There’s a great video on the Sustainable Development Commission website where Jonathan Porritt takes the government to task over its flip-flop on home energy monitors. But the best bit is when he’s asked if anyone in government (especially BERR) really gets climate change. Watch from about 6:45 on – it’s a masterclass in media diplomacy.
The Energy White Paper was released today and there must be a lot of interest in it; it took about six hours to actually get a decent connection to the DTI’s website and download a copy. I haven’t had a chance to go through it all yet but a couple things have jumped out from skimming the executive summary and news coverage.
- The big story over at the BBC is nuclear power. The white paper reiterates that nuclear could play a major role in reducing carbon emissions and improving energy security; indeed a consultation document on new nuclear stations was released at the same time. It should make for interesting reading: what will the government do if the private sector decides it’s not economic?
- Energy policy is about more than electricity supply though and it’s good to see that the white paper starts with demand reduction.
“The starting point for our energy policy is to save energy. It is often the cheapest way of reducing carbon emissions, certainly in the short-term. It can also contribute to security of supply, for example by reducing our need for energy imports, and reduce fuel poverty through lower bills.”
I’ll have to check but this may be the first time that the importance of the demand side has been stated so clearly.
- As an example of this interest in demand reduction, the white paper has confirmed the earlier rumours about home energy monitors. All new electricity meters starting next spring will have displays showing consumption (e.g. kWh) and cost. Apparently not everyone’s happy with this move but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.
As with anything, the devil will be in the details and it’s worth remembering that the 2003 white paper made many of the right noises too. In fact, a cynic might say that the whole purpose of the new white paper was to lay the groundwork for new nuclear power stations. But the nuclear issue shouldn’t overshadow the wider themes of the white paper, that a renewed effort in all sectors – industrial, transport, domestic, and so on – is needed to deliver a sustainable energy policy for the UK.
In the article, a designer of monitors rightly says:
“The biggest risk is that after the government announces this, they might specify this too weakly to make it useful. We might end up making 22m pieces of plastic that end up in people’s drawers because they aren’t any good.”
Of course the devil is in the detail but still, if every household had access to real-time information on their energy consumption, it could make a significant contribution to improving the efficiency of domestic energy use; review studies show it could save 5 to 15% of annual consumption. So keep your eyes open this summer when the white paper will be published detailing this and hopefully other equally newsworthy proposals.
When most people think about electricity, it’s likely that one of three things comes to mind: the services electricity provides (e.g. lighting, refrigeration, TV, computers, etc), its steadily increasing cost (thanks to that friendly monthly or quarterly reminder from your utility), or – in my case at least – a not-so-fond memory of trying to get over an electric fence.
But I think you would hard pressed to find someone in the general public who would immediately say anything about how electricity is generated. Apart from seeing the occasional cooling tower or transmission pylon, the generation and distribution of electricity is largely hidden from view. Turn a switch, pay the bill, and the rest of the system does the rest.
In many ways, this is a great strength of centralised electricity systems. The end user doesn’t have to see the 300 railcars worth of coal per day rolling past their door on the way to supply a modern power plant. However this invisibility represents a distance between users and producers, hiding us from the costs of electricity production. Or more specifically, making it difficult for us to see how our demand for electricity might lead to acid rain, climate change, radioactive waste and other impacts.
The appeal of microgeneration is that it makes these impacts visible. By generating electricity in the home (and aided by a monitoring device), a household can see whether they are generating enough electricity to meet their needs and if not, they know that this difference must be provided by the grid. This gives microgenerating households control: you choose how much electricity to use and when to use it, making the most of the clean electricity in your home and avoiding the side-effects of grid-supplied electricity.
In other words, small is beautiful because small is visible.
PS. It probably goes without saying but I highly recommend reading E.F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful.