Salt Ideas Essay #14: Power to the People

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Here is the latest of Salt’s Ideas Essays: 15 pieces of expert thought leadership on the innovations and ideas that will change the world for the better. We are on the brink of a decentralised energy revolution. Let’s embrace it, writes REA’s Daniel Brown.

Gravely concerned about energy forms used for propulsion, Winston Churchill, before he famously became the British Prime Minister, navigated the Royal Navy through a significant, uncertain, but entirely preferable change of energy system: from coal to oil.

Burning coal for propulsion in the giant battleships that formed the backbone of the Navy in the early 1900’s had its disadvantages, but it was conventional. Burning coal made the ships slower to change speed, it degraded, and stores of it could catch fire and were susceptible to attack. However, introducing oil was seen as unsettling and reckless to those accustomed to a certain way. Churchill, however, understood that a major opportunity was emerging. Greater speed, manoeuvrability, and efficiency were all critical in an undesired but not unconsidered engagement with the German Navy.

Embracing a new fuel offered a critical edge in subsequent battles in World War One. Churchill in his campaign to modernise the Navy faced detractors, doubters, and those who could not, or would not, see the logic of change. Despite this, Churchill saw, and acted upon, one of the greatest shifts in the twentieth century – from the steam engine to the internal combustion engine.

DECENTRALISATION

Decentralised electricity production, particularly at the household level, has not been on offer on this scale before in history. Installing solar panels to produce electricity on the rooftops of our houses, garages, businesses, or on our non-productive fields is an opportunity to take control of a critical aspect of our own lives. It offers new income streams to households. It allows companies to manage what will likely be increasing and unpredictable energy bills, and represents often a real and stable return for local investors seeking to grow their savings through community schemes.

Like the opportunity that Churchill saw in 1911, a new opportunity for progress is now presenting itself. The global climate deal agreed at COP21 in Paris in December has created space for companies, communities, and countries to think differently about their energy systems.

Following the deal each nation must look to its own decarbonisation plans and new energy futures. Decentralised energy will allow us to create new relationships with each other – in business or in communities, than these conventional forms allow.

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY

On the table now is the opportunity to take control of a part of our lives where we have always been dependant. Installing solar and storage is as much about empowerment as it is managing energy bills and meeting carbon targets. There are many opportunities for society to transform from one that is fuelled by a small number of large companies who distribute and sell electricity at their rates and with their service.

There is now an opportunity to move some of this power of production into the hands of those who consume it. Renewables are already generating income now for over 750,000 households and businesses across the country. Solar PV only produces when the sun shines, but this is quickly being overcome by the introduction of now-economical forms of energy storage. This includes lithium-ion batteries, pumped hydro, and soon flow batteries. We currently count a total of 28 large-scale installations across the country.

We anticipate dozens more energy storage projects will be installed on the grid, and thousands of units used in homes by the end of the decade. This shifts our relationship with energy providers. It allows businesses to plan for their future costs in new ways and provide stable, flexible power to fuel their operations. It allows homeowners to worry less about rising winter energy bills following Christmas. It allows people to connect with each other – community energy projects where local people invest in an energy scheme together have emerged across Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland, following the lead of Germany and Denmark.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Although it is exciting to see a global deal in Paris, the agreement does little to answer the question for many of “what can I do?” What can my business or community do to minimise climate change and its impacts? As the climate shifts we will need to be more resilient as a society, and part of that means forming communities. Taking part in a renewable energy project is an opportunity for us to do our bit in the face of a frightening and complicated problem. It allows us to organise differently, to earn sustainable livelihoods and to take concrete action on a critical issue while we carry on with the complications of daily life.

OPENING UP

As we make these small shifts we open up an opportunity to integrate other new technologies into the home, making life simpler and easier. The “big data” movement refers to the ability to process different forms of data in ever faster and more creative ways. The Internet of Things” (IoT) movement will see more devices communicating with each other, and with ourselves, making aspects of our lives more efficient.

If Britain embraces these new trends early enough it will become the global hub, driving business and growth. As vehicles become electric they could link with our home energy production. This will make our lives lower-carbon and will shelter us from increasing energy bills and uncertain fuel supplies.

THE FUTURE

Energy prices may continue to rise. The government has subsidised the cost of the new Hinkley Point C power station at over twice the current wholesale price of electricity, and is more expensive than solar and onshore wind in the UK.

The opportunity of decentralised energy is that power literally moves to the hands of those that consume it. Supporting communities, greater control over energy bills, new income streams and a secure form of production are all benefits of this emerging vision. The global costs of solar and storage have fallen, and are anticipated to continue to fall dramatically. The volume of each that is being produced is increasing. Like Churchill and the Royal Navy, a tremendous, time-sensitive opportunity sits in front of us. Like Churchill, now we need to act.

ENERGY REVOLUTION

– Decentralised energy allows us to create new relationships with each other – in business or in communities.

– Installing solar and storage is as much about empowerment as it is managing energy bills and meeting carbon targets.

– The global costs of solar and storage have fall, and are anticipated to continue falling dramatically.

About Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown is the communications and campaigns oOffficerr att tthe Renewablle Energy Association. He is Vancouver-born and based in London. He holds a master’s degree from King’s College London.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA) is at the fore of developing the renewable energy economy, which supports over 112,000 jobs in the UK. www.r-e-a.net

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