Why and How should Zero Carbon Energy Transition Be Planned?

These are my points for discussion at the webinar on An Emergency Plan for Young People, Climate and Jobs – West of England to run March 31, 2021.

Why is Transition to zero carbon energy challenging?

Transition to zero carbon energy is a complex task because change must be realised throughout all aspects of our society, yet, to name a few challenges:

  • These aspects are Independently owned, managed and operated: e.g., building and retrofit activates are undertaken by small independent companies and property owners, bus or delivery companies manage their own fleets, etc. While they all draw from and can also feed into electricity grid, each of these companies is managed for their own profit or other goals by independent management bodies.
  • Changes pertain to re-design and replacement of the established hardware and software infrastructures as well as human behaviours, e.g.,
    • Replacing each petrol station with EV charge points or biofuel points, gas boilers in each home with heat pumps, setting up telecommunication networks for data collection and analysis from energy generation and consumption equipment then developing algorithms to analyse this data and optimise energy use.
    • Engaging each household and business, e.g., explaining to each driver why they should allow their EV’s battery to be controlled by some service provider and how to protect their privacy and security in this new energy systems.

Not only is the scale the necessary change massive, but the pace is even more challenging if the 2050 climate objectives are to be met.
These challenges cannot be addressed without coordination, planning, and cooperation.

Why should the transition be planned?

While part of the social and economic activities are perceived to be independent (as per operational, ownership and managerial independence noted above), in truth they are inter-dependant, particularly when change is concerned, due to:

  • Physical hardware limitations: installations of charge points for EVs or heat pumps to a new built housing area will only be functional only if the local electricity distribution network has the capacity to support them without causing blackouts. Thus, change of physical infrastructure must be coordinated: e.g., undertaking new charge point installations after or alongside of distribution network reinforcement.
  • Behaviour change in people: e.g., installation of charge points for EVs will not, by itself, ensure transition to electric vehicles. This must be accompanied by a set of educational activities, as well as policy, regulatory and economic support activities. Which include, e.g.,
    • explaining the need for replacing once’s petrol-fuelled car with EV,
    • regulating (like clean air zones and pollution charges) to make use of fossil cars less convenient than that of EVs,
    • providing financial opportunities for either purchasing and EV car to replace the petrol alternatives, or finding a different transportation option (e.g., electric bike with safe biking routes, car share schemes, etc.).
  • Availability of skilled professionals: without workforce to deliver the change, even the best-intended initiatives are doomed to failure. This was illustrated by the recent the green deal, where funding for retrofit was made available without trained retrofit specialists. This ended in poor quality of retrofit delivery, which led to deep mistrust in homeowners towards both the retrofit as a concept and building/ retrofit providers as a group, resulting in failure of improving energy efficiency and uptake of retrofit as well. Thus, skills for delivery must be developed in tandem with the need for this skills.
  • Equitable transition: as demonstrated by the closing down of UK’s coal industry by M. Thatcher, changing energy system is bound to lead to need for upskilling and re-skilling. For instance, while replacing gas boilers will require a skilled gas boiler professionals to de-commission these boilers, the need for this specific skill will seize thereafter. Thus, upskilling and re-training must be provided in tandem with transition process as well.

How should the transition be planned?

  1. Plan for Locality: clean energy systems are, by necessity, local (as local renewable sources need to be used for clear energy generation), thus, each plan needs to be local (i.e., defined for a clearly geographically bound area). Given the specificities of each locality, the best plans for each locality will also be specific (e.g., for Bristol one can combine local wind and solar energy generation with biogas supply from outside while expanding hydro-generation on Avon river?).
  2. Plan for a Common Goal: to instigate transition within and across all sub-sectors of social and economic activates, the goals and pace of the transition need to be agreed upon by all players within these sub-sectors. Thus, the businesses from across different sectors, as well as local government, citizen groups, charitable organisations need to agree on the set goals, tasks and timescales for transition. While common goal would be agreed upon by all, the specific tasks and timescales can be agreed upon on a smaller group level (e.g., community energy groups can negotiate with EV charge point providers directly, etc.).
  3. Plan with Stakeholders: while the common goals can be agreed, their delivery will likely need support and cooperation between stakeholders. Thus, challenge-focused working groups should be set up to support stakeholders within and across various sectors in working towards the transition goals (e.g., to transition to zero-carbon building practices new supply chains are necessary for new building materials these can be set up for the whole set of SME building companies together).