1. Crisis, what crisis?
If the world were not distracted by the resurgence of regressive, divisive trends in global politics, we might realise that a bigger, existential crisis stares us all in the face. The messages could hardly be clearer.
“The impacts of human-caused climate change are no longer subtle – they are playing out, in real time, before us,” says Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University in the US. “They serve as a constant reminder now of how critical it is that we engage in the actions necessary to avert ever-more dangerous and potentially irreversible warming of the planet.”
“2016 will be the hottest year ever measured. 2015 set the previous record; 2014 set the one before. Fifteen of the sixteen warmest years have occurred in the 21st Century. Each of the fourteen months from spring May 2015 to July 2016 beat the global monthly temperature record.”
“Arctic sea ice covered a smaller area in the winter of 2016 than in any winter since records began. In Siberia, there is a major anthrax outbreak amongst local people and reindeer, because infected corpses locked in permafrost since the last epidemic in 1941 have thawed. India has been hammered by cycles of drought and flood, as extreme heating parches the soil and melts glaciers in the Himalayas. Southern and eastern Africa have been pitched into humanitarian emergencies by drought. Wildfires move across America; coral reefs around the world are bleaching and dying.”
“February didn’t break climate change records – it obliterated them. Regions of the Arctic were more than 16°C warmer than normal – whatever constitutes normal now. But what is really making people stand up and notice is that the surface of the Earth north of the equator was 2°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. This was meant to be a line that must not be crossed.“
“The need for urgent action is clear. The largest body of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has concluded that if the average global temperature rises by more than 2°C there will be catastrophic effects for humanity and the rest of the natural world and that human influence is the dominant cause of climate change.”
Carbon Brief encapsulated these warnings within a powerfully simple graphic.
To give ourselves a 50% chance of holding the world to within a 1.5C temperature rise this century, we have (perhaps) 10 years in which to construct a radically different ‘sustainable’ economics.
May 2016 was the 13th consecutive month of record global temperatures. The resulting floods, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires touched every part of the planet.
This is the pattern of ‘weather’ reporting we had better get used to. It will put increasing pressure on global leaders – including Britain’s – not only to sign and ratify the Paris Climate Agreement… but to deliver programmes of radical carbon reduction that keep the planet within a 1.5C temperature rise this century.
It may even be too late. As Carbon Brief now points out, on existing trends Britain has just 4 years left of its carbon budget to make reductions that keep the 1.5C target within reach.
This will require the biggest ‘peacetime’ transformation in human history; a fundamental change in the way we think as much as in how we produce and consume. As the magazine Science pointed out, there is no ‘slow route’ option left.
Practically, we need to halve our carbon emissions in the next decade, halve them again in the following one, and halve them again in the third decade. In Britain, with a government anxious to ditch its climate commitments, such a conversation has barely begun.
There is no ‘magic wand’ answer to the problems we have created. The Paris Climate Summit recognised that existing policies – on trade, transport, agriculture and energy – all contribute to making matters worse. Every nation – Britain included – needs a Plan B, of how to live more lightly within the natural limits of this fragile planet. Energy policy will be at the centre of this re-think.
1.1 The Moment: when local meets global
The ‘transformation’ key involves a shift in energy thinking; from power stations to energy systems. Transformation Moment explores some of the ways in which other countries are already making this shift; linking integrated national policies with more localised citizen ownership; focussing on energy systems that deliver more but consume less; putting clean energy before dirty; making energy saving more important than energy consuming; and putting communities/localities at the heart of the transformation process. All this makes citizens the drivers of change, not passengers within a problem.
Such change isn’t necessarily driven by the most affluent or hi-tech. Despite the country’s wretched dependence on coal, the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh set a new world record during the summer of 2016 – involving 800,000 volunteers – planting 50 million trees in 24 hours; an action both humbling and inspiring.
China may have an appalling legacy of carbon emissions and air pollution, but it leads the world in currently installing one wind turbine every hour as its part of the global clean-up race. Uruguay went into the Paris Summit promising an 88% cut in carbon emissions by 2017, largely on the basis of already producing 94.5% of its electricity from renewable sources. Costa Rica went one better, already running on 100% clean electricity since 2015.
At some point, Britain must connect with tomorrow’s energy thinking. And it’s at the level of the local that we might usefully start exploring ‘how’.
The village of Wilpoldsried, in southern Germany, is a good place to begin. Wilpoldsried produces 5 times as much energy as it needs; a problem most towns, villages or cities in the UK would love to have.
Over the last 17 years Wilpoldsried has built up an impressive array of renewable energy projects, including –
“… 4,983 kWp of photovoltaics, five biogas facilities, 11 wind turbines and a hydropower system. As a result, the village has gone beyond energy independence – it now produces 500% more energy than it needs, and profits from sales of the surplus power back to the grid.”
Cows graze the Wildpoldsried fields, at the foot of village wind turbines that keep the lights on, and which ‘fuel’ the village finances. The problem the region has been grappling with is how do you integrate this into an energy grid originally designed to support a one-way flow of electricity ‘from power station to plug’?
The answer is found in the nearby town of Erlangen, where Siemens constructed a state-of-the-art, energy management centre; running a Smart-Grid that balances, stores and shares energy to provide stability. This is the shape of tomorrow’s ‘virtual’ and flexible energy systems. The key is interconnectivity; from the local to the regional, to the national and transnational.
So, at the other end of the scale (and country) –
“Germany’s 50Hertz Transmission and Denmark’s Energinet.dk have placed an order worth $140 million with ABB for the ‘back-to-back’ converter station which, once complete, will be the first of its kind in Europe.”
The project will develop a single ‘converter station’ that links clean energy generation in the 2 countries; offering a different approach to energy balancing, sharing and storing. Their interconnector will have a capacity of 400MW; enough to supply the power needs of 400,000 local households.
This is where local meets national, meets trans-national. It is what tomorrow’s energy systems will look like; with towns, cities and communities becoming central players in the energy transformation process. For the planet, it will not come before time.
Britain’s political parties may have difficulty getting the message but most parts of the energy sector know that, for ‘old energy’, the writing is on the wall. Nicola Shaw, executive director of National Grid, told the public to ‘stop fretting’ about ‘keeping the lights on’ because
“A ‘smart energy’ revolution could help ensure that the UK does not suffer blackouts…” adding
“We are at a moment of real change in the energy industry. From an historic perspective we created energy in big generating organisations that sent power to houses and their businesses. Now we are producing energy in those places – mostly with solar power.”
More surprisingly, the same message is beginning to come from ‘Big Energy’ itself.
“Mark Boillot [a Senior Vice President of EdF] contends that ‘large nuclear or thermal power plants designed to function as baseload are challenged by the more flexible decentralised model’. He says that the centralised model of power production is dying, to be replaced by local solar and wind, supplemented by batteries and intelligent management of supply and demand.” 
Perhaps it should be less surprising, given that France has introduced laws requiring all new buildings to have solar or nature-friendly roofs. This follows a lead given by the city of Toronto in Canada in 2009.
The USA expects to see one third of new construction coming in the form of ‘green’ buildings by 2018, with 2016 delivering a bumper summer for solar installations –
“Between July and September of this year, 4.1GW of solar photovoltaic cells (PV) were installed in the US. That’s enough new power for one home every 11 seconds – using the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) average figure that 1MW powers 164 homes on average.”
Germany has moved from passive-haus to energy-plus designs for new building and (more importantly) is supporting refurbishment schemes for existing buildings that aim for near-zero-energy standards. India, is underpinning plans for 100GW of solar generating capacity (by 2020), with a network of devolved, clean-energy storage schemes. And one of New Zealand‘s leading house builders has announced that all its new homes will be pre-wired for solar power, batteries and electric car charging.
Britain may (or may not) be about to leave the EU but it should not ignore Europe’s achievements in driving this clean energy revolution. In 2015, across the EU, all new ‘net’ power additions came from renewable energy.
Britain was responsible for half of the 8GW of new solar generating capacity installed across Europe that year.
Sadly, this was more of a blip than evidence of policy UK leadership. It reflected a public rush to install solar systems before draconian government cuts were made to UK clean-energy tariffs. A bleaker picture was offered in the government’s own 2015/2016 figures for solar deployment.
Compare this with the prodigious growth of solar deployment in the USA.
It isn’t just solar that the UK has been seeking to constrain. Across the whole spectrum of renewable energy technologies, Britain’s performance has been less than inspiring. Compared with its European partners, Britain lags behind the pack.
A roller-coaster of policy changes contributed to the UK’s chequered performance.
“Government policy support, together with falling technology and installation costs, has driven a remarkable surge in renewables investment since 2010. However, this started to slow in 2015/16 as cuts in support took effect. In total, 3GW of renewable electricity and 0.46 GW of renewable heat capacity were installed last year, a third less than the previous year…
England meets 5% of its total energy demand from renewables – still a long way short of the UK’s 2020 15% target.”
Meanwhile, Canada, the USA and Mexico all pledged to deliver 50% of their energy needs from clean energy by 2025. Sweden is on track to meet its ‘100% renewable energy’ target by 2040. And Scotland set
“…a renewable electricity target to generate the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s own electricity demand from renewable resources by 2020, a target which will require the market to deliver an estimated 14-16 GW of installed renewable capacity.”
Often, such progress appears to be in spite of UK government policy rather than because of it. National Grid predicts that the UK, as a whole, will miss its legally-binding 2020 renewable energy target (of 15%) by “up to 9 years”.
1.2 Britain needs a new plan.
For a more convincing strategy, Britain could look at the approach taken by Denmark. By 2050 Denmark aims to have a 100% fossil-free economy. Already, 50% of Danish electricity comes from renewable sources; most of it underpinned by citizen shared-ownership.
Denmark symbolises today’s fundamental shift in energy thinking; from power stations to energy systems, and from unlimited consumption towards a more circular economy. It is an approach that makes the links between energy efficiency, clean transport, waste reduction, water management and energy recovery. Nothing captured this better than their
‘State of Green‘ video, outlining the country’s 2050 roadmap towards a fossil-free economy.
The most important aspect of the changes taking place, however, is not to be found in any array of clean technology solutions, nor in the leadership of national governments. It is in the emergence of localities and citizens movements, unwilling to wait for national leadership that sometimes isn’t there.
This is what Transformation Moment seeks to connect with.