A distributed energy future for the UK
By Hywel Lloyd, Government Engagement Manager
What does decarbonisation mean for the future of energy distribution?
Energy is essential for life. Throughout history people have sought the fuel they need from their immediate surroundings.
For most people electricity and gas are readily available to power and heat our homes, workplaces and social spaces.
Evolution of the UK energy system
The UK energy system has evolved significantly over the last 200 years.
For the last 40 years or so the majority of the UK population have accessed their energy supplies through the national systems for gas and electricity. Served by companies that source and supply. And companies that transmit and distribute.
What was once mostly in state ownership is now mostly in private hands. Even people who are off the gas grid are served by companies that source, distribute and supply their gas, oil or coal from afar.
So we have a functional, centrally managed, nationally and internationally connected energy system that supplies millions of people with gas and electricity at the flick of a switch. And supplies others with their domestic oil tank, gas cylinders or coal sacks supplied by phone or online order.
Why then would anyone bother seeking their own fuel when heat and power are readily available to all?
Innovation in the energy system
The answer is that doing so opens up prospects for innovation within the energy system in light of the new challenges it faces. Whilst providing opportunity, ownership and new economic benefits for consumers.
New energy technologies, different sources of energy, and new business and governance models can offer a more effective, efficient, low carbon energy system which can benefit everyone.
Designing and creating a bottom-up, decentralised and distributed energy system can meet the energy needs of the great majority of British people with their ‘fuel’, benefiting themselves and their community. And the global community as well. Avoiding the worst effects of catastrophic climate change.
It will be an energy system that is more resilient, more engaging of people and more appropriate to the challenges of the next century. Whilst making the most of the local energy assets that the UK deploys to secure its energy future.
It is generally agreed the energy sector is in the midst of a transition driven by the trends of digitalisation, decentralisation, and decarbonisation, and potentially an emergent democratisation.
It is unclear what such a vision means and looks like.
The more substance we are able to give to our vision of the future, the more likely we are to be able to deliver it, or to improve it and deliver something even better.
Net neutrality – a low demand for energy
A decentralised, distributed energy future for the UK energy system begins with people, the home, our other buildings, the technologies of digital, wind and solar, and the concept of near net neutrality.
Together the ambition to minimise unnecessary energy use and maximise energy harvesting moves us on from just seeking energy efficiency in the home, to turning homes themselves into Active Buildings. Helping us realise the concept of near net neutrality.
As technology advances, the role of home and local storage, smart meters and local grids will all play their part in delivering the near net neutral home, building, community and place.
Near net neutrality is the start of the energy story in each and every place. It reflects both the lie of the land and the nature, interests and work of communities and seeks to maximise the energy that each place and its people can generate, or harvest.
In a near net neutral world, every building would have some energy harvesting technology fitted to it, appropriate to local circumstances.
An energy ecosystem
A balance will need to be struck between what is best done at the level of the home or building, and what is best done at the scale of the neighbourhood, locality, or town.
Solutions will therefore require a sensible balance between neighbourhood planning and a perhaps more strategic district, county or unitary council scale planning.
Within this decentralised, distributed energy future for the UK, we should seek to maximise the local opportunities for harvesting the power of the sun, the wind, and the land – and optimise its use.
The energy vision
This is not a vision that seeks to create independent energy users. It is one that empowers people and communities to be more self-sufficient while being part of a connected, inter-dependent system that offers security of supply and resilience in the face of changing demand and climate.
A vision that recognises some energy uses are greater and more intense than local supply can address.
The UK will still want to be a manufacturing nation. Some of the technologies that build this decentralised, distributed energy system require that we continue to manufacture the means to harvest and deploy these energy sources.
In exploring this decentralised vision of the future of the UK’s energy system, it is important we consider the challenges that need to be addressed as well as the opportunities offered.
Engage with the Active Building Centre
Part of our mission at the Active Building Centre is to inform the construction and energy sectors. To raise interest across industry in Active Buildings. To demonstrate their solution to transforming construction. To influence the policy that will help the UK government achieve decarbonisation targets.
Published September 2019