Why You Should Consider a Place-Based Approach to Hydrogen

Hydrogen is very much on the agenda at COP27’s Energy Day today (15 November 2022). In today’s programme there are two separate sessions devoted to exploring hydrogen’s potential not only as a replacement for fossil fuels, but also as a source of green, inclusive, economic growth in Africa and beyond. 

As it happens, this is a conversation I can contribute to. As project lead on the CREDS funded project: Place-based business models for Net Zero I have been exploring how to develop hydrogen solutions that create value locally for your economy, communities and the environment.  As part of this project, my colleague (and fellow SEG member) Dr Giulia Mininni and I have reviewed 26 regional and national level hydrogen strategies to identify the key drivers and best practices you should consider when developing a hydrogen strategy for your region.  Here’s a short summary of what we found. 

Why a hydrogen strategy matters

Hydrogen is a very promising technology. It has the potential to help us achieve Net Zero, deliver green jobs and economic growth, and meet industry’s decarbonisation needs.

But incorporating hydrogen into your energy mix requires careful planning. If you want to generate, store and transport hydrogen you will need substantial investment in a lot of new infrastructure. At the same time, you will also need to consider how quickly the cost of hydrogen will drop in future – as this is crucial for ensuring there is sufficient local demand. 

After studying both regional and national hydrogen strategies from many different countries, we strongly recommend taking what is often called a place-based approach to hydrogen. 

What is a place-based approach?

A place-based approach is strategy that puts the specific circumstances of a particular place front and centre, and engages local people as active participants in decision-making. 

This is an approach many regions are taking to hydrogen. It involves identifying and developing place-based business models that can maximise local demand and seize opportunities which might not exist at a larger scale. 

5 pillars for a place-based hydrogen strategy 

In our report, we pick out five things you should take into account when developing a place-based approach to hydrogen. These are:

  1. Your region’s physical geography
  2. Your access to crucial infrastructure like ports, transport networks, and industrial or technological centres 
  3. Your political and institutional landscape
  4. The human resources you can draw from; and 
  5. Any distinctive opportunities and issues you might have

By building your hydrogen strategy around those five pillars, you will be in a better position to  maximise your region’s distinctive strengths, provide opportunities for future cost reduction, and deliver and retain value for local communities. 

What a good place-based hydrogen strategy looks like  

Our report also identifies some of the best practices for developing an effective place-based hydrogen strategy. Here are some of the most important of these. 

First, take a whole-systems approach. That means you should be thinking about how hydrogen would fit in with the existing economies, industrial systems, and infrastructure you already have. It also means considering what societal benefits for the region you can provide, and how hydrogen solutions will balance local resources and environmental objectives — such as Net Zero and biodiversity. A whole-systems approach is crucial for reducing costs and increasing demand, through creating strategic interdependencies and coordination between different parts of your economy. 

Second, embrace learning by doing.  Building an evidence base from pilots and studies is really important. This will allow you to identify where you can reduce costs as well as avenues for scaling up. But good learning by doing will also involve collaboration and knowledge exchange across different sectors making use of hydrogen and with other regions doing similar things. This is partly because pilot programmes are heavilydependent on global supply chains, which (as the last few years have taught us!) can be disrupted. Effective collaboration across both vectors and regions can minimise those disruptions. 

Third, work with industry and communities to create local benefits. It’s important to build trust with those groups, and engage them in the decision-making process. While many hydrogen strategies are developed through close engagement with local industry utilities, communities are often not given enough input in the decision making process. Place-based hydrogen solutions needs to be built through continued multi-stakeholder collaboration to create better outcomes for local communities and users.

Where you can find out more

More detail about all of this will be in our full report – which will be out soon! If you’d like to read more about what we are doing, you can find our project website here.

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Canada needs an energy poverty strategy. Here’s what it might look like.

Professor Runa Das presenting her work at the Sussex Energy Group in October 2022.
Professor Runa R. Das

With COP27 now underway in Egypt,  the question of how to deliver a just transition is very much on the agenda. 

Greening a country’s economy in a way that’s fair and inclusive is a complex issue, with challenges that vary from country to country. But one issue many governments need to grapple with is energy poverty – the inability of households to adequately heat, cool, or light their homes.  

In October 2022, the David Suzuki Foundation released Keeping the Lights Ona pioneering new report on energy poverty in Canada, an important issue that’s still flying under the radar for  Canada’s policymakers. 

This report is co-authored by SEG Co-director Professor Mari Martiskainen and Dr Runa Das, an  Associate Professor at Royal Roads University. It sets out a series of actionable, evidence-based policy recommendations that could serve as a starting point for a Canadian energy poverty strategy. 

In October 2022, soon after the report’s launch, Das visited the Sussex Energy Group to tell us about her work. 

A changing energy landscape

Canada is making pretty good progress when it comes decarbonizing its electricity supply. It currently generates 82% of its electricity from non-emitting sources like hydro, nuclear, wind and solar. (In the UK, the percentage is a less impressive 55%).   

But unless they are carefully designed, energy transitions can make energy poverty worse. This is because they can make costs go up, at least in the short term. If we electrify our heating and transportation systems, for example, we’re increasing electricity demand. And increased demand can create a spike in energy prices.  Moving to a different system can also have big upfront costs, as new technologies like solar panels, heat pumps, and electric cars aren’t cheap. 

Filling in the blanks

Canada doesn’t yet officially recognise energy poverty in its statistics, or have strategies for reducing it. That’s why this new report is particularly useful. A mix of quantitative and qualitative data, it not only helps flesh out the extent and character of energy poverty in Canada, but also offers clear guidance on how to tackle it.  

Das and Martiskainen estimate that between 7%  and 9% of Canadian households are living in energy poverty, depending on how you measure it. It’s also particularly concentrated in the Atlantic provinces. When factoring in housing costs, the percentage of households in energy poverty can climb as high as 24% in Prince Edward Island, and 23% in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

A graphic showing energy poverty rates in each Canadian province. It shows that rates are particularly high in the Atlantic provinces

The report also opens a window into what it’s like to live in energy poverty – with the all the acute stress, discomfort, shame, embarrassment, and even health problems it leads to.  Here is what some interviewees said about living in energy poverty: 

…I don’t like bringing my friends over here, it’s very rare that I bring anybody over here. I’m really like embarrassed, unless it’s evening and it’s like kinda dark and then they can’t see anything really, and then they’re like, oh it’s so nice in here, we should come more often. It’s like, no. So. But yeah, no, it… you know, it’d be nice to have like movie night and stuff, but I worry because there is mould and I’ve had, like I’ve had like some lung issues before.

– Sarah

I read it, I just to look at what it’s, like $200, you know, a month. And then more, ’cos actually really I don’t pay very close attention. I’m afraid to, you know that’s like, you know when you’re afraid to look at your bills, you’re just, no okay… paycheque has come in, and okay, this this this, paid, and then go.

– Matthew

Winter you always, you know, I’m trying to manage with blankets, you know? When it’s very cold. For sure the most problem comes when we are going to sleep, because it’s very cold, it’s very hard so just trying to wear socks on your feet, get more blankets for covering, and managing in a way, you know?

– Shruti

Four things Canada’s policymakers could start doing right away

Using the full range of the data they gathered, Das and Martiskainen also generate a series  policy steps that governments could take right away to start tackling energy poverty both in the short and long term.  These recommendations are clustered around four distinct priorities:

  1. Adopting an explicit energy poverty strategy
  2. Providing a universal (clean) energy service that includes cooling as well as heating services
  3. Ensuring energy is affordable 
  4. Decarbonizing and making residential buildings more energy efficient 

If you’d like to find out more about energy poverty in Canada, or what might be done about it, check out the full report here.

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We need to talk about the Genetic Technology (Precision-Breeding) Bill

By Adrian Ely

On Monday (31 October), the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill came back to the Commons chamber for its third reading.  As Boris Johnson put it, the bill aims to “liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules”. In Conservative circles, it’s widely seen as a key opportunity arising from Brexit.  

But deregulating biotechnologies can have profound effects on a country’s social and environmental systems. And it can lock us in to a particular approach to new technologies that last for decades to come.  My research shows that changes in biotechnology regulation should be made carefully, and be informed by broader and more considered societal debate around the emerging biotechnologies that could transform our lives. 

Historic Roots

The UK’s current approach to regulating biotechnologies can be traced directly to the controversy that erupted around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the late 1990s.

Before this, the UK (like many countries at the time) had been designing GMO regulations based largely on an assessment of the physical risks that might arise from recombinant DNA techniques. That approach provided no requirement for labelling of GM foods. 

In the late 1990s, however, the mad cow disease epidemic had left the UK confronting a crisis of confidence in science, just when journalists began taking an interest in GM foods.  This led to an acrimonious public debate, and many consumers adopting a hostile, highly sceptical stance towards GMOs and the science that supported it. This was one of the drivers of the development of an EU-wide requirement for stringent risk assessment, labelling and traceability of GM foods (based on the process through which they had been developed).  

In adopting this new process-based approach to regulation, the UK and other EU countries were effectively moving from interpreting the risks from biotechnology primarily as physical risks to health or the environment, to an approach that saw biotechnologies as posing broader social and/or political risks as well. 

In the UK, the Blair government’s pivot towards managing these broader social risks of GM foods resulted in an unprecedented public engagement exercise entitled “GM Nation?” to better-understand public attitudes.

Brexit’s legacy

In a landmark decision in 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that this process-based approach also referred to newer techniques of gene editing (GE), even though these hadn’t existed when the initial Directives had been drafted decades earlier.  This decision provided little opportunity for broad societal debate in the EU around opportunities and concerns raised by this new biotechnology.

But in January 2021, just a week after the end of the transition period that followed the UK’s departure from the EU, Defra launched a public consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies in England.  

The Food Standards Agency commissioned research on consumer attitudes towards GM and GE, and numerous other bodies including the Regulatory Horizons Council, the Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform and BEIS consulted on issues related to biotechnology regulation.

Future-proofing regulation?

The government’s proposed approach (in the Bill) unfortunately ignores much of this work.

Most of the responses to the consultation suggested that the government should regulate GE in the same way as GM. The FSA found that the majority of those surveyed wanted GE foods to be labelled. But the Bill includes no such requirement. Instead, it creates a new category of “precision-bred organisms” and lays out various general procedures, the details of which are to be determined by future regulations or at the discretion of the Secretary of State.  Viewed charitably, this might be seen as “enabling legislation” that can be flexible and adapt (through statutory instruments) as technologies evolve.  Less charitably, it might be seen as a fudge.

Aside from technologies, public attitudes are also subject to change, and the Bill needs to be able to adapt to these as well. In the USA, GMOs were not initially labelled, but after a series of state-level campaigns the country adopted a process-based labelling regime that came into force this year.  

What the muted response means

In the context of chaos in Westminster and the government’s broader “attack on nature”, public protest against unlabelled GE are relatively muted, despite a slew of concerns raised by civil society organisations.

However, the government’s consultations to date give little indication about whether this is likely to continue, once GE foods start arriving on our shelves.  

Deeper societal debate around labelling could inform proportionate decisions about rules for labelling, traceability and liability.  Taking the time to consider these issues is also vital for the devolved administrations like Scotland,where Mairi McAllan MSP, Minister for Environment and Land Reform, voiced her concern in the summer.

Some of the issues critics have raised may make it to the debating chamber in the coming days. But they deserve to be discussed more widely.  The opportunity for broad societal debate around these new technologies should be grasped – we will be living with the implications for decades.

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Chief Executive of the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) to deliver Sussex Energy Group Keynote in November

Updated 19/07: This has been rescheduled to November 30th.

Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), will deliver the 2022 Sussex Energy Group Keynote Lecture on November 30, 5:30-6:45pm GMT.

The Sussex Energy Group Keynote Lecture is an annual event hosted by one of the largest independent social science energy policy research groups in the world.

Chris Stark is the Chief Executive of the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), the independent authority on tackling climate change under the UK’s Climate Change Act. Chris leads a team of analysts and specialists, offering expert insight into the challenges of reducing UK emissions and adapting to the changing climate.  

Chris led the CCC’s work to recommend a ‘Net Zero’ target for the UK – and has since directed detailed analysis and advice on the UK’s path to carbon neutrality. He speaks regularly on the transition to a zero-carbon economy and the need to confront climate change with urgency.

Talk title TBC.

The lecture will be held on campus (venue TBC) with a drinks reception. The event will be livestreamed, with a recording available after the event. Register for the event on Eventbrite.

Sign up to the Sussex Energy Group mailing list for regular updates on our research, events and publications.

Twitter: @ChiefExecCCC 

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Do teleworkers travel less? The challenge of tele-sprawl

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered far-reaching changes in working practices, with a large fraction of the UK population now working from home for several days a week. Despite the removal of lockdown restrictions, UK travel patterns have been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels and teleworking has become an established feature of many professions.  This creates the possibility of a long-term reduction in commuter traffic, together with the associated fuel use and carbon emissions. 

However, previous research has shown that the ability to work from home may encourage people to move farther from their place of work – a phenomenon labelled ‘tele-sprawl’. If so, the travel savings from fewer commutes could be offset by longer commutes on the days that people work in the office. In addition, working from home may encourage people to take additional trips for other purposes – such as shopping or visiting cafés – which may further erode the potential travel and carbon savings. Teleworking may also influence the travel patterns of other household members – for example, by enabling them to use the household car during the day.  These complex interactions make the long-term impact of teleworking difficult to predict. 

In our newly published study, we used data from the National Travel Survey (NTS) to estimate the impact of teleworking on English travel patterns over the 15 years prior to the pandemic (2005 to 2019). We compared the weekly travel patterns of teleworkers with those of non-teleworkers over this period, while controlling for variables such as professional occupation and household income. Teleworking was relatively uncommon in our sample, with only 1.3% working from home for 3 or more days a week (‘high-frequency teleworkers’), and 4.7% working from home once or twice a week (‘medium-frequency teleworkers’).

Our results provide little support for the claim that teleworking reduces travel. First, we found that the majority of teleworkers travelled farther each week than non-teleworkers. This is partly because teleworkers lived further from their workplace than non-teleworkers, and partly because they took more trips for other purposes.  However, there was a ‘tipping point’: people who worked from home three or more times a week travelled ~7% less far each week than non-teleworkers.

Second, we found that the weekly travel distance of all household members combined was greater in households where one member was teleworking. This suggests that teleworking by one member of a household encourages or enables additional travel by other members of the household.  Whilst we cannot pinpoint the precise mechanisms, their net effect is to erode the travel savings from avoided commutes.

Third, we found that the majority of teleworkers travelled farther for business each week than non-teleworkers, thereby amplifying the difference in travel patterns between the two groups.

While high-frequency teleworking was associated with marginally less private travel, the aggregate savings were small and were not significant at the level of household as a whole. Moreover, those savings were more than offset by additional travel by the larger group of medium-frequency teleworkers.  This suggests that, prior to the pandemic; teleworking made little or no contribution to reducing travel demand in England.

However, the patterns observed in the past may not be a good guide to the future.  The pandemic has led to such a dramatic change in working practices that longer-term reductions in commuting travel appear possible.  A much larger group of people now work from home most or all of the time, and many of these may continue to do so in the future.  These ‘new teleworkers’ are more diverse in terms of their socio-economic and demographic characteristics, are more likely to telework three or more times a week.  In these circumstances, we may expect larger savings in commuter and total travel.  The new teleworkers may take more non-work trips, but the environmental impacts of those trips will depend upon the choice of transport mode and the average distance travelled. 

A key lesson from our study, therefore, is the need to discourage tele-sprawl.  Policy should discourage people from moving to areas of low population density that are far from their workplace; far from retail, leisure and other destinations and poorly served by public transport.

Unfortunately, there are early signs of trends in the opposite direction. For example, the Resolution Foundation found that house prices in the least-populated local authorities have increased by more than 10% since February 2020, compared to only 6% in the most populated. In addition, while the pandemic has encouraged more walking, the use of public transport remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

Carbon savings from teleworking are therefore contingent upon broader progress in sustainable transport policy and land use planning.  The key is to encourage the growth of high-density, mixed-use neighbourhoods where work, leisure and other destinations are readily accessible through walking, cycling and public transport.  This will help to maximise the carbon savings from teleworking, whilst at the same time improving quality of life and facilitating the broader transition to a sustainable economy.

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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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