The UK electricity system needs “radically different forms of grid planning and operation” if it is to stop using fossil fuels, researchers at the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College argue in a briefing paper published last month.
“A whole systems approach is required, in which one single party has responsibility for optimising technical performance across the system”, Richard Hanna and his colleagues say in the paper, entitled Unlocking the Potential of Energy Systems Integration (see p. 24).
The briefing paper outlines the technological potential for moving away from fossil fuels by integrating and decentralising energy systems, using, mainly, smart computers and cutting-edge
methods of switching between forms of energy. It summarises, in language comprehensible by a general readership, the findings of a big pile of technical reports and research articles by engineers.
I hope the Energy Futures Lab’s findings will be read by everyone interested in putting together socialist approaches to the transition away from fossil fuels: trade union militants in the energy sector, climate campaigners, eco-socialists, and so on. In particular, I hope they will be taken into account by those discussing energy and environment policies for the Labour Party in the UK.
Only by putting the technological transformation of energy production and consumption at the centre of our discussions will be able to work out how we can best change the ownership of, and control over, the system. We need to challenge the corporate control of the technologies, and make them work for the whole of society – which includes working for the speediest possible decarbonisation – and not for the corporations.
Conversely, if those corporations are left in control, the technologies’ potential for society will never be fully realised.
It’s difficult to summarise the paper’s summary of where the technology is going. But imagine a city where the primary method of producing energy is from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. These resources would supply a host of local micro-grids, linked with each other through
larger-scale grids (in electricity, low-voltage networks linked by high-voltage lines). As far as possible, energy would be produced near to where it is used.
Moreover, grids for different types of energy – electricity networks, district heating systems, gas networks for cooking, and transport networks – would be interlinked. When there is too much of one form of energy, other networks can be used to store it, and smart internet-type technology used to manage the process.
So surplus electricity would be converted into heat, or hydrogen to be used as fuel. Surpluses of other energy types might be used to produce electricity, which could be stored, for example, in the batteries of electric cars. Combined heat and power technologies, already in use for the best part of a century, would be developed to become more adjustable, integrated with cooling systems and adapted to run from multiple energy sources.
The Energy Futures Lab team argue (p. 6) that the technologies that matter can be placed in three groups:
■ “Smart operation and aggregation of energy systems”, using “automation, communication and storage technologies”;
■ “Cross-vector integration”, i.e. the adaptation e.g. of electricity, gas and heating networks to complement each other; and
■ “Power-to-X technologies” that use electricity to produce “an energy carrier (mainly hydrogen) as an interface among different energy vectors”.
All these technologies exist now, and some of them have existed for many years. What the Energy Futures Lab paper hammers home is that technological potential can only be realised if holistic approaches are adopted. (If you have read the paper and have the appetite for more, I recommend Integrated Energy Systems, by the “Hubnet” research group.)
As for the control and ownership of the system, the Energy Futures Lab researchers say, in guarded language, that the “challenges involved in realising the potential of greater energy systems integration” include “a need to overcome the fragmented nature of institutions and market structures in different energy sectors” (p. 29).
Such fragmentation is inevitable when different aspects of the energy system – e.g. the provision of electricity, gas for cooking or heat, or fuel for transport – are all controlled by companies motivated by profit, in my view.
The Energy Futures Lab paper calls for “coordinated and integrated planning across supply and demand and centralised and distributed resources” (p. 24). The labour movement can and should develop an argument that such coordination and integration can only be realised with a shift to forms of public and social ownership.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, made the link between forms of public ownership and the fight against climate change in a speech in February. He spoke about the transition to a decentralised electricity network managed by smart technology, and said:
The future is decentralised, flexible and diverse, with new sources of energy large and small, from tidal to solar. Smart technologies will optimise usage […]. There will be much more use of local, micro grids and of batteries to store and balance fluctuating renewable energy. We will still need a grid to match energy supply with demand and import and export renewable energy abroad because the wind won’t always blow where energy is needed. But it will be a smart grid, radically transformed.
Corbyn also spoke about “actively devolving power to local communities, by giving community energy practical support and encouragement”, and about changing the rules governing supply to the electricity grid by small-scale generators.
Such strong support for devolved community energy projects, using renewables, is welcome indeed. The potential of such projects has been convincingly explained by Alan Simpson, the former Labour MP and renewable energy campaigner, in his pamphlet The Transformation Moment – and I dare say his work has influenced Corbyn.
So far, so good. But what the Energy Futures Lab paper tells us is that, to realise fully the technological potential available, a holistic approach needs to be adopted.
Up to now the discussions around Labour’s energy policy have focused almost entirely on electricity, and have assumed that the organisational and corporate separation between generation, transmission, distribution and supply will remain.
The problem of how the system is organised is obviously related to the problem of ownership. Corbyn made very clear in his speech that transmission (i.e. the National Grid) would be front of the queue for a return to public ownership, that local distribution would be overhauled, and that community energy would be strongly supported – but he did not mention specific types of ownership for electricity generation assets or supply markets, where the “big six” corporations are dominant.
Labour’s election manifesto commits the party “to ensure that national and regional grid infrastructure is brought into public ownership over time”, but only to small islands of public ownership of generation and supply; an Energy and Environment document launched by Corbyn in 2016 takes a similar approach. As far as I understand, debate continues in the Labour Party about the extent to which it intends to commit to extending forms of public and social ownership there.
The realities of the technological transition, set out clearly in the Energy Futures Lab paper, mean the discussion has to go further.
The energy systems integration envisaged by the Energy Futures Lab implies that:
(1) the organisational divisions between electricity generation, transmission, distribution and supply would be scrapped; and
(2) the development of electricity networks would be closely coordinated with gas, heating and cooling, and transport networks.
Moreover, the “single party” that, according to the Energy Futures Lab, needs to take responsibility for optimising technical performance, would surely have to be a public body, not a private one.
Those in the Labour Party who want far-reaching policies to make the energy system work for people and not for profit could pick up these arguments and run with them. So could trades unionists in the energy sector who want to break with the false dichotomy of jobs vs climate justice, and want to play a part in the transition to an energy system that doesn’t contribute to global warming.
There are transformations of infrastructure that are more social and economic than technological – shifts towards energy-neutral buildings, away from car-based urban transport systems and away from carbon-intensive industrial production – that are outside the scope of the Energy Futures Lab paper, but would also form part of a serious socialist approach to energy.
Let’s be ambitious. When James Connolly wrote, “Our demands most moderate are, We only want the earth”, he didn’t have this particular discussion in mind. But a similarly bold approach is needed now. GL, 15 May 2018.
More on Labour’s energy policy
 Labour’s manifesto currently commits to “taking energy back into public ownership”: (1) regaining public control of supply networks by altering operators’ licencing conditions; (2) supporting the creation of publicly owned local energy companies and cooperatives [i.e. for electricity generation, distribution and supply]; and (3) legislating to allow publicly owned local companies to purchase regional grid infrastructure. The publicly owned companies in generation and supply would “rival existing private energy suppliers” – which presumably means they would compete with, but not replace, the “big six”.