In December 2015 immediately following the publication of the COP21 Paris Agreement I wrote a short note on the competing reasons for pessimism and optimism. What follows expands on that theme. I am going to focus on three things: COP21, the confirmation that 2015 has been the warmest year on the instrumental record, and continued reports that coal consumption in China may have peaked. (more…)
UCL Energy Institute participates in Mexico’s President round table on the opportunities of building a sustainable energy economy in the UK and Mexicoucftbso13 April 2015
Recently I took part in a high level round table on the opportunities of building a sustainable energy economy in the UK and in Mexico. The event was held on the occasion of the State Visit of the President of Mexico to the United Kingdom. This was a select roundtable discussion building on a dialogue initiated in Campeche, Mexico during HRH The Prince of Wales’s visit in November 2014. The roundtable was held in conjunction with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; its aim was to debate areas of future co-operation through knowledge and technology transfer that will help each nation successfully meet their mutually ambitious carbon reduction targets, whilst addressing the challenges posed by the transition to a low carbon energy system.
Decision-Making in the Face of Uncertainty: Jim Watson Discusses The Future of UK Carbon Reductions at UCLucqbmcl17 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 report “UK 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):
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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.
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.
One 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.
On Friday the EPSRC visited UCL Energy to host a workshop discussing future directions for Energy research funding. About 50 delegates from across
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
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.
UCL Energy Institute participates in Prince Charles round table on energy and climate change in Mexicoucftbso2 December 2014
Last month, I took part in a high level round table on Mexico’s energy future within the context of global climate change. The event was held as part of the visit of Prince Charles to Mexico, prior to 2015: the year of Mexico in the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom in Mexico.
The main objective of the meeting was to foster a dialogue with senior representatives of business, government and academia on how to ensure that Mexico’s recent energy reforms can be made as positive as possible in social and environmental terms. Participants at this private meeting included Deputy Ministers of the Secretariat of Energy (SENER) and the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), as well as Directors from the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change (INECC), British Petroleum, BG-Group, McKinsey, Carbon Trust Mexico, WWF and ICLEI amongst others.
Mexico’s recent energy reforms enable for the first time since 1938 significant international investment in the Mexican energy sector. These laws open deep-water oil and shale fields to foreign investment, as well as liberalising Mexico’s electricity industry. According to President Peña Nieto the energy reforms will increase oil production from the current 2.3m barrels a day to 3m in 2018 and 3.5m in 2025. Natural gas production will also increase dramatically from 5,700 million cubic feet a day to 8,000 million in 2018 and to 10,400 million in 2025. This investment could potentially bring about significant economic progress and – if done well through the new Stabilisation and Development Oil Fund – play an important role in enabling Mexico’s ambitious renewable energy commitments to be met. The reforms also have the potential, however, to lead to a net increase in Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions over time, and thereby put in jeopardy Mexico’s legally binding climate targets. Mexico is the first developing country to have passed a General Law on Climate Change (and second in the world after the UK) and remains a key partner of the UK in brokering a strong multilateral climate deal in Paris in 2015.
During my participation I challenged the perceived role of gas as transition fuel in Mexico, following UCL’s modelling work led by Dr Christophe McGlade and recently published by UKERC (www.ukerc.ac.uk/support/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=3716). I also shared my concerns that an over-investment in gas powered electricity generation could lead to carbon lock-in constraints to long-term climate policy aims, and that delaying action to decarbonise the energy system until after 2020s – but still striving for the same cumulative emissions reduction could prove very challenging.
As a result of this round table UCL Energy Institute is holding conversations with Mexico’s Secretariat of Energy to explore a potential energy systems modelling collaboration.
Blog by Ivan Poon, UCL-Energy student
Probably we already knew that buildings account for a significant amount of global energy (~40%) and around 33% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission. However, building accounts for an even higher proportion of carbon emission in some urbanized cities, such as Hong Kong.
In September of every year, the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department (EMSD) of HKSAR Government publishes the report on Hong Kong Energy End-use and from the latest report in 2013, it is noted that the electricity consumption by buildings kept rising and accounts for 92% of the citywide electricity consumption. *(please note that the report only shows the city’s energy consumption of 2 years ago, i.e. it is the energy consumption of 2011 in 2013 report)
Fig. 1 Electricity consumption in HK in 2001 and 2011 (source: EMSD – HKSAR Government)
The summary of the building energy consumption in Hong Kong in 2011 are as follow:
• The energy consumption of the whole city kept rising for 4 consecutive years and it is highest among these 10 years (278,618 TJ);
• Buildings consume for 92% of the total electricity used, while it is only 86% in 2001;
• The energy consumption in HK by commercial buildings to residential buildings is in a portion of around 2.5:1; and
• If taking other use of fossil fuels into account, buildings in HK consumes 63% of the total energy use, while it is 54% in 2001.
As Hong Kong is a city without much industrial activities, it is understandable that why buildings take such a large portion of energy in the city. But it is still unforgivable that the energy consumption kept rising in the recent decade, when “sustainable development” is emphasized.
The Government is actually aware of such situation and therefore, they are trying to implement different policies in recent years, while the Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance (BEEO) is the key policy among all.
Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance (BEEO)
Building energy related policies in my opinion can be mainly categorized in 3 groups:
• Overview roadmaps and targets (Sustainable Blueprint in Singapore)
• Compliance regulations and building energy codes (Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance in Hong Kong)
• Market instruments (Carbon Cap-and-trade policy in Tokyo)
Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance (BEEO in short) belongs to the second category and was just being implemented since 21st September 2012 in Hong Kong. It mainly comprises of 2 parts:
1. Building Energy Code (BEC) – for those newly constructed commercial buildings or they would like to undergo a major retrofit, they have to comply with the requirements as stated in BEC. For example, offices can only have 15 W/m2 lighting power density at maximum.
2. Energy Audit Code (EAC) – Owners of existing commercial buildings have to hire Registered Energy Assessors (REA) to perform energy audits for their buildings. They are performed in stages according to the age of buildings (Newest buildings are the 1st batch and they must do the audit in the 1st year after the policy is implemented). A certificate (only showing that you complied with the ordinance, not ratings on the certificate) will be issued afterwards and is valid for 10 years.
Why commercial buildings?
1. The energy consumption in HK by commercial buildings to residential buildings is in a portion of 2.5:1, so larger energy saving potential for commercial buildings.
2. The ownership and tenancy of commercial buildings is easier to deal with.
What is the significance of this policy?
1. The maximum requirements for BEC would restrain the energy consumption by the new commercial buildings.
2. EAC would provide valuable detailed energy data to the government for their policy intervention.
1. There are many old buildings in HK, as the EAC requires them to fill in detailed information, e.g. efficiency of the chillers, they might not have the records for that.
Now you may argue that the Building Energy Efficiency Ordinance (BEEO) is just being enforced from 21 September 2012 and BEAM Plus (the building environment assessment system, just like LEED) is getting more popular over the years, the energy consumption will begin to drop starting from 2012 or 2013. However, the existing building owners just have to provide their energy data according to BEEO and only the BEAM Plus for new buildings is getting popular due to the GFA concession policy, there should be more to do to reduce the energy consumption by existing buildings.
In long term, the Government can consider the followings:
• Setting up a comprehensive green building campaign (e.g. Greener Greater Buildings Plan in New York City) and strict targets of energy reduction; and
• Investigate the possibility in the implementation of a Carbon Cap-and-Trade System for the buildings, just like what the Tokyo Metropolitan Government did.
For the whole report of Hong Kong Energy End-use Data 2013, please visit the following website:
More information of BEEO is available by this website:
Being asked to prepare a blog post for this year’s climate week got me thinking about how my work relates to climate change. To me, climate change is a huge and scary thing. It feels totally beyond my control, and if I do spend too much time thinking about the magnitude of the problem, I feel like giving up altogether and running away to a desert island. The problem is, if we all did that, it would be only a matter of time before all the desert islands got full, that is if they weren’t first subsumed by rising sea levels.
Another problem with desert islands is their lack of high speed broadband, lively high streets with shops and bars, and comfortable spaces where I can sit and think and read and write, occasionally engaging in stimulating conversations with my colleagues, or grabbing a bite to eat in a local café. Furthermore, much as I like the idea of spending my evenings lying in a hammock under the stars, I also thoroughly enjoy my own personal routine of waking up in a warm and comfy bed on a Saturday morning and then wasting an hour or so playing on Twitter whilst building up the motivation to face the gym!
So here I am, and here are lots of us, living our lives very much within the constraints of the culture within which we were born and raised. We live in heated (or cooled) houses and flats, eat food imported from all over the world, travel longer distances that we feel comfortable with to get to work or school, and spend much of our time indoors, usually connected to some kind of electronic device. And all of these activities, consume energy – lots of energy. This energy that we rely on to live our ordinary lives is generated from a combination of burning of fossil fuels and utilising renewable resources such as wind and solar. And it is the burning of fossil fuels that is accelerating the changes we are seeing in our climate, as explained here.
What can energy demand research do to help?
Ultimately, the reason I am here, doing my PhD and writing this blog is because, recognising the contribution of energy consumption in buildings to changes in the world’s climate, the UK Research Councils felt it was worth providing funding for PhD research in both energy supply and use. But what am I actually doing and what do I hope to achieve? And can I really make a difference with my tiny contribution to the vast pyramid of knowledge?
At first glance, looking at how people are adapting to living in new low-energy homes with ‘whole house’ ventilation systems is a long way away from working on ‘solving’ climate change (more about my work here). However, if we understand that energy used in our 27 million homes accounts for nearly a third of total UK energy use, it’s at least clear that there is a strong need to reduce the energy consumption of both new and existing dwellings.
As around 60% of domestic energy use can be attributed to space heating, an effective way of achieving this reduction is to seal up gaps and cracks around windows, doors, floors and roofs to make our homes more airtight and less draughty, thereby keeping the heat in. However, we cannot completely seal up homes, because the activities we carry out inside them generate a range of pollutants which need to be removed. Ventilation is the controlled provision of clean air and the removal of stale air, which typically contains CO2 exhaled by people, water vapour from showering and washing, and smells generated when cooking. These byproducts of everyday domestic activities must be taken out to keep us healthy and prevent nasty things like mould developing.
Why technologies alone won’t fix the problem
Several technical solutions have been proposed to deal with the problem of ensuring sufficient ventilation without wasting any heat energy. These are explained in detail in this Energy Saving Trust publication. The idea is that, during winter, air is only permitted to enter and leave through designated and controlled openings, such as trickle vents and ceiling extracts. The house stays toasty and warm, while harmful pollutants are removed and replaced by fresh air from outside. Problem solved, right?
Unfortunately not. Although these systems have potential, the deployment of technology is not in itself a guarantee of success. Monitoring of energy consumption at completed homes which incorporate these systems repeatedly highlights the large gap between predicted and actual energy consumption. There are a number of factors that contribute to this performance gap and the way that people use and interact with their homes is but one of them. That’s not to say that people are necessarily doing something wrong; rather, there are a wide range of normal activities that we carry out which can impact on energy use. For example, do we regularly cook for family and friends or eat out most nights? Do we prefer baths or showers? And how much time do we spend at home and at what temperatures do we feel most comfortable?
When recommending, specifying or installing a specific ventilation system, there is an inherent assumption that the people living in the house will act in a certain way to get the best use from their technology. The ‘model’ resident would leave the windows closed at all times when the heating is on, and rely on the ventilation to do its job. They would press the booster button each time they cook or shower, and only dry their clothes on the designated drying rack in the bathroom. Furthermore, they would make sure the extract vents were kept free of dust and grease and ensure that filters are changed regularly so that system performance does not deteriorate.
We won’t improve anything without understanding people
Unfortunately this assumption fails to acknowledge the day to day realities of life. Very few of us go about our existence worrying about the energy consequences of our every activity. If we did, we would get very little done and end up a bit mad (and start thinking about desert islands and the like…).
Although you cannot, rightly, force people to behave in a certain way, I would like it to become easier for people to do the most efficient thing, and in the case of domestic ventilation I think we have a long way to go before this is the case. Over the course of my studies I have met people who are largely unaware of the presence of controlled ventilation in their home, let alone knowing what to do with it, as well as a family with a broken booster button who had no option but to open the window to let out cooking fumes.
Completely unsurprisingly, I am yet to meet someone who is able to explain to me correctly what MVHR, MEV or PSV are and how they work (and if you didn’t get round to reading the Energy Saving Trust publication I mentioned earlier then you probably don’t either!). The residents I have spoken to have never been told that there are filters that need changing, nor that they could save energy and money by keeping the windows closed when the heating’s on. The reality is that we open the windows and forget to close them, dry clothes on radiators, put off housework until it is absolutely necessary and we find a way round things like broken switches that doesn’t involve us calling a handyman.
And this is why, I believe, the problem of climate change is so hard to resolve. Society seems to be driven by a desire to invent technical solutions to fix problems. But when we break down the issue into smaller and smaller chunks, for example individual houses and their ventilation systems, we are always left with people and organisations interacting with material things in unexpected ways and not just the objects themselves. And it may just be that rather than relentlessly, modelling, simulating and optimising how technologies work, the solutions to global problems could lie in understanding how the minutiae of day-to-day life shape our energy use.
In our post for Climate Week 2013, the UCL Energy Social Sciences Group highlighted the importance of understanding the way that people view energy. What people do can be difficult to predict; as we pointed out this can limit the success of strategies aimed at reducing energy use. In our previous post, we commented on the recent launch of the Government’s Green Deal, a programme aimed at improving the efficiency of dwellings by providing a loan for householders to invest in interventions like insulation and more efficient space heating technologies. This loan is then repaid through the energy savings delivered by the intervention. At that time, there were concerns about low uptake of the scheme. One year on we find ourselves with a scheme that has, so far, struggled to take off, prompting widespread media coverage and headlines like: “How the Green Deal turned into the green disaster”.
How did the Green Deal turn into the green disaster? There are issues with the complexity of the process (a multi-stage procedure, requiring, for example, an initial assessment before any works can take place), the financing mechanism used, skepticism around expected savings and general awareness of the scheme. Arguably, one of the key challenges is the sheer number of different stakeholders involved in the process. We have the homeowner, the person performing assessment, the tradesmen involved in installing the interventions, the organisations financing the scheme and those involved in the supply chain, all of whom have to be suitably aware of, and able to play their part in, the Green Deal. Coordinating so many individuals and organisations is not an easy task. Somewhere in this complex network, something appears to have come unstuck. To really understand the barriers to uptake of the Green Deal, we need to take a holistic approach to investigating the people and groups who are involved at all levels. Drawing on theories from the social sciences can be an effective way of unravelling the complex interactions between people, energy, organisations, policies and the physical fabric of the built environment.
For example, sociological theories position energy use as largely invisible and instead focus on the routine practices that people carry out in their daily lives, some of which consume energy and resources (e.g. cooking a Sunday roast) and some of which may actually save energy (e.g. the daily activities of an insulation installer). In these theories, the context in which certain practices occur is very important. So, for example, what are the circumstances under which a homeowner would decide to make improvements to their home? Are they really interested in saving energy, or would they prefer that to be a happy side effect of installing a brand new kitchen or adding value to their property by building out the loft? And how do they feel about taking out a loan to finance these kind of ‘invisible’ improvements that the Green Deal offers? These are the kind of questions that social scientists ask, questions that need to be investigated much more if we are to boost the success of promising, but highly complex, programmes like the Green Deal.
The relevance of the Green Deal to a number of the topics relating to climate demonstrates the multi-dimensional nature of these issues. Five topics were outlined for the content of these Climate Week blogs; these are the relationship between climate and health, poverty eradication, water, resources and energy. Arguably, the Green Deal has implications for all of these topics within the context of buildings. For example, the quality of our buildings and thus the energy, and money, it takes to be comfortable in them has a direct impact on the health and poverty levels of their occupants. So, not only is the lack of Green Deal uptake a problem involving multiple individuals, it also impacts on several elements of the climate problem. Consequently, it’s important to understand this problem, and so many others within the energy field, from a range of different perspectives.
The UCL Energy Social Sciences Group recognise this and have built an expanding group of multi-disciplinary individuals, all looking at energy problems from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. In the last year we have continued to build on the strengths of the Social Sciences Group, including hosting a regular reading group and welcoming a range of external speakers from the wider UCL community and beyond. These events have covered a range of topics, varying from studies of the tradesmen installing external wall insulation to transition management in low-carbon neighbourhoods. We are currently planning a conference aimed at bringing together the different perspectives of social sciences and energy that are being applied across UCL. If you’d like to find out more about the group, visit the UCL-Energy Social Sciences Group website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
 http://www.theguardian.com/money/2014/jan/18/green-deal-green-disaster, accessed 25 February 2014.
 DECC & CHATTERTON, T. 2011. An introduction to Thinking about ‘Energy Behaviour’; a Multi Model Approach. In: CHANGE, D. O. E. A. C. (ed.). DECC.