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‘Is there life after PhD?’ First event from the Energy Demand in Practice seminar series

LisaIszatt20 January 2016

Blog by Virginia Gori, Pamela Fennell and Lisa Iszatt

Energy Demand in Practice is a seminar series focussing on the different roles and opportunities available within the energy demand field. The aim of the seminars is to explore the range of career paths that are available to PhD graduates, providing students with inspiration, advice on matters such as workplace skills that might be required, and networking opportunities. The Energy Demand in Practice team currently consists of Virginia Gori, Pamela Fennell and Lisa Iszatt, who set up this series in collaboration with LoLo management at UCL in response to feedback from students that more information was needed on careers in the field of Energy Demand. The events are primarily aimed at LoLo students but all UCL students are welcome.

Our first event “Is there life after a PhD?” aimed at exploring the range of possible careers in energy and investigating how to best use the skills acquired in the PhD. Two speakers introduced their ‘life after a PhD’; their career paths and the lessons they have learned along the way. This was followed by a panel session with recent graduates responding to a range of questions from the floor on topics such as internships, day to day tasks, gender equality and how to sell a PhD.

EDP1 (more…)

Ratcheting up the ambition level: Implementing deep decarbonisation pathways

StevePye4 December 2015

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There is a sense that COP21 provides for greater optimism than previous climate change conferences. And for good reason. Emission reduction pledges have been made by most, and the largest emitters are for the first time meaningfully engaged. Providing an important backdrop to this are the positive signs of an energy systems transition underway, as renewables investment continues to grow as technology costs fall, and the rate of fossil fuel use growth slows. (more…)

An experimental book swap

SofiePelsmakers23 January 2015

BOOK SWAP

The second book edition of The Environmental Design Pocketbook is out and it includes updated research, guidance and new legislation (such as the new Building Regulations and the new RIBA Plan of Work) alongside an extended retrofit chapter and new sections on the performance gap, and the influence of building maintenance and care and commissioning of buildings on their energy performance and how to achieve good building maintenance, the need for which I have also written about elsewhere.

In total, an additional 80 pages are included in the 2nd edition, making the book now almost 500 pages. As a result the decision was made to print on thinner FSc sourced paper and not thicker recycled paper as for edition 1 to minimise the impact of the additional pages. It also has a flexible back now which means that navigating the book and leaving it open is so much easier! Despite the increased production costs, we managed to keep the cost of the 2nd edition as the same as the first edition (£25) due to generous sponsorship from ECD architects. (more…)

Decision-Making in the Face of Uncertainty: Jim Watson Discusses The Future of UK Carbon Reductions at UCL

Melissa CLott17 December 2014

This December, Professor Jim Watson spoke at UCL on the topic of decision-making in the face of uncertainty. As the lead author of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) synthesis reportUK Energy Strategies Under Uncertainty” Professor Watson discussed key technical, economic, political, and social uncertainties in the UK’s low carbon transition.

To date, the United Kingdom has met the targets set out in its carbon budgets, moving the country closer to its 2050 goal of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels. But, existing uncertainties lead to questions regarding the achievability of future carbon budgets, as was shown with the controversy surrounding the 4th carbon budget (2023-27). When the budget was originally passed, it came with the condition that it should be reviewed. Only recently has the government accepted the recommendation from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that the budget should not be relaxed.

In his talk Professor Watson discussed uncertainties facing the future of the UK low carbon transition and the impacts of these uncertainties on decision-making. His presentation was largely based on a recent UKERC report that not only focused on current uncertainties but also provided a list of steps that could be taken to either reduce the uncertainty itself or its potential impacts.

Note: UCL Energy Institute’s Steve Pye, Nagore Sabio, Neil Strachan, and UCL ISR’s Christophe McGlade also contributed to this report.

The presentation emphasized uncertainties in the future of electricity generation, heat, and transportation in a national low carbon transition (slides found online here and video found here). But, according to Professor Watson, the report also covered topics like energy efficiency and impacts on ecosystem services. Overall, the UKERC’s work came to seven major conclusions (paraphrased below):

  1. Electricity decarbonisation is essential in the shorter term

Power sector decarbonisation by 2030 is essential if the UK is to meet carbon emissions targets and also minimise the costs of doing so. As this process will require large amounts of capital investment, the question of capital availability is important. While these is not necessarily a shortage of available capital in absolute terms, funding is not boundless and electricity decarbonisation investments must compete with other investment options. In turn, changes to policy frameworks, market structures and business models may be needed to attract that capital to the UK power sector.

  1. Limited existing technology options for large-scale, low-carbon electricity

There are currently a limited number of options for large-scale low carbon electricity generation technologies that can have a significant impact on electricity sector decarbonisation before 2030. Furthermore, all of these options face economic, technical and political challenges. According to the report, “given the financial resources required and the political tensions with some of these technologies, it will be tough for the government and industry to maintain momentum on all of them. It is therefore essential that any decisions to prioritise particular technologies are evidence based.”

  1. For heating and transport, electrification might (not) not be the best route

Much of the focus in decarbonizing transportation and heat has been placed on electrification. However, it is not yet clear if this is the best route for reducing emissions in these sectors. In turn, emphasis should be placed on continuing experimentation, demonstration and learning for each potential option. This learning process should include both technical and non-technical factors (e.g. consumer attitudes, business models, regulatory frameworks).

4. Energy efficiency can buy time

Should the deployment of low-carbon technologies struggle, energy efficiency can buy time and assist in meeting carbon goals. Efficiency projects are also an effective way to reduce consumers’ bills. Therefore, action to increase energy efficiency should be a short-term priority.

  1. Public engagement is essential

Engagement with people and communities is an essential component of the UK’s low carbon transition. Genuine engagement is needed so that public attitudes to energy system change – and not just to individual technologies – are taken into account in this transition. This engagement should also focus on how the shift to more sustainable energy systems should be organized and paid for. This approach could not only increase the chances of public support for change, it could also open up possibilities for compromise

6.   Delay is risky

There are significant risks to scaling back the UK’s low carbon ambitions, as some have advocated including not only prolonged reliance on a fossil fuel based energy system but also the resulting exposure of consumers and the UK economy to the potential impacts of high fossil fuel prices. However, under the current low carbon transition plan, natural resource issues – including controversies related to shale gas and biomass – are also important and may limit the extent to which they can be developed and used.

7. Implications for ecosystems is unclear

The transition to a low carbon energy system will have uncertain implications for ecosystems, both in the UK and globally. While this report presents evident suggesting that low carbon technologies will have fewer and/or less serious impacts than fossil fuels, it also states that the evidence base is weak and that significant further research is needed.

Among China’s top three energy sources, two are now renewable

BoranLi12 December 2014

While browsing online for information about electricity generation from renewable sources, I found a rather surprising “olds” reported by CleanTechnica back in January 2013, that China’s electricity produced from wind has already surpass the amount from nuclear, hence became the third largest source of electricity. This implies a seemingly impressive achievement: among top three energy sources in China, two of them are renewable, hydro and wind power. This is really remarkable, even compared with most developed economies in the world. Based on data provided by IEA, advanced economies including the US, the UK and Germany have their electricity mainly from coal, gas and nuclear. None of these sources is renewable!

boran liShould we applaud for this achievement of China, one of the biggest polluters in the world? Ehhh, probably we need to look deeper into this firstly.

One reason behind why wind could make its way into the top three is that the top two sources produce more than 93% electricity in China; more specifically, around 76% from coal and 17% from hydro (around 5% for wind in 2013). With this two big players in electricity generation, it is not that hard for other new growing technologies to join the team of top three, while no significant impact upon carbon emission could be realised during this process. Even though, the 17% figure for hydro itself also looks very impressive. But recently, there are many debate in China about if it is worthy to decarbonise by building dams, considering their significant by-product of damaging local ecosystems. The biggest dam in the world, Three Gorges Dam, was once a national treasure of the Chinese public and an important showcase of the powerful Chinese government, but if you search on the internet now, all you get are its damages to local weather, endangered species and reservoir area geological structure. Due to lack of rigorous planning and impact assessment before constructions of many government hydro-power projects, and countless resulted side effects, it is a growing consensus in China that all the dames will all be pulled down, sooner or later.

Similar problems occurred to wind energy development as well. For many local governments, one of the main objectives of developing wind energy is vanity of local officers. This leads to the issue that local government lacks incentives and therefore expertise to conduct detailed planning before building up wind power plants. In many cases, poor integration planning and inadequately developed electricity storage technologies raised the issue of electricity waste. In 2013 the amount of wasted electricity was estimated to be equivalent to the whole year usage of Beijing, this means only 2.5% of actual consumed electricity in China came from wind last year. Compared with the 5% production figure, half of them was thrown back into the air. Moreover, in some extreme cases, government officers only realised the wind power plant was not connected to the grid after the construction was finished.

We should not deny the great achievement that wind produced electricity in China soared 1580% from 5710GWh in 2007 to 95978GWh in 2012, which cannot be done without a strong centralised government. In less developed market economies like China, private businesses may take longer to respond to changes of market signals and advances of technologies, it is therefore government’s responsibility to plan and build the future. But with a strong Soviet style planning tradition, Chinese government still need time to learn how to give the freedom back to the market. Nowadays, even with generous subsidies provided by the central government, many green-tech businesses are complaining that they are physically crowded out by large scale wind and solar power plants invested by local governments. This conflict of crowding-out is set to be more intense in China than in well-developed democratic countries, considering China’s capitalist economic based and the single party bureaucratic (deliberately avoid using a strong word) upper structure. Given all the negative impacts from state initiated projects, it might be high time for government to learn when and where to take its muddy hands off, and let the market go.

Would you let your energy supplier turn off your heating?

MichaelFell8 December 2014

Mike Fell gives the background to a recent co-authored paper which explores what people think about efforts to influence when they use electricity.

What does it mean to be “in control” in relation to energy? And why does it matter? It’s perhaps easier to begin with the second question.

The subject of electricity blackouts has been big in the news recently. While the risk of blackouts is low, the continuing closure of older coal-powered generators means that there is less and less spare capacity on the grid to meet peaks in electricity demand.

Sameer Vasta_cropOne way to increase capacity is build more generators. Another is reduce demand, or attempt to alter the timing of demand to avoid getting such high peaks. The latter (known as demand-side response or DSR) can be achieved in a number of ways, such as by charging a higher price per unit of electricity at peak times (like in Economy 7). Alternatively, a signal can be sent directly to technology (such as fridges or electric heating systems) in people’s homes telling it to use more or less electricity at certain times.

Demand-side response can only be effective if enough people decide to take part, so that enough demand for electricity (or “load”) can be moved around in time. However, research into what people think about it (and some press coverage) suggest that this wide participation is by no means assured. One of the key concerns expressed is around “loss of control”, where some third party attempts to influence (or even directly control) people’s electricity use.

It is important to understand this concern if DSR programmes are to be designed in such a way that people want to take part. So what does it actually mean to be “in control” in relation to energy, and how do people think this might change under different ways of doing DSR?

We held group discussions with people we expected to have different experiences of control in relation to energy. Some had gas central heating (with comparatively high individual control of heating) while some had district heating (their heating was externally controlled – they didn’t have room thermostats). Some were already on a time of use electricity tariff. The anonymous quotes in the rest of this post come from these groups.

Rather than there being a simple idea of “control over energy”, a number of different dimensions of control emerged:

  • Control over the services that energy provides us with (and which lead to comfort, e.g. heat, light, etc.).
  • Control over timing, or the feeling of being able to do things when you want.
  • Control over how much you spend on energy.
  • A general sense of control and independence in one’s life (autonomy).

When people thought about different ways of doing DSR, these dimensions of control were all affected in different ways. Often with time of use pricing people felt they would have more control over spending (‘you have got some more control cause you can look at the, “oh right OK let’s put the washing machine on now”’), but less flexibility in when they did things and potentially over comfort.

This was especially true of “dynamic” time of use pricing, where electricity prices can be different every day – unlike tariffs such as Economy 7 which remain the same week after week. Such dynamic tariffs allow the possibility of making the most of variable wind generation, but were thought (by people in the groups) to be problematic due to their unpredictable nature and the extent to which people would be reliant on automation to make the most of them (‘We’re not robots!’).

In the case of direct control of technology, some people were worried about overall loss of autonomy – a sort of “Big Brother” scenario (‘That means they’re controlling your life basically’). Others weren’t so concerned about this so long as it happened in the background and allowed them to get on with their lives as they chose (‘If it’s … something that happens in the background and doesn’t actually affect your usage … for me personally I don’t think I have an issue with them controlling it’).

These results suggest some challenges for DSR. How to retain the attractive sense of control over spending that time of use pricing offers, while minimizing worries about flexibility? Perhaps personalizing tariffs to households’ individual circumstances could hold the key. In the case of direct control of technology there are certainly people who are implacably against this form of external influence, while others may happily accept it under the right conditions (e.g. with the possibility to override it). But these conditions must strike a balance between acceptability and the aim of getting demand reductions with appropriate speed, duration and reliability.

The findings also suggest the usefulness of looking at control in a systematic way. Indeed, this approach has informed our subsequent research which used a representative survey of Great Britain to find out more about people’s preferences for different DSR electricity tariffs. We hope to post more on the findings of this work soon.

Read the full paper here: Exploring perceived control in domestic electricity demand-side response, Michael J. Fell, David Shipworth, Gesche M. Huebner & Clifford A. Elwell, published in Technology Analysis & Strategic Management volume 26, issue 10, 2014.

Tags: demand-side response, time of use tariffs, direct load control, perceived control, electricity, domestic

Photo: “Happy Show” (cropped) by Sameer Vasta under a Creative Commons licence.

EPSRC visit the UCL Energy Institute

CarolynBehar3 December 2014

On Friday the EPSRC visited UCL Energy to host a workshop discussing future directions for Energy research funding. About 50 delegates from across

Prof Bob Lowe of UCL-Energy welcomes EPSRC

Prof Bob Lowe of UCL-Energy welcomes EPSRC

UCL attended the day which included seminars, interactive workshops and plenty of time for lively discussion and debate. Energy research accounts for 23% of the EPSRCs funding portfolio, and is the largest industrial sector directly supported by EPSRC.

Jason Green, Head of Energy at EPSRC, introduced the morning session, focusing on our need to make a case for energy research that is not just all about CO2 emission reductions, but that addresses the ‘energy trilemma’ of:

  • GHG emissions
  • Security of supply
  • Reducing costs

It was great to hear that there is a strong interest in expanding UK energy research capacity, and that there are opportunities to develop more international work in the area. This was followed by an introduction to the UCL Energy Institute’s energy research by BSEER Director Professor Tadj Oreszczyn.

Next, we formed small break-out groups to discuss the question ‘what research areas would you protect, reduce or grow?’ This was a challenging task as, unsurprisingly, everyone believes their own research area should be protected or grown! However, we were forced to think about how we would defend our work in the context of the wide range of energy research that is currently being funded, and how our own research feeds into the overarching aims of the ‘Energy’ theme.

After lunch, there were a series of interactive parallel workshops covering the following themes:

  • Developing leaders
  • Cross-disciplinary research
  • Building international reputation
  • Impact
Jason Green of EPSRC opens the morning session

Jason Green of EPSRC opens the morning session

I attended the first two on the above list. In ‘developing leaders’ we heard about the EPSRC fellowship scheme for energy research. Fellowship are available for ‘post-doctoral’, ‘early career’ and ‘established career’ researchers and may provide a great opportunity for career progression.

Cross-disciplinary research is a particularly challenging endeavour, yet one which is increasingly important as it becomes apparent that the mono-disciplinary approach falls short when it comes to addressing the complexity of energy research.

Professor Neil Strachan set us the challenge to consider how our own disciplines could contribute to a specific research brief and then to suggest how other disciplines could support us in achieving this goal. We were divided into groups of social scientists, economists, engineers and natural scientists. We then shared feedback between the groups to see if the services we were offering from our own disciplines aligned with what others felt it would be useful for us to contribute.

Needless to say this provoked a lively response which we were still debating when the session drew to a close…

Overall it was a stimulating day and we’d like to thank EPSRC for coming to see us.

Retrofit in practice: what next?

SofiePelsmakers28 November 2014

Retrofit in practice: what next?1

This year the 11th International Architectural Humanities Research Association conference was hosted at Newcastle University and focused on ‘Industries of Architecture’, aiming to bring together architectural theorists, historians and designers to discuss the industrial, technical and socio-economic contexts in which the production of building takes place in the present day.

I was invited to chair a 3 hour Retrofit in practice: what next?workshop on November 14th and I invited Dr David Kroll to co-chair our inter-disciplinary workshop. We opened our workshop up to submission of abstracts and ‘position statements’ and based on these submissions we invited a diverse group of 12 architectural practitioners, researchers, conservationists, lecturers and theorists to lead the workshop content and debate. You can read more about our contributors here (and in due course presentations will be uploaded). We also managed to obtain generous sponsorship from Saint-Gobain and from ECD architects.

Our workshop was set against the background of the UK’s ~ 26.7 million existing dwellings (DECC, 2012) and ~ 1.8 million non-domestic buildings (UKGBC, 2011). The energy use of housing alone, which is mostly used to keep people warm in their homes (Palmer, 2011), contributes to about 1/3rd of the UK’s carbon emissions (DECC, 2011). Hence there is a real urgency to reduce this energy use in buildings; while this will also increase thermal comfort of occupants and helps people out of fuel poverty.

This brings with it a whole host of challenges, but also opportunities and this is what we really tried to capture in our workshop. Our workshop presenters touched on key issues that are related to the retrofit challenge, such as: the need for aesthetic upgrades as part of building maintenance when buildings meet or exceed their intended lifespan; lack of on-site skills to undertake robust building upgrades; the need for project management, assessment methods, new models and tools and different procurement routes. There was also a focus on performance testing, community benefits of upgrades and dangers of ill-conceived or executed retrofits, leading to unintended technical and aesthetic consequences.

It also became clear from discussion that terms such as ‘retrofitting’, ‘conservation’ and ‘heritage’ have overlaps but are not clearly defined at the moment.

For example what do we mean by conservation and heritage? What is the value in listed buildings we are trying to protect, is it the entire building or a specific aspect? And, if it is only part of a building that is ‘valued’, perhaps listed building consent – considered a barrier to upgrading buildings – may not be necessary at all?

Co-chair Dr David Kroll at the ‘Retrofit in Practice – what next?’ workshop

Co-chair Dr David Kroll

What do we mean by retrofitting? Does retrofit mean just adding, or changing, or can it also mean taking away? Or any of these together? Does retrofitting include renewable technologies as add-ons such as solar panels on a roof? Or is retrofitting’s key concern the fabric upgrade?

Should we not touch a heritage building at all? Or is wrapping the building in a new protective, ‘conserving layer’ part of conservation, as it increases the durability of the building and retains, protects, ‘conserves’ its structure and purpose?

On the other hand, some argued, given the sheer scale and urgency of the task ahead for many buildings which are not listed, we might just need to “get the job done”. If millions of housing are not of any significant quality or aesthetic, can we use the need for sustainable retrofit as an opportunity to enhance the architectural quality of our buildings, while increasing occupant thermal comfort and reducing carbon emissions associated with space-heating energy?

It became clear that there is a huge opportunity, but that we also have a long way to go in the architecture community, evidenced by a quote from the Farrell review: “refurbishment and retrofitting had not been considered to be architectural issues, and these concerns still struggle to be accepted as legitimate by the architectural community” (Farrell, 2014).

 The workshop’s full summing up text can be found here.

 DECC 2011. DUKES – Domestic Energy Consumption in the UK 2011. In: DECC (ed.) Publication URN 11D/808 ed. London.

DECC 2012. Statistical release: Experimental Statistics; Estimates of home insulation levels in Great Britain: January 2012. In: CHANGE, D. O. E. C. (ed.). London: Department of Energy & Climate Change.

FARRELL, T. 2014. The Farrell Review of Architecture + the Built Environment In: DEPARTMENT FOR CULTURE, M. A. S. (ed.). London.

PALMER, J., COOPER, I. 2011. Great Britain’s Housing Energy fact file – 2011. DECC.

UKGBC 2011. Uk-GBC Task Group Report on Carbon Emissions in Existing Non-Domestic Buildings. In: UKGBC (ed.).