Transforming Energy Systems – why governance matters
Reflections on Week 3 – People, Scale and Society
8th July 2019
In our third week we looked at action at different scales and the roles people can play in transforming our energy system; this has prompted more busy and interesting discussions on a variety of topics. Hopefully, by now you feel ready to talk about what governance changes are needed in order to bring about the rapid, decarbonising system change we need.
The issue of demand reduction has come up a few times in this week’s discussions. To be clear, we consider demand reduction, or energy efficiency, as a first priority of any governing institution moving to a new energy system. Discussions have pointed out that this is needed across heat (e.g. insulation), electricity (e.g. more efficient appliances) and transport (e.g. more use of public transport). Many people have asked whether it is possible to calculate the amount of energy we need to save. Given the focus of the week, there were good discussions about how we can convince people to use less energy.
It was pointed out that ensuring good levels of insulation for existing housing stock is vital for transforming our heat systems (and minimising the need for cooling, for that matter), and this is likely to be harder for older houses. How can we convince people that this is important? And is this enough for people to do it, or must there be financial benefits too? Others suggested that drawing attention to other benefits of energy saving technology might help – the comfort and warmth of better insulation, for example. Education and support also came through as key requirements for people to take action – to understand the problems and to be helped in making changes. Finally, it was pointed out that there needs to be mass training and up-skilling in order to build an industry ready to insulate millions of buildings across a country.
The idea of obliging people to live differently came up repeatedly. People provided examples of people being forced, following the failure of more friendly approaches, to take action to minimise their impact on the health of their community. It was suggested that laws could oblige people to make behavioural changes. The financial benefits of different behaviours or new technologies were also pointed to as a way to encourage change. Indeed, laws and economic benefits together might work best.
There were a number of posts about how active or passive energy consumers are, could or should be. It was rightly pointed out that those living with pay-as-you-go electricity meters and watching every penny of electricity they use would probably not consider themselves particularly passive consumers. However, in terms of what we are thinking about in the emerging energy system, people could be more fully engaged and be much more than ‘consumers’. People need to understand their role in the energy system, as citizens as well as consumers and even producers, and it was suggested that government or policy makers need to nurture this understanding. It should also be recognised that throughout life people and their ability to engage will vary depending on changing circumstances.
The issue of fairness generated much discussion this week. One key point of difference was whether and for whom the cost should be socialised or fully reflective of the cost of the service. Some felt that, for example, the higher cost of providing electricity metering through pre-paid meters justified the higher cost of electricity on these meters. Others pointed out that those with pre-paid meters were mostly those with the least means and that these higher costs were falling on those least able to afford them, therefore one could argue that here the costs of the metering technology should be covered broadly. Generally, there was a feeling that one’s ability to pay should be factored into considerations and those with least means should be helped.
This was related to the discussion about ‘Deep Democracy’ which people seemed to find valuable, even if it perhaps asked more questions than it answered. It was asked whether we can actually achieve energy democracy whilst maintaining a system focused on maximising profits. Some people felt that more detail would help clarify how to go about making deep democracy happen. The local discussion forums described by a leaner represent one such practical way forwards. However, as was pointed out by some, we need to work out how we skill-up an ‘army’ of facilitators to take on this task at country scale.
Following the exercise about the capacity of local authorities, governments and other bodies, there was discussion about whether it was better to centralise organising the energy transition. Local initiative is needed, some suggested, in the face of inaction from central government on such an important issue. But, as others highlighted, this will need more power and resource for local governments to put new policy into practice.
Examples of local energy
There was a really exciting diversity of examples of local energy projects which people brought to the discussion. In Edinburgh we heard of two different community energy organisations which operated in very different ways and at very different scales across the city. It is clear that community organisations are diverse and very much shaped by the people locally. A few people mentioned anaerobic digestion, using food waste or sewage, to produce green gas either to generate electricity or inject into the grid. Solar-powered micro-grids were mentioned in both Nigeria and Australia as a way to deliver local electricity.
Others pointed out the issues of consent and disagreement about what technology to use and where to put it. This is where community energy, done properly and collaboratively, can work to build consensus before proposing and implementing a project.
Finally, a number of people on the course pointed to the value of protest, such as mass marches, in raising the profile of an issue – such as action on climate, or opposition to fracking. People described having found local Extinction Rebellion groups an accessible way to get involved in organising around the Climate Emergency movement and push local politicians to take action. It was pointed out that other more ‘conventional’ ways of taking local action – such as attending local council meetings – are also effective and important. Indeed, if protest is ‘hot politics’, we need the parallel ‘cold politics’ of people developing tangible solutions and planning how they could be implemented to achieve our goals.