Has the UK reached “peak stuff”?

Peak Stuff feature My feature on whether the UK has reached “peak stuff” published in/on the Guardian today. Here are the links:

• Main feature: Has the UK reached peak stuff?

• Stats and graphics: Peak stuff – the data

• Response: Tim Jackson on the “cold comfort” of peak stuff

Nice to be on the front page of both the main paper and G2, as either one of those would have been a first for me. (And the feature is currently the most-read piece on Guardian site – having overcome a brief overtaking by Steve Jobs’s dying words. Sorry Steve!)

If I get time I’ll update this post with a bunch of thoughts which I didn’t have space or time to explore in the feature or data post … such as the possibility that if we’d noticed that consumption and GDP had decoupled in 2006, that might have been a red flag that our finance-driven economy had become increasingly separated from reality and that there was a big crash coming.

Update, 28 November. You can also read George Monbiot’s response, which appeared the next day. Note there are some thoughts from me in the comments below the article.

Posted in Energy, Food, Resources, Society | Tagged | Leave a comment

How green are green energy tariffs?

Do green electricity tariffs make much difference? And if so, which is best? This is a question I get asked quite a lot – most recently on Twitter by Francis Irving. I figured the best way to reply was to post a slightly updated extract from my book The Rough Guide to Green Living. So here goes. It’s all rather complex, so if anyone out there thinks I’ve misunderstood anything feel free to let me know in the comments. Note that I haven’t mentioned the feed-in tariffs, which kicked off since I originally wrote this, but I don’t they’d change the argument much.

The big picture

A green electricity tariff is a power package that claims to offer some kind of environmental benefit. There are many such tariffs available in the UK, both from major utilities and from green specialists. Some are simple and not very ambitious: the supplier promises a token gesture such as planting a tree on behalf of each new customer. However, other tariffs offer – either explicitly or implicitly – to provide you with electricity from renewable sources. These schemes may offer some real benefits but, as we’ll see, the advertising is usually somewhat misleading.

In addition to regular green tariffs, there’s also the option of a tariff geared towards cooperative values and social justice, or a tariff that encourages you to save energy by giving discounts when you reduce your energy consumption.

‘Conventional’ green tariffs

The market for green electricity tariffs has for years been highly confusing, with some tariffs offering far less environmental benefit than the marketing material suggests. Friends of the Earth gave up ranking green tariffs in 2004 due to the complexity of working out which were and weren’t providing any real carbon savings. And a 2006 report by the National Consumer Council concluded that none of them could really claim to be offering substantial environmental benefits.

One complication comes from the fact that UK law requires all electricity providers to buy a proportion of their power from renewable sources. This rule, known as the Renewables Obligation, requires an ever-rising proportion of UK electricity to be derived from renewable sources. At the time of writing, the Renewables Obligation is currently about 11%, and rising about 1% per year. The cost of meeting – or trying to meet, as in reality we’re well behind schedule – these targets is funded by a surplus on all electricity tariffs, green and regular alike.

This grid-wide requirement is a good thing, but it leaves open the possibility that companies can sell green tariff customers the renewable energy that they were going to have to have in their portfolio anyway due to the Renewables Obligation.

Even if your supplier buys more than the legal minimum from renewable sources, that doesn’t necessarily make them more green. For each unit of renewable energy that a company generates or buys from a supplier it gets a Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC); if it generates more than the legal requirement, it can sell the extra ROCs to other companies, which can use them in place of generating green power themselves. For this reason, the (now deceased) National Consumer Council and some other groups have argued that the only green tariffs that make a difference to the amount of renewable power being generated are those from companies that buy more than the required percentage of green electricity and then destroy (“retire”) some of the extra ROCs to help drive up their price and incentivise green generation. Some specialist power providers, such as Good Energy, have responded to these concerns by retiring a few percent of their ROCs – but the overwhelming majority still get sold. If they were all retired, the price of the tariffs would rocket, making it unlikely anyone would sign up.

Today, however, it’s more complex even than this, because the barriers to new renewable energy capacity are not so much lack of demand but planning and technical obstacles. Retiring ROCs can’t help much with those kinds of barriers – but simply ploughing ahead and driving up capacity can. In that sense green specialists like Ecotricity – which effectively combines a wind turbine installation business and an energy supply business – are doing great work. Specialists also tend to do good work behind the scenes lobbying for more ambition on renewable energy at a national level. For example, the nice folks at Good Energy seem increasingly to think of themselves as serving a think-tank role, producing papers and advice on how to rethink electricity supply in the UK to make it more amenable to increasing renewable capacity.

With all that in mind, signing up for a green specialist makes sense. On the other hand, I do think the advertising remains misleading. Most customers I’ve spoken to assume that by signing up for a green provider, their annual electricity requirements will switch from coal or gas to renewables, reducing an equivalent amount of CO2 being emitted from power stations. But that’s not really true. What’s happening is simply that much of the UK’s renewable energy capacity – driven mainly by the Renewable Obligation – is being funnelled through a few specialist green providers, who then create a green retail package around that funnel. If those providers disappeared tomorrow, that same renewable energy would simply be sold via the big energy companies instead.

This all sounds somewhat pedantic, but I think it’s important. For one thing, I’ve known more than one person over the years who has told me that they’re less worried about leaving the lights on since signing up with a green supplier because they know their power comes from wind turbines, so it doesn’t matter how much they use. Which is of course complete nonsense: the marginal impact of using more power is always to add more coal or gas to a power station somewhere, no matter what tariff you’re on, as every renewable energy device will be working flat out already. It doesn’t really matter who consumes the green power, only whether each of us are driving new capacity. Of course, the green energy companies would never tell customers not to worry about their power use, but it’s not hard to see how their adverts lead people to this way of thinking.

For another thing, green tariff marketing implicitly gives the impression that if everyone just signed up for a green tariff then we would have fixed the energy problem. In other words, it’s easy to just “do your bit” as a consumer, and job done. That’s true in the purest possible sense, but not in practice, because above a certain level, each new customer would make the tariffs more expensive, and therefore less attractive. That’s because – at the moment – the Renewable Obligation is big enough to subsidise all the green power we purchase through the green specialists. But if, say, 50% of us signed up for tariffs promising to supply us with renewable energy, the prices would have to shoot up to a level sufficient to support all that genuinely additional renewable capacity – which would make the tariffs hugely expensive.

Partly due to woolliness around the question of “additionality”, Ofgem recently launched its Green Energy Supply Certification scheme. To get the Ofgem seal of approval, the companies have to prove additionality not by supplying the customer with green power (which, as we known, is a fudge due to ROC trading) but to do something entirely separate, such as buy carbon offsets (at least one tonne of CO2 savings per customer last time I checked) or contribute towards community energy projects.

On the one hand, this seems a crazy system. You might conclude that you could just as well just stick with a regular tariff and pay £8 to a carbon offset service to soak up a tonne of CO2 in the developing world. On the other hand, at least the rules are now clearer, and in one sense switching to overseas offsetting makes perfect sense given that the UK’s power sector has capped carbon emissions anyway. (I won’t go into that debate now, but the point is that all our green electricity choices are traded away at the ETS level. What we save on electricity in the UK will be emitted instead via a power plant or glass factory in Europe. Point being that all we can really hope to achieve is to show what’s possible in the hope of tighter ETS caps going forward.)

At the time of writing, most of the big six energy providers have signed up for the guidelines for their green tariffs, along with eco specialist Good Energy. But Ecotricity (in typically bullish fashion) criticised the guidelines and decided to continue on the same path they were on before – trading ROC certificates and using the money to help support their wind turbine business.

With such a complex set of factors to surrounding the additionality question, it’s not easy to know the precise impact of the various green tariffs. Moreover, there’s the wider behaviour of the suppliers to consider. Whereas a green specialist is likely to be actively doing everything it can to expand renewables – including small-scale ones that might bypass planning delays – larger companies such as E.ON may be busily lobbying for unabated coal power stations.

This, along with the fact that you’ll be registering your concern about climate change, is perhaps the main reason to sign up for a green electricity tariff. But if you do sign up, don’t succumb to the misconception that your electricity supply will be so green that it doesn’t matter how much you use. As for whether Good Energy or Ecotricity is better – which was Francis’s question – I don’t think there’s a clear answer. From what I understand, the former is more focused on buying back power from micro-generators, and getting involved in policy work; the latter is more interested in putting up wind turbines, and also supplying biogas.

Socially equitable gas and electricity

Ebico is a nonprofit organization that focuses on social equity as well as the environment. With conventional electricity and gas suppliers, the poorest members of society end up paying the most per unit. This is because low-income customers often use expensive pre-pay meters, lack bank accounts enabling them to benefit from direct debit savings, or pay a disproportionate amount via standing charges. Ebico’s Equipower and Equigas schemes offer one price per unit, regardless of the payment method. Yet, because it’s non-profit-making, the company is able to offer competitive rates and good customer service.

For green minded customers, Ebico offers Equiclimate, whereby it purchases EU Emissions Trading Scheme carbon credits to match your total electricity and gas use and withdraws them from the market, hence forcing down the overall emissions of the power sector.

Energy saving tariffs

Southern Electric’s Better Plan tariff takes a completely different approach to environmentally friendly energy supply. The basic premise is that the greener you become, the less you’ll pay for your electricity and gas. Customers qualify for a discount of £15 when they reduce energy bills by 10% in a year. Further discounts are offered for choosing paperless billing and for improving your home’s energy efficiency: £10 for buying A-rated appliances and £20 for upgrading an old boiler or insulating your roof or walls. An energy monitor is also included with the package.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Groundbreaking new data tracks carbon back to source

Originally published on The Guardian

Which of the following accounts for the largest share of the UK’s carbon footprint? All our holiday flights, all the power used in our homes or … Russia?

Okay, so it’s kind of a trick question, but according to a scientific paper published this week, we might reasonably conclude that the answer is Russia – though to understand why it’s necessary to go back a couple of steps.

For the purposes of the Kyoto treaty, a nation’s carbon footprint is considered to be a sum of all the greenhouse gas released within its borders. But as many people – myself included – have been pointing out for years, that approach ignores all the laptops, leggings, lampshades and other goods that rich countries import from China and elsewhere.

If we want any chance of a fair global climate deal, the now-familiar argument goes, we need to rethink the way we measure emissions to allocate some of the carbon pouring out of Chinese, Indian and Mexican factories and power plants to the countries importing good from those countries.

The new scientific paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points out that this argument – though persuasive – tells only half of the story. If you want to understand how carbon footprints are affected by international trade flows, the paper argues, you need to consider trade not only in gadgets and garments but also in fossil fuels themselves. After all, though country X might import a television that was made in country Y, it’s quite possible that country Y in turn imported some of the coal, oil or gas consumed by the television factory from country Z.

Use these charts and maps to explore the world’s carbon footprint from extraction of fossil fuels and emissions of CO2 through to consumption of goods and services. The chart “Extraction to Consumption” shows the ultimate supplier of the fuels used to support the lifestyles in each country.

Of course, there’s nothing revelatory in the idea that fossil fuels are traded between nations. We all know that, say, Saudi Arabia produces much of the world’s oil. But what the academics behind the new data have done is a remarkable feat of number crunching: they’ve tracked the carbon flows of virtually the whole world, from the countries extracting the oil, gas and coal via the countries in which it’s burned to the countries that ultimately consume the goods and services all that energy is used to create.

As a result, we can see how much of the coal mined in Australia is used to support lifestyles in the Europe; or what proportion of all the energy, goods and services consumed in Japan was ultimately created with oil from the Middle East.

All of which will appeal to climate data enthusiasts, but is the study actually important? I think it is – not so much because it has any obvious practical applications, but because the data helps reminds campaigners, consumers and policymakers alike that the climate-change problem is ultimately about fossil fuel coming out of the ground. That sounds an obvious thing to say but it’s a point often forgotten in all the discussions about clean energy or national emissions cuts – both of which are necessary but not sufficient to meet the challenge of leaving most of the world’s hydrocarbons in the ground.

To meet that challenge, we need a global climate deal. And to increase the chances of getting one, one of many things we need to do, I would argue, is to think more about the whole chain of responsibility and benefits related to fossil fuel use. It’s easy to simplify the debate and say that the US or Europe are entirely responsible for the goods they import from China; but in truth China also benefit economically from that trade and – crucially – so do the powers that be in the countries that provide China with its oil imports.

Which takes us back to the question I posed at the beginning of this post. Russia, it turns out, provides about 6.8% of the fossil fuels burned in the UK. It also exports its fuels to other countries, which in turn export goods to us. All told, Russian fuels account for almost a tenth of our national carbon footprint – more than our domestic electricity use or our leisure flights.

Does that make Russia 10% responsible for the UK’s footprint? No, of course not. But in the same way that most of us would allocate some of the responsibility for drug use to the producers and importers, or of gun crime to the small arms manufacturers, or of chemical pollution to the chemical companies, surely we need to start thinking of responsibility for fossil fuel use in a more nuanced way. It’s global emissions that matter – and globally the economic benefits of fossil fuel use are widely spread around.

• Many thanks to the authors of the study and their technical team for creating the interactive data tool embedded in this article specially for the Guardian.

Posted in Climate, Emissions, Energy | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to use Million Dollar Homepage to involve five million people in renewable energy

How do you engage huge numbers of people in clean energy? How do you overcome the negative press that renewables are up against? And how do create an energy-based project that’s genuinely particpatory and has broader social benefits?

Those are some of the questions my colleagues and I at 10:10 were asking ourselves last year when we decided we’d like to launch some kind of project on renewables.

A year later and the project we came up with – Solar Schools – has just launched its pilot phase. It’s an exciting scheme, so I thought I’d post a few notes about it and the thinking behind it.

First, a quick summary. The aim of the project is to enable schools to fundraise the cost of a solar system from a wide number of people in their local communities. It works through a combination of a clever website and a set of related vouchers and other printed materials. The website provides each school with an “empty” solar roof diagram, which gradually fills up with a mosaic of local faces as community members buy vouchers or donate online.

The idea was inspired by Million Dollar Homepage, which became an internet phenomenon in 2005 when a student successfully sold $1m of adverts on his website, one pixel at a time. I liked the idea of using a similar visual approach for crowd-funding renewables – and solar was the obvious technology, being so flat and modular (think solar cells instead of pixels).

At 10:10 we’d been thinking of doing something on renewables for a while, but we wanted to make sure it whatever we did was participatory (like all 10:10 activity) and had something new and interesting about it, to give it a chance of catching on widely. In the end, we put together the pixel-by-pixel solar concept with the idea that schools could be an ideal channel for creating mass engagement at a community level.

Other organisations have done good work on community energy schemes based on investments and returns, but we were keen to do something with donations. This way it might be practical to engage a much wider set of people. Better to get 500,000 people taking their first positive step with clean energy by donating £5 each, we figured, than to get 500 people who already care about climate and energy issues investing £5000 each.

The idea got exciting when we totted up the numbers. Let’s say 1000 schools took part, each with an average of 500 pupils. That’s 500,000 pupils, each of whom has close links to lots of other people such as parents, neighbours, grandparents, family friends and local businesses. Ten connections per pupil would make five million people – and that’s before you add on all the teachers, governors, PTA members and so on.

Getting all those people to visit a website would be difficult, so we came up with a way to connect the offline with the online – which I think is one of the most interesting things about the project. We provide the schools with perforated voucher books that look a bit like chequebooks. Kids sell the vouchers and record the details of the buyer on the stubs. Later, the school associates the name and email address with a little solar “tile” on the website, and the buyer then gets an automatic email inviting them to check out their tile and add a picture (using Facebook if they like) and a message of support.

To test the idea, we’ve signed up ten schools (many of them in Reading, but with others in the Scilly Isles, Norwich and elsewhere) for a pilot project. The first schools have just kicked off their fundraising, with targets ranging from £5000 to £50,000, and the first donations are starting to trickle in.

So why did we choose solar? And what about the case made by people like George Monbiot that it’s a virtually useless technology for the UK?

We picked solar partly because it was modular and ideally suited to the website idea, and partly because it’s the renewable energy option most easily available to the largest number of schools. As for the question of expense, as I plan to write about in a future post, the figures usually bandied about are somewhat misleading, not just because they ignore the fact that the power is being delivered directly to the consumer (especially in the case of schools, who use all their energy in the daytime) but also because they don’t consider the fact that when solar goes onto a building the inhabitants tend to slash their power use thanks to increasing energy literacy (well, that’s what all the anecdotal evidence suggests, even though no-one has studied it properly as far as I can tell).

Anyhow, in many ways the question of cost isn’t so relevant for this project, for three reasons. First, because any state subsidy via the feed-in tariffs is only going back to schools – i.e. bak to the state. Second, because the project is only partly about producing clean energy. It’s mainly about trying to get millions of kids and community members to take an interest in clean energy – and to feel empowered about getting involved. Third, we picked the project partly because the toolkit could be easily re-used in other countries – including those where the solar irradience is higher.

Only time will tell if the pilot will be successful, but after months of preparation it’s great to see the website up and running. Do check it out and make a donation. Even better, feel free to send feedback on the experience to help us make it better.

Finally, a few credits. Although I’ve been involved throughout on the conceptual side, the scheme was principally driven forward by the world’s best project manager, Daniel Vockins, supported by brilliant coordination from Amy Cameron, inspired design by Tom Flannery and incredibly fast web development from Simon Whitaker. It’s amazing how much such a small team achieved in just a few months.

Posted in Climate, Energy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rough Guide to Community Energy – my new little book, gratis to anyone who wants a copy

The Rough Guide to Community Energy Cover My little book on community energy schemes is now freely available online and in printed form.

“Community energy” is something of a buzzphrase at the moment, but if you want to set up a project yourself – whether it’s a street-scale energy-saving scheme or a thousand-person hydropower cooperative – it can be hard to know where to start. The Rough Guide to Community Energy, which I co-wrote with Malachi Chadwick, was created to help, providing advice on everything from setting up a local carbon-reduction group to fundraising for megawatt-scale wind systems.

Thanks to financial support from M&S and delivery support from 10:10, the book is being distributed for free. You can get a copy here, either by downloading the PDF or requesting a free printed copy.

What struck me when working on the book was how much great stuff was already happening on community energy around the UK. My co-author Malachi did a great job of gathering case studies from existing projects, some of which are genuinely impressive and inspiring.

Do grab a copy and see what you think – and pass it on to anyone who might be interested.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Maldives crowd-sources its radical energy plan

Originally published on The Guardian

The Maldives on Thursday is to become the first country in the world to crowdsource its renewable energy strategy on the internet – a move designed as part of an ambitious plan to be the world’s first carbon-neutral nation.

Experts around the world will be invited to provide technical advice on low-carbon energy generation, storage and financing, via a new website that launched on Thursday.

The Maldives – an archipelago of small coral islands in the Indian Ocean – is on the front-line of climate change because its low-lying terrain leaves it extremely exposed to rising sea levels. Large parts of the country could be left uninhabitable by the end of the century if sea levels continue to rise at expected.

In 2009 the Maldives’ president, Mohamed Nasheed, announced a plan to make the country carbon-neutral by 2020 – the world’s most ambitious national climate change target. Nasheed said he hoped that by adopting the plan, the Maldives would inspire “other nations to follow suit”.

Today marks the first major milestone in the country’s carbon reduction process with the public release of the Maldives Renewable Energy Investment Framework, an analysis of technical and financing options for cutting out fossil fuels from the country’s electricity infrastructure.

The document says that an 80–90% reduction in electricity emissions should be achievable by 2020 without driving up local energy bills. A 100% cut may also be possible but – unless carbon offsets are used – achieving this target “will be difficult and needs new technology to be commercialised to make it happen”.

The Maldives is pinning its hopes principally on solar power, with a target for delivering 60% of the country’s electricity from solar panels by 2020. A new biomass power station is proposed to complement the solar systems on the larger islands, and some wind power may also be used, but this technology is unlikely to play a key role due to regular windless periods.

One challenge for the Maldives is a lack of technical expertise. The report acknowledges that the skill base of the country’s energy utilities “is inadequate for the task” of rapid carbon cuts. To overcome this obstacle, the Ministry of Economic Development will invite experts all over the globe to scrutinise and improve its plan via the new crowd-sourcing website, due to launch on Thursday.

An official in the president’s office told the Guardian that the site will have forums on specific issues such as the best kinds of solar panels for corrosive environments, and the establishment of the Maldives Energy Finance Company, a proposed organisation for reducing the costs of infrastructure and capital. The site will also invite discussion on more fundamental questions such as: “How aggressively should the Maldives pursue carbon neutrality, at the expense of short-term economic wellbeing?”

Although climate change leadership is the key driver behind the Maldives’ plan, the government is keen to emphasise the broader benefits of switching to renewables in terms of cost and energy security.

Mahmood Razee, minister for economic development, said: “We are investing in renewable energy because it is cheaper and cleaner than burning fossil fuels. At the moment, our economy is run on imported oil and every time the oil price rises, we all suffer.”

The current consultation doesn’t cover non-electricity emissions sources such as cars, boats and cooking, which will be dealt with in future reports. Also excluded is air travel, which is crucial to Maldives’ tourism-based economy but – in the absence of realistic decarbonisation options – is not covered by the carbon neutrality plan.

Posted in Climate, Emissions, Energy | Tagged , | Leave a comment