substantial significance. And the crowding out hypothesis is also significantly sustained.

Put plainly – if countries want to lower emissions as substantially, rapidly and cost-effectively as possible, they should prioritise support for renewables rather than nuclear power. Pursuit of nuclear strategies risks taking up resources that could be used more effectively and suppressing the uptake of renewable energy.

A windmill next to a body of water

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What causes these patterns?

What might explain these patterns? Technologically, nuclear systems have been prone to greater construction cost overruns, delays, and longer lead times than similarly sized renewable energy projects. Thus, per dollar invested, the modularity of renewables projects offers quicker emissions reductions than large-scale, delay-prone, nuclear projects.

Furthermore, renewables tend to display higher rates of positive learning where increased deployment results in lower costs and improved performance, especially for wind farms and solar energy parks. This contrasts with the experience of nuclear power in France which has been prone to negative learning,” rising costs or reduced performance with the next generation of technology.

In terms of policy, the incidents at Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011), all resulted in significant tightening of regulatory requirements for nuclear reactors.

Finally, wider social factors may also work against nuclear energy, and for renewable energy, facilitating faster acceptance, permitting and deployment.

Of course, these are just informed speculations, beyond the scope of the paper itself. Other commentators will favor contrasting interpretations.

But here, perhaps the most important issue – especially given the prominence of the topic and the scale of what is at stake – is that this kind of analysis has been so remarkably neglected over recent years.

Given how highly charged and hotly contested the associated policy controversy is, it is rather strange that there is not a large body of work on these questions. Either way, the many open questions and issues of detail acknowledged in the paper show that much work remains to be done.

The critical importance of independent research – our view

We have presented the findings of our research. Now we must acknowledge the uncertainties and errors, divergent interpretations and clashing interests that make it difficult to achieve the comprehensive prioritising analysis called for at the beginning of this blog – while making a case for the vital importance of scientific scrutiny.

In an ideal world of “evidence-based policy”, energy and climate policy would only go ahead after comprehensive research into every relevant positive or negative aspect of all possible energy resources.

The resulting self-evident “facts” would be examined by objective analysts and any uncertainties eliminated, until a point where a single unambiguous ‘truth’ is determined – with grateful policy makers adopting the identified energy pathway or portfolio.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world.

Across various energy debates – and not restricted to any political constituency – crucial roles are often played by deliberate mis-representation of information, manipulation of discourse, co-option of leading opposing voices, direct subversion of opponents and stifling of meaningful public debate. 

Under conditions like this, the line between advocacy and scholarship (porous at the best of times) can become especially loose when analysts become passionate about their topic. The reasons for such passion can be as trivial as disciplinary identities or sectoral interests, or as deep as wider political ideologies. On all sides “theorising” can be reduced to a search for validation, and “investigation” to the selective collection of data. 

Energy debates suffer gravely from these syndromes. “Energy evangelists” on all sides are convinced they have found “the solution” to societies’ energy problems—whether this be solar energy, hydrogen fuel cells or nuclear reactors. The intensity of this advocacy (and the scale of the interests often behind it) can lead to everyone else’s solutions being treated as sacrilegious.

So, exchanges of ideas can become hostile battlefields where proponents are unable to reconcile their underlying differences.

There seems to be an especially pernicious asymmetry in this field. Those whom comparative analysis leads to be generally critical of nuclear power are labelled “anti-nuclear”, whilst no such generally-established terminology exists to the same degree for those who are (entirely legitimately – if debatably) critical of renewable energy.

The situation is aggravated by so much research in this field being (unlike our own) funded (directly or indirectly) by organisations with prior entrenched interests on one side or another.

Despite this, we have often found valued opportunities to bridge the divide with those who hold “opposing” views, but with similar open mindedness and good faith.

It is in this spirit that our analysis is offered. We are open about its background and limitations. We acknowledge that our evidence does not compel only one supposedly definitive interpretation. We are clear about the conditions attached to our own interpretations. By publishing our full dataset and the detailed procedures undertaken in our regression analyses, we offer a basis for others to contest our findings.

The “truth” of our study is in this sense not something arrived at by particular analysts claiming individually-transcendent authority, but by contrastingly-oriented analysts contending with each other in an open and pluralistic way, such as to arrive collectively at more robust understandings. This is the organised skepticism of independent science.

If our analysis stimulates reactions in the same vein, then the cause of scientific scrutiny is reinforced. If, on the other hand, it leads to less qualified assertions and ad hominen labelling, then the chance of bridging the polarised divides is sadly diminished. We hope it will do the former.

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