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Towards resilience: building energy systems with community at their heart

The pandemic has exposed the fragility, inefficiency and inequality embedded in our energy system, so how can communities be at the heart of building the energy sector of the future? Senior change designer at Forum for the Future, Rebecca Lawson, sets out the way.

COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the fragile state and deeply interconnected nature of the critical systems we rely on for our health and prosperity. Our energy system is a case-in-point; the pandemic has underscored that existing top-down, centralised models of energy supply and management are no longer fit for purpose.

As lockdowns were imposed and the world stood still, energy demand tumbled, leaving inflexible systems oversupplied and slow to respond to the new normal. Rock-bottom oil prices and volatility in oil markets represented the greatest threat to many economies reliant on fossil fuels. But in the UK, radically reduced demand actually meant that our energy system was able to rely on renewable sources of energy for the majority of its supply for sustained periods. Remarkably, in May we even went a whole month without generating any electricity from coal for the first time since the 1800s.

However, the need to use predominantly intermittent renewables sources of supply from lots of different locations, while substantially reducing our carbon emissions, created headaches for grid managers working to keep the lights on. We have a system that was designed for electricity just flowing one way from very large power stations to customers, and so grid management costs soared – with almost £100m being paid to energy companies to take power plants offline in order to balance the grid.

As vaccines are rolled out and the world begins to return to something approaching normal, energy demand is expected to rebound, easing some of the immediate pressure on the grid.  But as we attempt to ‘build back better’ from COVID, how can we accelerate the shift towards a more flexible, affordable and resilient energy system that is able to withstand future shocks and provides households and communities a greater role?

What will the energy systems of the future look like?

The good news is we are not starting from a blank piece of paper in meeting this challenge. Before COVID struck, new models and technologies were emerging. As output from renewables continues to grow, network operators are investing significant sums into new smart technologies to give them greater visibility about what is happening on the network in real time, allowing them to respond more dynamically.

These changes offer new opportunities for businesses, communities and homeowners to transition from being passive consumers to playing a more active role in helping to balance and manage demand. Householders and community organisations could be paid to use surplus energy when there is plentiful supply (when the sun is shining or the wind blowing) or be rewarded for reducing their usage at times of peak demand. As the costs of battery storage continue to fall it is possible to see communities collectively investing in storage systems that could also be used to balance the electricity system.

With the right support, coordinating peer-to-peer trading of electricity, investing in storage and providing flexibility services could provide urgently needed new business models for the UK’s once burgeoning community energy sector. Growth in the sector has all but ground to a halt in recent times as the result of a series of government policy changes; for example, the Big Local project in Radstock had been exploring the possibility of installing solar panels on local buildings as a means of generating a long-term income stream for the local community. However, since the Feed-in Tariff was removed in March 2019, this no longer makes sense from a business perspective.

Recognising what is needed

Of course, much of the early success in reducing UK energy system emissions so far has been invisible to the public. But reaching net zero emissions by 2050 presents some huge challenges which cannot be overcome without the participation and cooperation of all of us. For example, there will need to be big changes to how we use energy in and heat our homes. By 2030 all newly installed heating systems will need to be low carbon, with heat-pump installation rising from 30,000 to 600,000 2028 and 26 million existing fossil-fuel boilers ultimately replaced. The energy efficiency of our homes will also need to dramatically improve, with billions earmarked for the retrofit and upgrade of homes.

The next 10 years will be critical in building resilience and shaping the energy system upon which we all depend.

Driving this change from a grassroots level will be a key factor in successfully realising these targets. Research has shown that people are heavily influenced by who shares and communicates information, meaning that speaking through trusted individuals and independent organisations is critical. Over the last two years the Greenmoor Big Local Group has acted as a trusted intermediary to offer advice and support on energy efficiency and help local residents to access Energy Company grant schemes to insulate and upgrade their homes. In many cases the differences have been lifechanging for families previously living in cold, poorly insulated homes. Without the support of the trusted Big Local group these residents almost certainly wouldn’t have engaged with energy companies to access grants that helped improve their homes.

Addressing energy inequality over the next decade

Successful rollout of such energy efficiency measures to low-income households to tackle fuel poverty is critical to ensuring that our energy transition is fair, and that the upgrading of all our homes to low carbon standards is not just the domain of those with significant savings and disposable income.

The next 10 years will be critical in building resilience and shaping the energy system upon which we all depend. Yes, the transition relies upon many technological changes – for example, switching us from coal to wind and solar, or from petrol to electric – but it is also a transition that needs to acknowledge the important roles that people and communities have to play. To achieve a fair and equitable transition that benefits us all, it needs to be a collective endeavour.