Sunday, 15 November 2015

Addressing Climate Change - Two possible futures.

I am clear about how I would like to see carbon emissions reduced in the UK (and beyond?) My, 'Plan A' chosen future is one with low energy demand, new build housing to Passivhaus standards, a mass insulation deep retrofit programme. Electricity and heat production would be largely renewable with many small community, individual and locally owned energy companies - an Energy Generating Democracy. This was a future that the UK was making its first small steps towards but with the scaling back of the Energy Company Obligations and decimation of small scale and community micro generation by this Government (and the previous Coalition Government) this future looks a distant dream. It is a dream that is the traditional 'Big 6 Energy Companies' nightmare. Low energy demand, low customer bills, low profits, diminished dividends for shareholders. We could save the Planet but it is a dim outlook for your traditional gas and electricity supplier under my preferred scenario.

  You can imagine that with protecting their corporate interests  being in conflict with global survival that energy companies might 'kick back' at policies that might adversely affect them, so for that approach to have any moral justification they need a 'Plan B' to offer an alternative vision of our energy future. For electricity we pretty much can see the path. New nuclear is there certainly but so is carbon capture  and storage and we should expect some movement on that agenda shortly. 

What about heat? The Renewable Heat Incentive is an innovative policy supporting small and community scale biomass, heat pumps and a bit of solar thermal for hot water but there's no will to scale it up as a mass market solution for the millions rather than just the greenies and first movers. Community/District heating is also a solution which is difficult to make stack up on any scale. Government has given up on energy efficiency as a solution to the heat problem so what's left? We could have electric central heating for homes but for it to be carbon free we would need a massive scaling up of our renewable energy generation and that is certainly not anywhere on this Governments agenda. So you are left with the gas going through the pipes and being burnt in our boilers. If it has to be gas you have to change the gas. Biogas created and captured from rotting biological matter e.g. Sewage sludge, decomposing vegetable matter etc could be injected into the gas network and this would be renewable as opposed to fossil gas. The process is called anaerobic digestion but again not much sign of serious investment in this technology in the UK. So methane, fossil or renewable sourced is not a solution. What are we left with? Burning a different gas such as hydrogen in boilers. This is being seriously considered and I know of discussions with government looking at how this scenario might work and the technical problems that would have to be overcome to make it a reality. The problem is that as a mass market solution it is probably 20 years plus away from realisation or 'too late' as you could put it. Plan B doesn't work!

I don't believe that under any scenarios the government  might consider that they can resolve the heat problem. So it's back to Plan A! Existing housing mass regrofit would need to be covered through a 'Green New Deal' approach or Peoples QE funded but the problem of the Energy Companies remains. How do you take away their fear, their loss of revenue and give them hope of a future? They need a new source of revenue, they need to diversify into companies that have a socially and environmentally beneficial purpose. The natural partners for energy companies a re social housing providers Councils and Registered Social Landlords/Housing Associations. They have been badly hit by Government through cuts in Housing Revenue Account funding and a proposed extension of the 'Right to Buy'. This has meant that plans to build new social rented housing have been either cancelled or scaled back significantly. A new source of funding from Energy Companies could come in the form of a 'Social Housing Obligation' where a levy on bills could be used to fund investment in new Council and Housing Association developments. These would be built to 'passivhaus' standards and would have limited need for heating. The difference between the Social Housing Obligation and Energy Company Obligation would be that's for the former they would have a 'share of the action' and an agreed proportion of the revenue. Over time you would expect Energy Companies to have a diminishing amount of revenue from selling energy and a rising amount from rents. Ultimately they may well become, or merge with, Social Housing providers. To make the business model work it would be necessary for Government (and Labour) to abandon their ideological support for the 'Right to Buy'. We can tackle climate change and create a better society but not with the government or the policies we have.

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