We only need to look at our daily lives to realise how reliant we have become on energy. Developed countries very rarely suffer from intermittent supply of electricity but on the rare occasions we do experience a power cut, it doesn’t take long for us to appreciate how dependent we have become. Look at the events of this weekend in the North of England – 55,000 homes without electricity due to the worst flooding on record. Supply issues are much more commonplace in the developing world, but many developing nations are trying to tackle these issues, aiming to lift their populations out of poverty. Combine these efforts with an increasing global population and energy demand is only going to increase.
So, how do we meet these growing energy needs without further contributing to global carbon emissions? At COP21 there have been extensive discussions of the contribution that solar energy can offer. The Global Solar Alliance and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition both provide reasons for optimism in terms of potential solutions to gaining a more diverse, low carbon energy mix. As the solar market strengthens the criticisms associated with its affordability relative to fossil fuels are disappearing. The concentrated solar power plant in Ouarzazate, Morocco has even begun to overcome the supply issues associated with solars primary criticism, darkness, via thermal storage systems that can still provide the necessary heat to generate electricity overnight.
The majority of initiatives proposed at COP21 seem to be focussing on major technological advancements to solve our energy dilemma, and how these may be financed. However, perhaps the concept of marginal gains could be utilised, at relatively low cost? This approach received notoriety in the UK via the British Cycling Team, with the logic being that if the team could make a 1% improvement in a range of different areas, cumulatively the level of improvement would be hugely significant, seeing opportunities in the system rather than weaknesses. So could such an approach be adopted in the energy sector? This is certainly happening in many countries, with some changes made in the UK’s Building Regulations. Reduction in domestic energy consumption through improvements in the fabric is being achieved, however, Developers still successfully challenge the need to then to provide renewables. And this is often because the consumer objects to being made to adopt and maintain such technologies or contribute to, for example, a centralised district heating network.
So, despite the high level discussions which are underway at COP21, does there remain a need to come back to grass roots and consider the behaviours of the customer – us! Are we willing to play, or pay our part? It’s interesting to see Tesco report the use of plastic bags is down 80% since introducing the 5p levy. It seems we are content to change our behaviour when there is a penalty to pay, even one so small. Reducing our own energy use could easily outweigh any additional cost for renewables. We have become accustomed to warmer houses, certainly since my childhood when the average temperature indoors was 12o compared to today’s average of 17.5o. Our thermostats are generally set at around 21o; is there capacity or willingness to turn them down?
Are our current levels of energy consumption sustainable in the long term? Discussions throughout COP21 have focussed on what is necessary to ensure low carbon energy provision but it’s clear that we must make some changes in our own lives. So often the greatest challenges are associated with behavioural change, but maybe we are reaching the stage where we must face up to the facts. Perhaps we have reached the point where alongside nutritional information provided for food, we should also expand this to consider the quantities of carbon required to produce products, offering the public the choice to switch to a low carbon lifestyle. What do you think?