Guest Blog: Optimising the energy system from the bottom up

21 Sep 2016

If we are to decarbonise electricity, heat and transport, we will need to ‘optimise the system from the bottom up’, argues the University of Exeter’s Richard Hoggett, describing some practical steps to begin doing so.

There is no doubt that we must decarbonise electricity, heat and transport. The market-driven approach, currently central to the way government thinks about the energy system, is not, in my view, going to deliver this goal. We could easily be locking-in the wrong technologies, in the wrong place, for the wrong cost, with little or no public consent – Hinkley Point being a recent case-in-point.

I believe the answer to effective policy in this field lies in ‘optimising the system from the bottom up’, i.e., starting with the household and working up to the national level. Energy infrastructure is fundamentally local. It is only at the local level that we can really know what the best solution might be in terms of demand reduction, demand-side response, distributed energy, storage, heat production, electric vehicles, bio-methane, and power to gas. It is also the only way to really focus on people and place, creating new opportunities to have meaningful conversations about the energy system and collectively choose the best technical, economic and social solutions across all the vectors.

Some of the information and knowledge to ‘optimise from the bottom up’ already exists, although it is dispersed and not necessarily easy to access and get value from. Finding ways to use this data more effectively to support local change would be beneficial. Examples of the data we would need, and who holds it, include:

  • System constraints – network companies
  • Customer demand – suppliers
  • Building stock, which areas are likely to be owner occupied, private rented or social landlords; where the business parks and industrial areas are, and a sense of the transport infrastructure and issues that exist with it – Local Authorities
  • On and off-gas areas – customers and energy NGOs

We also have data through schemes like the Home Energy Conservation Act, the old Energy Savings Trust (EST) network of energy efficiency advice centres, the Decent Home Standard and existing energy agencies and NGOs that have been working for decades on sustainable energy locally, regionally and nationally.

Changing our approach to system transformation from the bottom up mainly requires the political will to do so. It will need a new approach to energy governance, based on bottom-up optimisation and a focus on end users, strategic guidance from the top, with the middle facilitating change.

By optimising from the bottom up (from the house, to the street, to the neighbourhood, to the town/city, county, region), I believe we can create a smarter, flexible and integrated whole system that puts people first. This is the energy future and it’s about as far away as you can get from last week’s decision to give the go ahead to Hinkley Point C.

Richard Hoggett is the Research Manager for the University of Exeter’s Energy Policy Group IGov project – Innovation and Governance for a Sustainable, Secure and Affordable Economy. This is an abridged version of a blog that originally appeared on the IGov website.