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Anna-Harrison-summer-school-293x300In July 2013, Carbon Management Canada sent five second year PhD students to the UK Energy Research Centre’s summer school at the University of Warwick. Amir Bahman Radneja, who is working with Viola Birss at the University of Calgary, and Anna Harrison, working with Greg Dipple at the University of British Columbia, both wrote blogs about their experiences.

By Amir Bahman Radneja, University of Calgary

I had the opportunity to attend in the one of the most reputable summer schools in the field of energy and environment in the world this summer.

Each year the UK Energy Research Center (UKERC) gathers 100 doctoral students from the UK and other countries at the University of Warwick in the English Midlands for discussions about energy systems and particularly pathways to low-carbon and resilient energy systems. This year there were students from Canada, UK, USA, Germany, Italy, Australia, China, Japan, India, France, New Zealand and many other countries. The exciting part of this gathering was meeting people from very diverse backgrounds. There were students from engineering schools, science schools, art schools, law schools, public policy schools and business schools from the most reputable universities around the globe.

About 13 talks were provided for participants on variety of topics such as energy generation, energy markets, energy policy, US shale gas, demand-side management for electricity sector, the biomass industry in UK, USA and Brazil, energy modeling, energy communication, ecosystem services, energy behaviors, nuclear energy and energy in developing countries. In addition to these remarkable talks, there were helpful sessions to increase the presentation and communications skills of PhD students. Besides of all these serious and academic talks, there were social events organized that increased the chance to socialize with other students and UKERC members (more than 200 members attended in the last two days of the summer school) .

I personally enjoyed each second of being there and also I learned a lot from the talks provided. The interesting point for me was the differences between North American and European views regarding energy issues. I identified some major differences that helped me get a better understanding of global energy systems. I would highly recommend for students who are studying and living in Canada to participate in such events to realize how complex the energy industry and how many factors are involved in the future of energy on this planet. I appreciate the support of CMC that facilitated my attendance in UKERC and hope CMC can provide this support in following years for other students.

By Anna Harrison, University of British Columbia

Carbon Management Canada provided me with a travel subsidy to attend the United Kingdom Energy Research Council (UKERC) summer school at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. The school brings together 100 second year PhD students from across the globe to learn about the energy sector with topics ranging from renewable energy sources to decreasing the energy demand of the end user. Lectures from an array of international energy experts were interspersed with more informal ‘master classes’ that delved deeper into particular topics. As a scientist, the policy and economy oriented discussions provided me with an interesting perspective as to how science fits in to the economics and policies related to the energy sector.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the school was the opportunity to meet and work alongside students of such diverse backgrounds. Early on in the week-long school, we were divided into groups of ten and assigned an energy policy question to tackle. We then had to defend our answers in a presentation to members of the UKERC annual assembly. It was challenge to organize ten people with unique opinions and perspectives, but was a good lesson in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Although packed full of talks and group work during the day, the summer school schedule also included social activities in the evening. One of these was a cultural evening, which showcased the diverse food, drink, and music from each student’s culture. A ‘drum café’ had everybody playing the bongos in time, and a céilidh dance provided a pretty good workout. With every minute packed full, the school was a challenging and worthwhile experience.

This blog first appeared on the Carbon Management Canada website: www.cmc-nce.ca/energy-summer-school-a-valuable-experience-say-attendees.

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NazmiyeOzkanI was invited to attend a panel discussion at a fringe event organised by the New Statesman magazine and supported by the Energy Networks Association at the recent Labour Party Conference.

Titled ‘Smart Grids: Is this the way of selling low carbon policy to sceptics?’, the event was chaired by Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor and digital director of the New Statesman, and the panelists included Tom Greatrex MP, Shadow Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, Jason Kitcat of the Green Party, Leader of Brighton and Hove Council, Basil Scarsella, CEO of UK Power Networks and myself.

Basil began by discussing how distribution costs make up just a small part of consumer energy bills, only about 16%. He highlighted how smart grids might help us meet security of supply, affordability and sustainability objectives. Jason elaborated on how smart grid can lead to the democratisation of energy production and consumption, and the empowering of consumers, drawing on his experience of trying to fit Brighton’s large social housing stock with solar panels.

I spoke about the wider non-­climate benefits of smart grids: the reduction of bills (through reducing peak demand and so the need to build new power plants), the opening up of new business opportunities by transforming large volumes of data into ‘information’ that has value, and improving the resilience of the energy system to shocks (either man-made or natural). I identified three challenges: policy, coordination and coherence, consumer concerns on data privacy, and fairness.

There were interesting questions raised by the audience, most of them directed to Tom Greatrex (maybe not so surprisingly). Question topics included the community benefits of large infrastructure projects (for example heavy traffic being borne in communities where a new nuclear power plant construction is planned) and information collected by smart meters.

Among all the questions that were discussed I want to highlight a few. One of these was whether we could expect demand side management measures to be mandated vs. an incentive-based approach. Whilst there was resistance from the panelists to forcing such policies on consumers, and incentives were thought to be a better solution, findings from our recent public workshops show that the public do not replace appliances until they stops working. Given the long lifetime of appliances, therefore, some product standards legislation may be necessary in order to speed up the introduction of smart appliances.

Panelists also discussed the conflict between network operators and energy suppliers when there is lots of wind in the system: cheaper electricity may increase demand, which in turn could cause problems for the networks. I must say I didn’t hear a clear response to this and it is one of the areas that I expect will become a key issue in the coming years as we move to more dynamic tariffs.

Finally, a vital issue was the one of fairness – or how we ensure that householders who have limited means to access technologies that will enable them to shift their energy use or whose lifestyles are bound to certain routines are not penalised. Jason linked this to his experience of installing solar panels in council estates: only those whose house faces the right direction are able to benefit. This is complicated further still by the fact that one third of UK householders are tenants, and the division of costs and benefits between tenant and landlord is still a significant obstacle.

Dr. Nazmiye Ozkan and Tom Watson work at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster. Both are currently working on the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) project: Scenarios for the Development of Smart Grids in the UK

Dr Matthew Aylott UKERCBlackouts bring the failure of the electricity network to everyone’s front room in spectacular fashion. During the 1970s blackouts brought a swift end to the Government of Ted Heath. Maggie Thatcher knew the risks associated with blackouts and hoarded coal before taking on the miners in the 1980s.

Put simply keeping the lights on is a political imperative.

To avoid blackouts you need a grid which is capable of meeting fluctuating demands for power.

In the UK for many years this has meant running a large number of ‘baseload’ power stations – mostly coal and nuclear – that run constantly but are slow to respond to changing demand, supported by a smaller number of ‘load following’ and ‘peak’ power stations – mostly gas – that can change output to meet demand or be turned on rapidly to meet spikes in usage.

However, things are changing. The rapid growth and intermittent nature of renewable sources of energy like solar and wind has called for a new way of managing our grid. We require more flexible power to meet the troughs in supply when renewables aren’t generating at full capacity.

In the long-term we are likely to have a smarter grid, with batteries capable of storing energy from renewable power generation and new information and communication technologies (ICTs) like smart meters, which will allow us to better balance supply and demand. But in the short-term as we transition towards a low carbon economy, gas-fired power stations will be necessary to supplement renewable sources of energy.

However, construction of new generating capacity – both fossil and renewable – has been slower than anticipated. This has been blamed on investor uncertainty in the new Electricity Market Reform. In addition, a number of gas-fired power stations have recently been mothballed due to the weak ‘spark price’; the difference between the gas price and the electricity price.

As we reach the so called ‘capacity crunch’ in 2015, when some of Britain’s largest baseload power stations will stop operating due to European emissions regulations [1], many have raised concerns that we are facing a supply shortage which could lead to blackouts.

Ofgem estimate that spare electricity generating capacity could fall from more than 10 per cent today to as little as 1.5 per cent in the winter of 2015/16 and the risk of disconnections could almost quadruple [2]. This remains a worst case scenario and widespread blackouts remain unlikely, nevertheless historically low capacity margins together with a period of cold weather and low wind conditions could create the ‘perfect storm’ for disconnections.

This has prompted action from the Government. Earlier this year Ofgem consulted on plans for a ‘supplemental balancing reserve’ to give the National Grid powers to pay generators to re-open mothballed plant or keep existing power stations operating for longer. However, this would be an expensive option and bringing mothballed plant back into operation takes time.

Another obvious way of avoiding power cuts is to use less energy. Despite the failure of the Green Deal to inspire the nation, improved understanding of energy efficiency in the home and pressure from rising energy bills has already seen domestic gas and electricity consumption in the UK fall by nearly 25% between 2005 and 2011 [4].

Further cuts could be made by rationing electricity or demand side management, where domestic appliances – like fridges – can be switched off externally for short periods when demand spikes. However, this is something UKERC research suggests would be unpopular with the public [3] and needs more effective communication to ensure ‘buy-in’.

Less aggressive strategies could be more successful.

Centrica, owners of British Gas, who supply around 12% of the UK’s electricity, have successfully trialled a system in the US where consumers were offered free electricity on Saturdays to encourage them to do household jobs when demand was lowest. British Gas now intends to roll this out in the UK. But how successful such as scheme would be is uncertain and it would be unrealistic to assume greater energy savings alone will offset shortfalls in supply.

What is needed to keep the lights on is a whole systems approach to our energy system, where policies aimed at both demand and supply work together. The Electricity Market Reform needs to make Britain an attractive proposition for investors and needs to do so quickly. And as UKERC has argued previously, the Electricity Market Reform needs to take demand response and reduction seriously.

Ultimately the capacity crunch won’t cause blackouts, only inaction will.

This article first appeared on BusinessGreen.

Dr Matthew Aylott is Communications Officer at UKERC – but writes here in a personal capacity. He previously worked as a bioenergy researcher for the University of Southampton and for government advisors NNFCC.

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[1] European Commission. Large Combustion Plants Directive, November 2001. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/air/pollutants/stationary/lcp/legislation.htm

[2] Ofgem. Electricity Capacity Assessment Report 2013. June 2013. www.ofgem.gov.uk/ofgem-publications/75232/electricity-capacity-assessment-report-2013.pdf

[3] UKERC. Transforming the UK Energy System: Public Values, Attitudes and Acceptability. July 2013. www.ukerc.ac.uk/support/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=3229

[4] ONS. Household Energy Consumption in England and Wales, 2005–11. August 2013. www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/regional-trends/area-based-analysis/household-energy-consumption-in-england-and-wales–2005-11/art-household-energy-consumption-in-england-and-wales–2005-11.html