Climate Talk Hot Air

The title of this post is taken from a letter, written by Robert Walkley my Mum forwarded me which appeared recently in the Townsville Bulletin on 23rd April 2013. Unfortunately, I can’t make a direct link to the letter, but the Townsville Bulletin can be found here. My Mum’s question was as follows:

I found this letter in the local rag and wondered if it was false or true?

I spent a fair chunk of time writing a response, so I thought I’d post it here on my blog too:

… climate modelling is a very complex business. And while the “reality” lines [see here] are pretty far from the central trend of the models, they are not that different from some of the low end models which can be seen in the background. As I understand it, the work on aggregating the models has largely been done for two reasons (1) to see if they are generally in agreement, which would indicate that climatologists themselves are working with similar data and assumptions (2) to be able to ask questions about the differences between models and what causes them. One of the big issues is that the very early models are large scale, and it is taking increased mathematical complexity, plus increased computing power, to be able to model the specific effects of different variables, e.g. what covers the land being a prime example, grass, sand, water, etc, at much smaller levels. In addition to this, new variables are being incorporated all the time as models are refined.

Personally, my thoughts reduced to this. If you don’t believe in climate change, perhaps you can consider the merit of putting so many pollutants in our atmosphere in of itself. We’re not just talking carbon dioxide here. The Kyoto basket is made up of various carbon equivalents including methane, CFCs and their HFC and HCFC replacements, plus others. In addition to this, there are sulphurous and nitrous oxide pollutants which acidify rain, PM10s (large particle pollutants) which cause lung diseases, and so on and so forth. The obsession with carbon, while I believe important, often leaves the others out of the popular discussion, although not always out of related policy measures, particularly in the case of the Kyoto basket of CO2 equivalents. Your southern neighbour (New Zealand) for example, may pay a lot of attention to methane emissions based on its high levels of agriculture, particularly sheep farming as those lovely fluffy lambs produce a lot of it.

Finally, as for a carbon tax, pollution control measures have to start somewhere. There has been much action around CFCs which were quite successfully banned under the Montreal Protocol when the hole in the ozone layer was discovered. Nitrous and sulphurous oxides have also received attention, with typical measures either being of the cap and trade variety, much like Europe’s carbon dioxide policy, or gradual emissions reductions policies. Arguments for unlimited pollution, to my mind, tend to derive from two positions. The first is the capitalists position, that the resources of the world are their to be consumed and turned into money. Mass consumption is key to a burgeoning economy, and costs that a dollar figure can’t be put on simply don’t appear on the balance sheet, which is great for business, but bad for society and the planet, but hey, who cares about them when your making profit. Such people/industries, are often strong, with a lot of money to spend to sway government policy. The second argument is that man has dominion over the Earth because the bible tells us so. We were made to be the superior species, dominant over all others. Thus, the planet will always cope with what we do to it because it’s our God given right. This doesn’t appear quite so much in popular discussion, but it often pervades thoughts on the matter, if not quite so clearly from a biblical perspective.

Most developed nations are heading towards carbon reduction policies. They may not be the most effective, and America largely remains on the side lines, but even China has committed to reducing its carbon emissions per unit of output. In sum, that might mean that their carbon emissions continue to grow, but one has to ask whether the rest of the world has the right to demand that China follows a different development path to the one most of the industrialised West has already done. The same can be said for other major developing powers. Their carbon emissions may be increasing, but they aren’t generally doing it without a second thought. The UK and EU are involved in many projects that include developing countries in efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

So, that was a rather long answer, one I think I’ll actually stick on my blog. In short, I’d support a carbon tax as I believe carbon emissions have to be reduced, and a tax simply attempts to put a dollar value on something which is currently a cost to society.

The economics of doing

Last weekend I attended three days of conferences with the Green Economics Institute, the first two on methodology, and the last on transport. Since I stopped reading New Scientist some months ago, one of the most important points made was that climate change is now even worse than we thought. This echoes the recent World Energy Outlook from the IEA which suggests that limiting warming to two degrees is now highly unlikely, save for massive investments in energy efficiency.

In some sense, I feel it is a shame that the number of attendees at these two green economics events was relatively small, essentially made up of people who need no convincing that there is a need for immediate change, though the debate on how to change the world was lively as ever. For me, this is perhaps the crux of the matter, that we continue to debate, not just among ourselves as green economists on the nuances of what should be done, but more generally in the wider world. Green economics is the economics of doing, not just talking. Slowly but surely, the case for change is being understood. As the Institute’s Co-director Miriam Kennet told us, governments around the world are interested. However, being interested still falls far short of acting.

I would love to write more, but am as always pressed for time. What I would like to say is that after almost a month of being a bit and commuting to the office by public transport, I finally got back on my bike this morning. The crazy thing is that cycling is more convenient, and a lot nicer than being stuck on the train, tube, or bus. I had the idea that I would start reading again on the train, but all I did was browse the internet, so that was pretty much a waste. So, this is my act of doing for this week. What will yours be?

You have to give it time in tech development

As I continue to write the results up for my fuel cell firm case studies, I am reminded of something which is hardly novel to anybody who knows anything in the grand scheme of developing Earth changing technologies. Most of the firms I am studying have been around for well over a decade, and as has been the curse of the fuel cell industry, the product has always been five years away. I can see this in action, as problems arise which could have easily been accounted for, deadlines and targets slip, and the vaunted position of a commercially feasible product remains ever on the horizon.

So, why do I bother to write in order to state the obvious? I suppose it is to add evidenced-based weight to the likelihood that it doesn’t matter how many ground breaking technologies are on the horizon which will transform the fossil hungry world economy into a low carbon one. As UK planning departments continue to work out whether they’re going to permit another onshore windfarm, often facing local NIMBYism, they forgo one of the cheapest sources of renewable energy, which as I understand it, is cheaper than coal if one takes into account all forms of subsidy for coal and wind powered generation. Admittedly, we face in the not so distant future the question of how best to balance the grid in the absence of storage technologies if we are heavily reliant on intermittent forms of generation. However, high voltage connections to mainland Europe may help to mitigate some of this risk due to the more varied portfolio of generation technologies used across the continent.

To say no to wind power, a relatively inexpensive and proven means of renewable generation, and instead hang our hopes on a new generation of nuclear and the development of coal CCS, continues to put the UK at serious risk of being able to simultaneously secure and decarbonise our energy supply. This isn’t to say that currently nascent technologies may one day be both technologically and economically feasible. However, if there is one story that we see time and time again when it comes to new energy technologies, it is that they take time to develop. One cannot simply throw money at the problem as a substitute for the learning which develops over time. Wind energy is a case in point and a classic story for those of us who study low carbon power generation.

The use of wind as a source of energy goes back well over a thousand years, to the early use of windmills in Persia. Jump back forwards by a millenium or so, and wind was first used for the generation of electricity in 1887. The oil crises of the 1970′s brought much experimentation with wind power, especially in America. However, the approach of the Danish, of starting small and making slow and steady progress, won out over the US approach of throwing big money at big turbines. Essentially, it took about 120 years to make wind power commercially feasible, although it is likely that some of that gap was due to a lack of political need (i.e. up until the 1970′s, fossil fuels were running practically on tap).

Fuel cells aren’t so dissimilar. The principle electrochemistry was first demonstrated in 1839 (which makes it older than electricity generation from wind), and while they have been used since the 1960′s in space exploration, much of the focus on their development for more general purposes didn’t begin to appear until the 1980′s and ’90s. There are many promising applications for fuel cells. Indeed, I can see how a fuel cell CHP boiler will be exceedingly useful in cities where the options for renewable generation are minimal due to the complications of a shortage of space and living in shared property. But as has been the case across the board, be it in CHP, buses, or automobiles, achieving the necessary price and performance characteristics is an evasive problem. I am confident that it is solvable, but it will take time to build experience, go through multiple iterations of the technology, and ultimately build up production volumes to make manufacture cost-effective.

Despite all evidence to the contrary that we cannot wave a magic wand at low-carbon technologies, there continues to be much focus on large-scale generation projects using unproven technologies, or alternatively hanging our hopes on a new generation of nuclear which continues to appear politically unfeasible, not to mention unresolved issues regarding the storage of nuclear waste.

As a consumer of energy, I hardly feel any pressure to reduce my domestic energy consumption other than that self-imposed by my own green credentials, which I can admit perhaps aren’t as green as they should be. But if energy efficiency were combined with proven and relatively inexpensive technologies which are available now, not in two years, not in five, ten, or twenty, we would be making significant inroads into our carbon emissions. And I implore people to ignore the rhetoric espoused by some tabloid newspapers that it is renewable energy forcing the price of your bills up; it is, always has been, and will likely continue to be in the future, the fossil fuel prices which cause significant inflation in our bills.

So, if a wind farm is to be built near you, support it. If it’s a micro-hydro plant, support it. If its a field of solar panels, support it (these too are now very price competitive due to the surge in demand and production). Such projects are far more likely to lower the pressure on your energy bill and reduce the need to build one or many stations with CCS. And down the line, if you have the chance of getting a fuel cell CHP boiler, then why not, I will certainly be on the waiting list!

 

I am truly a London 2012 Olympics convert

Wow, just wow!

I have never been to watch a live sports event in my life and to cut a long story short, I ended up forking out at the last minute for a ticket to see the Men’s Artistic Gymnastics Finals. The ticket I secured was pricey to say the least, but worth every single penny in my opinion.

As it turned out, I was in the front row. What made this even more memorable was that I was sat with some of Kristian Thomas’s family and friends, so as you can guess, the shouts of support were coming thick and fast for Kristian and his team mates. I have never experienced the feeling before that I got from being there, willing Team GB to do their very best, which they absolutely did. As we got to the sixth round, we were fourth, but by only 0.25 points. The gut wrenching feeling went up a notch as Team GB was up second in the sixth rotation, so we already could see the scores of the preceding four teams.

When the final scores came in, it looked like we’d secured a Silver, but then the story took a turn as Japan called for an inquiry into one of their scores. The tension rose yet again. The inquiry was ruled in Japan’s favour, so the end result was that Team GB secured bronze. As a newcomer to watching this sport, I was told this was nonetheless history in the making as we’d never even made it to a team finals before.

Every single gymnast did their absolute best, as I’m sure every Olympian is doing. There were spectacular displays all-round, but I’m no sports commentator, so I will leave that to the professionals. China, as they often, were of course as outstanding as they needed to be to secure the gold, and they did it with marks to spare.

I felt bad for the judges who were booed as they exited the arena due to the decision in favour of Japan, this was poor form really, they were doing their job. If my heart went out to anyone, it was the Ukrainian team that thought they’d secured a bronze before the inquiry.

As for being a “convert”, I can honestly say I was pretty cynical about the London 2012 Olympics until fairly recently, mostly by virtue of being a Londoner and therefore in the thick of something I wasn’t entirely bothered about. It eventually dawned on me that there was nothing to be gained from being negative, and everything to be gained from joining in with the spirit of the games. Any “inconvenience” I might suffer was in fact easily workable with a bit of planning.

What has turned out to be more difficult is finding the time to watch my two chosen events: Men’s Artistic Gymnastics and Men’s Diving. I’m having to work out how to fit this television viewing into my day, but it’s well worth it. I am genuinely glad of my change of heart as it has allowed me to feel fantastic things I’ve never really felt before, not being a sporty person so much myself and therefore never much of a viewer either. So just think how awesome it must be to actually be competing.

For those who bemoan the cost of the games, remember firstly that we won the bid in a time of plenty. Once we’d won, there was no backing out. If you’re not familiar with accounting, the Olympics became a sunk cost, i.e. money spent that we could do nothing about, other than make the best of it. So, moaning get’s you nowhere, and the only person who suffers is you in your negativity. I’d highly recommend turning on the television, and watching the Olympians perform. Put your spirit behind them, wish them the best, and celebrate their success with them in whatever way you can. These guys work damn hard and deserve to have their nation behind them.

I wish the Olympians my very best in the coming days, especially Team GB of course, and look forward to watching you compete.

Recession, or structural adjustment?

I pretty much stopped reading newspapers when I switched to cycling in to work. On the whole, I don’t think I have lost much out of my life in doing so, it’s so damn miserable reading/watching the news. So, the extended drama of the double dip recession almost passed me by, had it not been for a sideways glance at what the person sitting next to me was reading yesterday.

Today I was waiting at a medical appointment, and so I had occasion to pick up the Metro, to see that there were calls for George Osborne’s resignation on the basis that he was a “work experience” Chancellor, by virtue of a lack of an “real world” work and a life solely dedicated to politics. And of course, one of Vince Cable’s close friends, Lord Something-or-other was quoted as saying that Cable should have the job ( no cronyism at all there of course).

My training in mainstream Macro-economics isn’t great, forming as it did part of a double module in my Bachelor’s programme (the other part being Micro-economics as I was studying for a Management degree). So, my thoughts on the “recession” could easily be considered poorly informed or ill-educated. I do of course have a much greater interest in green economics, yet even there, I know little of dealing with the macro side of things.

Nonetheless, I will say my piece. I believe that all this talk of recession, be it double-dip or otherwise, glosses over a great denial in the Western/developed world. My thoughts, and I’m not the only one I know, is that we are in the middle of a structural adjustment, from West to East, developed to developing. And if this is indeed the case, how can the West ever hope to achieve the kind of growth it has in past decades? In the UK, much of our manufacturing economy has gone elsewhere, notionally to the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China for those unfamiliar with the acronym). This is where the real growth is in the world, and like it or not, that will continue to be so for some time, with the CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa) following behind. Little old Blighty is unlikely to get much of a look-in for the foreseeable.

I am largely an apolitical animal, so it’s also difficult for me to talk of the varying impacts of each government and the style with which they rule the country and indeed the economy. On the whole, I believe that Labour left the UK bankrupt, and you can’t keep spending money when there’s none to spend. However, this isn’t the same as saying that Osborne’s austerity package is the whole, right, or even appropriate solution. But I am certainly shy of continuing to extend public borrowing as the burden for paying this lies on future generations, and we cannot expect our children and our childrens’ children to pick up the bill for our mess (and I say our with somewhat of a feeling that it belongs mostly to the generation ahead of me).

What I will say is that the lack of consistency on green/environmental policy, including its impact on industrial policy, is harming the UK. As a nation with a strong background in science, we are well placed to develop and deploy much of the technology that the world’s common future will depends upon. Yet the government can’t even steer a straight line on something as simple as domestic solar panels, which incidentally had a drastic impact on the domestic solar industry.

At the same time, the endless obsession with GDP misses out many aspects of growth, something that green economists recognise all too clearly. From reductions in environmental degradation to parents taking time out of work to bring up their children, there are many aspects of a non-destructive/productive economy, which could move us out of a notional recession if they were counted. But even so, this would not make up for the fact the Western economies are no longer the powerhouses of the world which they once were. While the BRICs, CIVETS, and indeed all developing countries industrialise, they will produce ever more significant proportions of the world’s GDP. In the meantime, it is the responsibility of the developed countries to look for ways to green their economy, and freely assist the developing world to do the same in every way which is possible for the benefit of the world as a whole.

Speedy second-hand sales

This year, due to constraints on both my time and budget, I only managed to make one day of the Annual Green Economics Institute Conference. I picked Friday as my cousin, Emma Waight, was presenting her work on Second-hand Cultures. I was very please to bring Emma into the fold, so-to-speak, as a fellow researcher looking at just one of the myriad of issues which relates to a green economy. One could easily argue that first and foremost, we must reduce consumption in the first place. But Emma’s current work on the second-hand sale of nearly new items of babywear and toys struck a note as I remember buying a good few T-shirts for my nieces and nephews due to their ability to do one of the things babies do best, i.e. be sick on their own clothes. But they grow out of these T-shirts so quickly that they hardly get their wear. I also had to question how supermarkets were able to sell clothes that were so cheap, which I’m sure are of great benefit to new parents who are already under considerable financial strain, but perhaps are of questionable providence. So the next best thing is to re-use said clothes.

Being an academic, I see a parallel with university course texts, although the problem is that many of us hold on to our text books just in case we need them somewhere down the line. Eventually, I remember giving all my text books to the local British Heart Foundation bookshop in the vague hope that they would be useful to somebody. In all likelihood, the books were one or two versions out of date, and probably not all that useful at all.

The question perhaps becomes one of speed here. How quickly can you pass on your second-hand goods? Indeed, do you need to pass them on quickly for them to be of greatest value? Anything which dates easily, be it toy or text book, is likely to rapidly decrease in value to the point at which it is unsaleable second-hand. Yet we mostly cling onto our possessions, storing them in cupboards, the loft, the cellar, and so forth, until our home is bursting at the seams with items we haven’t used in years.

Or even more to the point, should we be thinking about how long we expect to use a possible purchase for before buying it? How many things do we buy which are used once and never again. Can we buy these items second-hand to start with? Or can we find an immediate market for them directly after use? I guess that the difficulty may be that whilst many of us in developed countries are money-rich and time-poor, in combination with so many single- or short-term use consumer goods being relatively inexpensive (no doubt with considerable externalities that we aren’t aware of), that we will prefer to buy things new with the minimum of effort, and then similarly dispose of them as quickly and easily as possible.

So, in future, put a bit of thought into purchasing items that may have re-use value. Can you buy it second-hand already? And if you’re buying it new, can you sell it again quickly?

Hydrogen on the road in London

Catching up on the news in the energy sector this morning, courtesy of the National Energy Research Network Newsletter, I saw the Accelerating the introduction of fuel cells and hydrogen energy systems press release from the Technology Strategy Board. The bit that peaked my interest about this forthcoming project was this,

The creation of the UK’s first end-to-end, integrated, green hydrogen production, distribution and retailing system, centred around a fully publically [sic] accessible, state-of-the-art 700 bar renewable H2 refuelling station network across London.

This part of the project will be carried out by Air Products Plc, and no doubt will help with the continuing chicken-and-egg problem for fuel cells and hydrogen, i.e. do we need deploy fuel cell vehicles in order to make it worth installing refuelling stations, or do we wait until the refuelling stations have been installed before deploying the vehicles?

Air Products already has experience of delivering hydrogen in London as it provides fuel for the existing five fuel cell buses which have been in service up until the Olympic Games. However, the irony of the “greenest games ever” being the very reason that the buses have been taken out of service due to a stipulation in the planning permission that no hydrogen would be delivered during the Games is surely lost on our somewhat misguided government.

In an ideal world, the hydrogen would be generated by renewable means, i.e. powering electrolysis of water with renewable electricity to generate hydrogen. This would make foremission free transport. However, it is likely that the hydrogen provided by Air Products in the TSB project may come from the steam reformation of natural gas as this is the technology it currently markets on its website, and thus would still result in carbon emissions, although not at the roadside.

At the moment, it doesn’t get much greener than fuel cell buses when it comes to public transport. Companies such as Hydrogenics and Proton Motor have both developed triple-hybrid fuel cell drive systems which incorporate a battery and a regenerative braking/ultra-capacitor system for capturing braking energy to be re-used in acceleration. Yet in London, I feel that we could do so much better. Boris Johnson’s New bus for London is a diesel-electric hybrid, and while the intention was to provide a competitively priced diesel-electric hybrid which the bus operators would buy, the project could have gone so much further. Whilst pricey, fuel cells aren’t unreasonably so in the case of buses due to the higher overall cost of the bus. The five which are currently running in London hardly make a dent in the overall road emissions, and as has been noted by others such as Jenny Jones and the Sack Boris campaign (which ran before the recent Mayoral elections), Johnson’s record on air pollution is poor.

So, as a cyclist in London, I’m hoping that the project with Air Products is a step in the right direction and that we’ll begin to see more hydrogen vehicles on the road. Again, I’m not saying that fuel cells are the be-all-and-end-all, but they’re certainly a very big step in the right direction, providing the necessary versatility needed for a vehicle which is in constant use. The sooner that this is recognised and receives strong support from government, both local and national, the better.

Is there such a thing as transport poverty?

In the forthcoming London Mayoral Elections, one of the issues dividing Boris Johnson from the other candidates is that of fares on London’s public transport system. Ken Livingston has pledged to cut fares by 7% should he be elected or stand down in October if this is not done. Livingston intends to do this using TFL’s operating surplus which Johnson contends is not possible and that the surplus needs to be retained for capital expenditure purposes.

Personally, I do not agree that public transport costs in London are high, but that’s because I compare them to other parts of the country. I come from Lancashire and when I get the bus from Manchester to visit my family, it costs £4.00 cash each way. I can reduce the cost to £3.20 if I book a day’s bus pass when I book my train tickets as the PlusBus scheme operates in the Greater Manchester area. Compare this with a cash fare of £2.30 for any bus in London, or £1.35 on Oyster, and one can see we get a good deal down here. However, where we do not compare favourably is with cities where the public transport system is heavily subsidised. So in Paris, Berlin, and Barcelona for example, one expects to pay less than €2 for most journeys, regardless of the mode of transport.

The suggestion has been made to me that as with most costs, rises in fares hit the poorest hardest, something which I agree with. As a researcher in the general field of energy, I am familar with the term fuel poverty, i.e. spending more than 10% of a household’s income on heating. So, I decided to do some rough calculations to see how this compared with transport costs.

If we were to assume that the lowest paid workers in London are on the London Living Wage of £8.30 per hour and work 37.5 hours per week, their income, net of tax and national insurance, would be £257 per week. A weekly Zone 1-3 travelcard at £34.20 would therefore be 13.3% of their net income. Alternatively, a weekly Zone 1-6 travelcard at £53.40 would be 20.8% of their net income. However, many workers don’t receive the London Living Wage, and the National Minimum Wage is £6.08 per hour. This pushes a Zone 1-3 travelcard to 17.1% of net income, and a Zone 1-6 travelcard to 26.6% of net income. Furthermore, if the lowest income workers are weekly, paying for a monthly travelcard, which is cheaper and would therefore reduce the burden of transport, is not an option. A worker on the London Living Wage who lived in Zone 3 and was able to purchase an annual travelcard would still be using 10.2% of their income to pay for travel.

On the basis of these rough calculations, one could indeed suggest that there is such a thing as transport poverty, and no doubt this is not confined to London where transport costs are actually quite low in comparison to much of the country. However, I do still find difficulty with Livingston’s pledge to use TFL’s operating surplus to reduce fares because, as a student of business and management, I understand the need for financial prudence and retaining an operating surplus in the event of either unexpected expenses or a shortfall in income. The most obvious solution is to do what many other cities continue to do, i.e. subsidise public transport. As the Congestion Charge contributes to TFL’s budget, my personal preference would be for extending the Congestion Charging zone and increasing the Charge itself, using the increased income to subsidise public transport costs.

Alternatively, one might follow my example and buy a bike. I cycle from West Norwood to Moorgate in around 45 minutes which is faster than any mode of public transport can get me there. Bonus!

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It occurred to me after I posted this blog to see if anyone had already raised the question of transport poverty, and indeed they have. So, I make no claim to originality of the term and here are some links to other articles on this matter:

Charities report highlights Wales ‘transport poverty’ as a million struggle to run cars or afford public transport

Four in five households lives in ‘transport poverty’

21 million households in transport poverty

Decarbonisation of transport in the urban setting

The electrification of transport is a key element in reducing carbon emissions when matched with a transition to low carbon means of generating electricity (because after all, electric cars are only as green as the electricity which powers them). The future of the grid is seen as one where car batteries act as storage points when there is surplus generation from renewables, e.g. wind energy overnight.  By charging at off-peak times, they are also a way of improving security of supply as we can do away with adding extra generating capacity which might be necessary if we were all charging our cars during peak, daytime hours. During the day, some electricity can be drawn back off the car battery to help balance out peaks in demand, further avoiding the need for additional generating capacity.

At last week’s Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy dissemination conference, I was once again struck by talk of decarbonising the economy by increased electrification of transport which appears to gloss over a key problem in the urban setting. For many of us in cities like London, where would we plug our car in? As there are very few properties that are owned from top to bottom with off-road parking, having a personal charging point could potentially be difficult to implement. Roughly 11% of the UK’s population lives in London which also owns about 9% of cars on the road. Taking this further, approximately 12 million people, or 20% of the population, live in the ten largest cities of the UK. If one assumed car ownership in cities was similar to that in London, I estimate that it would be difficult to charge around 15-20% of UK cars at home. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like such a troublesome figure, and after all, this is simply the rough calculations of someone who doesn’t know a huge amount about the field. However, those cars are also driving in the areas of heaviest pollution where it would be preferable to reduce street level emissions in addition to the more vaunted goal of reducing national carbon emissions.

Having focussed on the commercialisation of fuel cell technology for my PhD thesis, I am continually wondering why the technology seems to be omitted from much of the low carbon energy policy that I read. Granted, the technology is still expensive, but by all accounts, it works. In the transport setting, running fuel cell cars on hydrogen has the benefit of following a similar infrastructure set up to that which we already know, i.e. filling up at the petrol station. Hydrogen as a fuel also has practically zero harmful emissions. Centralised storage and distribution of hydrogen does away with the need for individial charging points. Whilst much of the current hydrogen supply is created from natural gas, therefore still resulting carbon emissions, it is possible to create it from renewables. This could the same overnight supply which we would charge batteries with, as Siemens has recently announced it is doing. A hydrogen infrastructure would also mean that we needn’t worry about running out of juice part way through a car journey as many fear with electric vehicles (although battery life has improved dramatically in recent years).

I’m not trying to say that hydrogen and fuel cells are a panacea. Indeed, I have always been concered that whilst fuel cells are far more efficient at using natural gas, the fact is that whilst we still use natural gas, we still have the carbon emissions. But it bothers me that one technology appears to be being ignored, and it is even one which the UK has expertise in. Our own Intelligent Energy has produced a number of fuel cell vehicles including Black Cabs which will be used for the London 2012 Olympic Games. And there are others out there in the UK including Ceres Power, ITM Power, and ACAL Energy. So, surely it’s time for the UK Government’s rhetoric about growing high technology industry at home to be met by action and in this case, it even has the opportunity to match industrial and energy policy to the advantage of the nation.

Will consumers really change their energy usage based on price?

Yesterday I attended the final dissemination conference for the Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy project. Two very interesting presentations were made by Sarah Higginson from Loughborough University and Dr. Tom Hargreaves from the University of East Anglia. Essentially, their subject matter was one of consumer behaviour and energy consumption.

Tom’s research on the use of smart meters and energy monitors resonated with me. I myself own an energy monitor, but as happened with many of the subjects in Tom’s study, I stopped paying attention to it after a year or so, and it currently sits in the kitchen lifeless due to its batteries being dead. At the beginning, I was keen to work out the typical electricity usage in my flat, but once I got an idea of what is on and can be turned off, my efforts dwindled.

Sarah had tracked the energy usage in a number of households over a 24 hour period, paying particular attention to cooking, laundry, and entertainment. She asked her volunteer households to defer certain activities at particular times of the day in order to see how their behaviour changed. Essentially, her volunteer households made the changes because she asked them to do something temporarily. This no doubt provided an opportunity for those in the study to understand how they might change their behaviour, if it was desirable. But she also stumbled on the essential point that some (perhaps most) people, won’t change their energy usage behaviour based simply upon price signals.

A quote shown from a DECC report on smart metering suggested that the typical consumer would save around £23 per year once the meter was installed. Basically, that amounts to £2 per month or £6 per quarter, depending on your billing period. Hardly something to write home about. I suspect even the poorest among us would rather behave as ‘normal’ than make the effort to save £2.

Thus, Sarah and Tom’s research raise two interesting points if consumer behaviour is to be changed. The first is that simply showing people how much they’re consuming may make an initial difference, but that effect dwindles. Secondly, getting people to change their behaviour is a matter of engagement, not signalling. Most efforts to date remain fairly remote in terms of engagement, typically information campaigns by government and energy suppliers. Sarah mentioned that in California, the risk of blackout has created more of a community spirit where people ‘do their bit’ and change their behaviour in order to lower the risk of a blackout. As it is, what I’ve heard over the past few years suggests that Europe’s energy system is reaching a crisis point and that, for different reasons in different countries, we may also start to experience blackouts.

The question is, what can be done to get consumers to change their behaviour before this happens? Sadly, I don’t have a silver bullet answer, and it appears evident that neither does anyone else. Even worse, I have found myself becoming increasingly apathetic over the last year as I have seen various efforts on my part come to naught, suggesting in microcosm that even those with initially strong conviction can become weary of trying to push the green line.

In a way, I hope the blackouts do arrive because they are more likely to force people to act than anything else, especially in a city as impatient as London. In the meantime, I shall be grateful that summer is on the way so that clothes can be dried outside, lights don’t need to be turned on when I get up, cold showers are welcome, and salads become the norm.

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