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Introduction to energy

The aim of Sustainable Development Goal 7, ‘affordable and clean energy’, is for energy to be accessible in both developed and developing countries. It also aims for this energy to be generated in ways which do not harm human health or the biosphere. In this section, we focus on Bristol as a case study to help us understand this challenge, as well the different approaches being explored to meet it.

Note: Remember that if this is one of the topics you want to focus on, you should be working in more depth, and perhaps even doing some further reading or research into this topic in your own local area. If this isn’t a topic you are focusing on, make sure you spend a little less time on each case study. Once you are familiar with the case study, and the main idea of what they are doing, you can mark the step as complete, and continue.

Thinking about energy

The supply of energy to homes and businesses is essential for our modern way of life: to keep us warm in winter, to cook, to light our rooms and to power the technologies we use to work and play. In many developing countries, access to this is a luxury rather than something that is taken for granted. A significant proportion of the world’s population has no access to electricity, often due to a lack of infrastructure.

According to the International Energy Agency (2017), the key forces acting on energy consumption globally are:

  • the global economy growing at an average rate of 3.4% per year;
  • a global population that sets to expand from the current 7.4 billion to more than 9 billion in 2040;
  • and the process of urbanisation that adds a city the size of Shanghai to the world’s urban population every four months.

The International Energy Agency have published what they predict the global energy market will look like by 2040. They forecast growing energy demand, set to be 30% more by 2040, which is the equivalent of adding a whole country to today’s global demand, the size of China or India.

However, they also see a bright future for renewables. It clear to see even now that electricity supply is also undergoing a transformation, though the exact nature of this varies from country to country.

Here are some key factors for the UK: how do you think these compare to other places in the world?

  • Ageing and inefficient coal power stations have been phased out primarily to control acid rain, and also to reduce CO2 emissions.

  • Supplies of cheap natural gas from the North Sea are dwindling and must be sourced from elsewhere or replaced over time. Much of UK domestic heating is currently provided through gas, and this is likely to move towards electricity in the longer term.

  • Nuclear currently plays an important role in the UK energy mix, though existing plants are reaching the end of their life and whether they will be replaced in the future is not yet clear, at least partly for economic reasons.

  • Climate change targets such as those included in the Paris Agreement mean that the UK is committed to reducing CO2 emissions (Carbon Brief, 2015). Specifically, the UK government announced in 2016 a commitment to reduce overall climate emissions 57% by 2030 on 1990 levels (BEIS, 2016).

  • Renewable energy is becoming increasingly financially viable and is playing an important role in the UK. The fourth quarter of 2016 was the first time that low carbon energy sources (nuclear and renewables) had provided over 50% of the UK’s electricity (Vaughan, 2016). From the website Electric Insights you can see the current mix of energy being provided in the UK.

  • However, solar and wind renewable energy sources are intermittent (but easily predictable) – they are only available when the sun shines or the wind blows. As supply does not always match demand, this means energy storage technologies such as large scale batteries are likely to play an increasingly important role in the grid in the future.

  • Renewable sources also require far smaller capital investment than traditional power stations, which means that generation of electricity can take place in homes and communities. The Bristol Energy Cooperative is a good example of this.

  • Storage is also becoming possible as batteries come down in price. This gives the opportunity for people to be far more intimately connected with energy, and to actively get involved in its generation and management.

  • There is a move towards a ‘Smart Grid’. Digital technology can increasingly be used to monitor and control energy both on a local and a wider scale. This, in particular, can be used to help match demand with supply, by storing energy locally when too much is supplied nationally or regionally, and using that locally when too much is demanded. The University of Bristol is experimenting with such approaches across the campus.

  • According to the UK National Statistics office (BEIS, 2017), around 11% of households in England are fuel poor. This means that high energy costs would push them into poverty should they heat and light their home to an adequate level. The highest level of fuel poverty is found in the private rented sector, and among lone parents with dependent children. The government has committed to reducing fuel poverty by improving the energy efficiency of homes.

  • Energy efficiency can reduce energy costs for the nation, and also reduce the size of ‘demand peaks’, meaning that less generation and storage capacity is needed.

In the next three case studies, we will see how individuals and organisations in Bristol are engaging with this transformation.

Carbon Brief. (2015). Paris 2015: Tracking country climate pledges, Carbon Brief: Paris Summit 2015, published online 16 September 2015
Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). (2016). Guidance: Carbon Budgets, published online 30 June 2016
Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). (2017). Annual fuel poverty statistics report 2017 (2015 data): England, Statistical Release: National Statistics, published online June 2017
International Energy Agency. (2017). World Energy Outlook 2017, Report published 14 November 2017, summary available online.
Vaughan, A. (2016). UK hits clean energy milestone: 50% of electricity from low carbon sources, The Guardian, published online 22 December 2017

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