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Introducing energy system transformation and why governance matters

Professor Catherine Mitchell introduces the course and talks through the week looking at how energy systems work and the challenges they face.
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Hello, my name is Catherine Mitchell and I am Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Exeter. Welcome to this course -‘Transforming Energy Systems – why governance matters’. Over the next four weeks, we will introduce you to the central role that governance plays in successfully transforming energy systems. We need to move from the current dirty, fossil fuel-based system (that is with coal, oil and gas) to a clean energy system which does not emit greenhouse gases. This is known as ‘decarbonisation’ of our energy system. We, as a global society, know we have to rapidly reduce our climate change emissions to net zero by 2050 to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change.
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At the moment, we are not on track to meet that target and we have to take action now to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Energy use is the major cause of climate change emissions – whatever the country. Energy policy is therefore a very important part of climate change policy. Renewable energy from the sun, wind and tides will be the backbone of this clean, decarbonised energy system. We also have to turn our energy system from being one that is very inefficient in its use of energy, to one that is very efficient - this means doing the same things but with less energy. Energy governance is a catch-all phrase for the rules and institutions that keep the global energy system working.
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Our definition of governance is ‘the policies, institutions, rules and incentives related to the energy system, and the underlying decision-making process which establishes those rules and incentives’. Sometimes governance is thought of as ‘the rules of the game’. In this way, the definition of governance includes rules to do with using energy infrastructure, such as electricity networks and gas pipelines; rules to do with energy market design, and how energy is bought and sold. It also includes institutions, including Government departments, energy regulators, network companies, system operators, and suppliers.
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All this governance, together, shapes our energy system; channels how money flows through the system; enables what products and services are available; and, ultimately, allows people to interact with the energy system in the ways that they want to. These governance rules can combine to either being enabling of change and innovation, or they can combine to undermine, or channel change in a particular direction. Hitherto, energy governance in most countries around the world has evolved to complement the needs of a fossil fuel-based energy system. Now it is necessary for that governance to change to suit the characteristics of a ‘clean’ energy system based on renewable energy and energy efficiency, whilst also being secure, affordable and equitable.
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The topic of governance in relation to energy system transformation is therefore complex. However, getting governance right is central to transforming the energy system from being ‘dirty’ to being ‘clean’ in a rapid, cost effective, secure and equitable way. In this course we are going to explore how to do that, and what kinds of issues might arise. In this first week we are introducing what an energy system is, what the governance elements of it are and how they have to change.
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We clarify global and domestic climate change targets: what reductions need to be achieved, and by when. We explain what technologies are used; we set out how the energy system is operated; and who and what the key stakeholders are. We explain what changes the energy system is currently undergoing, and what kind of impacts we expect this to have on people and businesses. Finally, we explain the role of governance in energy system change, we set out the challenges that governance has to address, and we clarify how governance should do this.
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The course has been produced by the University of Exeter Innovation and Governance team and as well as myself, over the next 4 weeks we will be joined by Helen Poulter, Jess Britton, and Rebecca Willis.
Professor Catherine Mitchell introduces governance and the central role it plays within transforming energy systems. When you’ve watched the video post a comment on how important you think governance will be for energy system change.
Throughout this course we will primarily be using Great Britain as a case study. Great Britain is a good example of a country trying to rapidly shift from a centralised, high carbon energy system to a clean, smart and flexible system and many of the lessons are applicable to other parts of the world. We will also introduce examples of change and governance from around the world and encourage you to explore other contexts in the activities and discussions each week.
There are also two important points to note about this course with respect to reducing energy demand and nuclear power. We do not have dedicated sections to either of these topics, which some may find surprising.
With respect to demand reduction or energy efficiency. We have taken it as read that action in this area is fundamental to the low carbon transition. The transformation of our energy systems will be: cheaper if the overall level of energy demand is reduced; it will be more resource efficient; and it will bring economic and social benefits to end users. If we had to choose one policy for change, it would be to reduce energy demand.
For nuclear power, we do not see it as part of a sustainable energy system. Some may disagree with this, but for a number of reasons we think this technology is increasingly incompatible with the transformation that is needed. New nuclear power is very expensive relative to other options, is politically complicated, and is too slow to build for the rapid decarbonise we need. Nuclear power also produces nuclear waste, and has other safety issues, which in an increasingly unpredictable climate is a risk of growing significance. The technology is also relatively inflexible, and managing a nuclear power station to increase flexibility incurs increased costs and higher safety risks. So we take the view that the benefits of a smart and flexible energy system are such that nuclear power is not an obvious choice. Public opinion is also not clearly in favour of it, and certainly far less favourable towards it than towards renewables.
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Transforming Energy Systems: Why Governance Matters

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