Realising Transition Pathways

Launch of Realising Transition Pathways report "Distributing Power: A transition to a civic energy future"

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50% of electricity demand in the UK could be met by distributed and low-carbon sources by 2050, say a team of interdisciplinary energy researchers from 9 leading UK Universities 1

A major driver for this transition would be a step change in the role of the civic energy sector (communities, co-operatives, local authorities, town and parish councils, social housing providers) through participation in, and ownership of, electricity generation schemes.

Currently, less than 1 % of UK electricity demand is met by community- or local authority-owned distributed electricity generation. And, although challenging, an increase to a 50% market share by 2050 is technologically feasible.
 
  • National energy planning with regional and local support for a civic energy sector would be needed. This implies a much greater role for national and local government.
  • A high-level of distributed generation would require an increase in regional, national and international interconnection, such as electricity imports from neighbouring countries. Distributed energy systems have often been equated with increased energy independence.
  • The traditional business models of the ‘Big Six’ would be challenged as they lose market share to local generation and supply businesses.
  • Much of the energy value that currently leaks out of the UK economy could be captured at the local level
  • Significant reduction in electricity demand would be necessary, along with increasing energy efficiency and conservation; households would need to more than halve current levels of electricity consumption by 2050.
  • New infrastructure, like smart-grids and emerging technologies such as in-home fuel cells, would be necessary; large-scale expansion would need to occur from 2020 onwards.
  • The impact to consumer bills would only be marginally more expensive in the medium term to 2030; it would be significantly cheaper in the long-term to 2050, compared to two other scenarios considered by the team. 
The report ‘Distributing Power: A transition to a civic energy future’, published today by EPSRC-funded (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) Realising Transition Pathways Research Consortium 2, assesses the technological feasibility of the transition, but goes beyond this by questioning what types of governance, ownership and control a distributed future would need.

The report draws on empirical research, engagement with a wide range of stakeholders from the energy sector, and from experience in Germany, Demark and the UK. While the report assesses the impact of one distributed generation future, there are others which might have a greater role for solar, onshore wind, or other generation mixes. The report t offers insights into the barriers and the technological transformation that might be required for a move to a highly distributed energy future.

Although challenging, a transition 50% by 2050 is technologically feasible

Working with cutting edge energy modelling tools, the report details the levels and types of generation necessary, along with the amount of system interconnection needed.

A large increase in distributed electricity sources on the UK system challenges the current operational and technical norms. However, the report shows that a distributed energy future is feasible, through installation and full utilisation of Smart Grid technology, alongside demand participation, demand management and other techniques and technologies.

Electricity consumption would have to fall dramatically, along with increases in energy efficiency and conservation, with households more than halving their current consumption by 2050. Citizens would gain more control of their energy use, however, which could lead to significantly lower consumer bills by 2050.

Localising value of electricity generation that currently is lost from the UK economy

Traditionally, UK renewable electricity generation capacity has been built by large-scale commercial developers and/or utilities, whose finances are globally mobile. The alternative is the proliferation of distributed energy generators, which are owned fully or in part by municipalities, communities, or small-scale investors.
 
Report co-author Dr Stephen Hall says: This scenario obviously challenges the role of the ‘Big Six’ and localise a great deal of energy value that currently is lost from the UK economy.

Centralised generation would still be necessary for base-load and peaking capacity. For this to be viable in a distributed generation future where much of our electricity would be generated locally, the government would need to provide the right incentives for new large-scale plant and infrastructure.

Civil society would need to play a much more active role in generation, distribution and supply of electricity
 
The civic energy sector, defined as energy generation by communities, co-operatives, local authorities, town and parish councils or social housing providers, currently relies on motivated individuals and communities and often, voluntary work. The development of a decentralised future would require strong project management and professional expertise to deal with a range of technical, financial, legal and administrative issues.

In order to move to a distributed approach, regional energy strategies and local capacity building would be essential to aggregate these local energy schemes into a coherent civic energy generation sector. This would mean complementing national energy planning with regional and local support for a civic energy sector and implies a much greater role for national and local government.  
 
Co-Leader of the Realising Transition Pathways Consortium, Prof Peter Pearson, says: This report imaginatively explores an electricity future of a kind that none of us has experienced. It illustrates one of the ways in which the UK might seek to achieve the low carbon transition envisaged in the Climate Change Act 2008. 
 
Dr Garry Staunton, Director of Garry Staunton Associates Ltd and member of the Realising Transition Pathways Advisory Board says:  I have had the pleasure of being involved with the EPSRC funded Transition Pathways and Realising Transition Pathways projects from the outset and been impressed by the team, the work and the insights they have consistently delivered. This report by the RTP Engine Room is no exception, containing as it does one of the most thorough and internally consistent descriptions of a substantially decentralised energy system yet published. 

Energy Innovation Specialist and member of the Realising Transition Pathways Advisory Board, Dr Jenny Cooper says: I am very proud to have been involved with both the EPSRC funded Transition Pathways and Realising Transition Pathways projects. This report is the result of extensive research, analysis and discussion and I thoroughly recommend taking time to consider the potential transformation and challenges that it describes.  

Tera Allas, member of the Realising Transition Pathways Advisory Board says: I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to have been involved in this work. The thoroughness of the underpinning multi-disciplinary analysis is impressive and the report provides a credible, detailed and internally consistent view of what a more distributed energy system for the UK might look like. It is a major contribution to the UK's energy policy debate.
 
Note to editors
  • This report builds on research carried out under the ‘Realising Transition Pathways: whole system analysis for a UK more electric low carbon energy future’ project, supported by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (Grant Ref: EP/K005316/1). The authors are solely responsible for the views contained in the report.
  • The report can be found here: Distributing Power: A transition to a civic energy future
  • Please cite the report as Realising Transition Pathways Engine Room (2015) Distributing Power: A transition to a civic energy future. Realising Transition Pathways Research Consortium
  • For a list of consortium academic papers, contact details or for further information please visit http://www.realisingtransitionpathways.org.uk
  • Press enquiries should be directed to the Realising Transition Pathways Consortium Project Co-ordinator: Lacey-Jane Davis; Email:  l.davis@bath.ac.uk, Tel: 01225 384084. 
1 University of Bath; Cardiff University; University College London; University of East Anglia; Imperial College, London; University of Leeds; Loughborough University; University of Strathclyde; University of Surrey