Main navigation

Social sharing options

You are here:

  1. Home
  2. Blog


Reflections on the British Energy Challenge Roadshows

On 6th March 2014, I used the IET’s Clerk Maxwell Lecture, on ‘Climate, Energy Arithmetic, and 2050 Pathways’ as an opportunity to engage the audience in a discussion about Britain’s energy options. Using an approach developed last year in DECC’s ‘British Energy Challenge’ Roadshows, the goal was to crowd-source a consensus pathway in the 2050 Calculator. This blog discusses the interesting messages that came from those regional Roadshows and from the IET audience in London.

The British Energy Challenge roadshows were organised by DECC and a sequence of British host cities: Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Newcastle, and Bristol. (The Hay Festival had a special event too.)

Each event featured a day-long exhibition by local and national energy-saving and energy-supplying organisations, and an interactive discussion using DECC’s 2050 Calculator, hosted by Mark Lynas and myself, or Tom Counsell.  The goal of these discussions was for the people of each city to choose a 2050 pathway for the UK that represented the consensus of their views and desires, and that met the goals of maintaining security of energy supply and achieving the UK’s climate change targets.

This note describes some of my reflections on these 2050 Calculator roadshows. What did each city say? What surprises were there? Did the roadshows work? Did they change people’s minds? What changes did the roadshows suggest we might make to DECC’s work?

In the time available, most cities managed to choose a pathway that came close to achieving the 2050 emissions target, but only a couple actually got there.  Many of the cities were enthusiastic about building-insulation and local energy systems such as combined heat and power, waste-to-energy, and solar; most of them were comfortable to build large amounts of large-scale wind power too, especially offshore wind.  But, as you’ll know if you’ve played with the calculator, those levers are not sufficient to meet the target.

The table below shows some of the choices made by the cities, compared with the government’s four Carbon Plan pathways, and shows some consequences of those choices (emissions and back-up generation required).


View the detailed results from the British Energy Challenge (opens in an overlay)

Results from British Energy Challenge
  1. I have highlighted in bright green the cities that chose to set “Growth in industry” to “A”, a choice which makes the decarbonization challenge significantly harder.
  2. in many of the discussions, some of the levers were not touched by the audience. So the fact that a city left a lever on “1” does not necessarily mean that they discussed that option and made that choice.
Levers CITY: (IET) Carbon Plan
Liverpool Hay Nottingham Sheffield Leeds Birmingham Manchester Newcastle Bristol London “M” “R” “N” “C”
Domestic transport behaviour 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 2 3
Shift to zero emission transport 4 4 4 4 3 4 4 4 4 3 3 4 3 2
Choice of electric or hydrogen cars and vans C A B A B C B C B B A B B B
Average temperature of homes 2 2 4 4 3 3 3 4 4 3 4 4 2 3
Home insulation 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 3 3 3 4 3 3
Home heating choice DD DD DB DD BD CB CD BC DB CD* CC DD CC CB
Growth in industry A A B A B B B A B B B B B B
Energy intensity of industry 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 3 3 3 3 3 1 3
Nuclear power stations 2 3 1 2 2 2.5 2 2.6 1.5 2.5 1.8 1.4 2.7 1.5
CCS power stations 2 2 1 1 2 1 1 2 1 1.7 1.6 1.3 1 2
Offshore wind 3 1 3 3 2.2 2 2.7 3 3 2 1.3 1.9 1.2 1.3
Onshore wind 3 1 2.5 4 2.4 3 3 3 3 2 1.3 2.7 1.4 1.5
Solar panels for electricity 2 4 4 3 4 3.4 3 2 2.2 2.5 1 1.2 1 1
Land dedicated to bioenergy 2 3 2 1 2 1 2 2 2 2 3 2 4 3
Bioenergy imports 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 2.5 2 3.7 3
Geosequestration 1 1 3 1 1 1 1 3 2 2 1 1 1 2
emissions in 2050 (Mt CO2) 158 153 157 201 362 250 250 169 159 178 138 154 153 150
percentage reduction on 1990 80 80 80 74 54 68 68 78 80 77 82 80 80 81
backup required (GW) 54 0 35 42 0 0 0 0 51 0 7 24 11 0

Results from British Energy Challenge

Results from the British Energy Challenge

Notes:  1. I have highlighted in bright green the cities that chose to set “Growth in industry” to “A”, a choice which makes the decarbonization challenge significantly harder.  2. In many of the discussions, some of the levers were not touched by the audience. So the fact that a city left a lever on “1” does not necessarily mean that they discussed that option and made that choice.

I think it’s true to say that all the audiences struggled to reach the emissions target; I think some of the main reasons that they found it hard were:

1.       First, the emissions target is indeed hard to achieve, and requires many actions, not all of which are universally popular.  Sadly we didn’t have quite enough time in our roadshows to fully explore the trade-offs between the tougher options and to revisit the audience’s initial choices.

2.       Second, the urge to have lot of district heating supplied by combined heat and power may have actually made it harder to achieve the target: all the heating options have difficulties – ordinary gas boilers or micro-combined-heat-and-power boilers require gas, which is likely to be a fossil fuel (unless sufficient bioenergy is created and turned into methane); biomass boilers require wood, which has to come from somewhere; heat pumps require extra electricity, especially in mid-winter; and district heating requires a heat source, which, if local, is likely to be fuelled by wood or gas, and, as I just said, gas can only be low carbon if it is made from bioenergy. The amounts of bioenergy required to deliver a significant share of the nation’s space heating are very large. This brings us to the third point:

Heating technologies in the calculator

Heating technologies in the calculator

3.       Most of the audiences had a strong reluctance to devote a large land area to bioenergy production, whether in the UK or overseas.  This was a strong and unexpected message I took from these roadshows: while in every city there were some people who didn’t want, say, onshore wind farms or nuclear power, I’d estimate that in all the audiences there was a majority who came to the discussion with strong reservations about bioenergy. None except Liverpool and London (the IET audience) voted to import bioenergy at any scale from other countries.

4.       Most of the audiences were also reluctant to make use of the “geosequestration” lever, which, at level 3 or 4, would imply the deployment of thousands of artificial trees that suck carbon dioxide out of thin air, along with a network of pipes supporting the burial of millions of tonnes of CO2 per year in rocks under the north sea and elsewhere.  In some cases, setting this lever to level 3 or 4 would have made the target achievable, but the audiences did not vote for such a plan.

So, what changes do I think we should consider making to DECC’s work, in the light of these deliberative interactions? I’ll discuss two things: enhancements to the 2050 Calculator, and possible changes to some of our long-term policy options.

Heating choices in the calculator

Heat Ternary Diagram

The calculator offers 16 different heating mixes for buildings (visualized by the 16 green dots in the diagram to the right), some of which have high amounts of district heating, and some low amounts. To help people find choices that work and that align with their values, maybe we should revise the menu of heating choices to give the user access to a greater range of diverse heating options.

We could also try to enhance the immediacy with which the consequences of the user’s choices are displayed in the calculator, so that it is clearer how each heating choice creates a fuel demand that must be satisfied mainly by either natural gas, electricity, or bioenergy.

Another heating technology option that could be added into the Calculator is large-scale heat pumps to deliver district heating. These already exist in a few Scandinavian cities. This option might be helpful to satisfy a desire for district heating in a low-carbon, low-bioenergy way.

Increases in ambition in some sectors

Many of the audiences felt that a few of the Calculator’s levers didn’t represent the full range of technically-achievable options.  For example, in transport behaviour, almost all audiences believe that higher levels of public transport and cycling could be delivered in 2050 than are represented in the Calculator’s “level 4”; some people also felt that higher levels of building insulation and waste-to-energy were possible. I definitely think we should revisit these options in the next update of the calculator.

Alternatives to bioenergy: hydrogen and air-fuel synthesis

In response to the apparent public resistance to high-bioenergy pathways, I would like us to enhance the range of technical possibilities that are available in the Calculator. For example, we could allow hydrogen to be used as a fuel for heating. At present, the user can choose to use electricity to make hydrogen and can choose to put that hydrogen into fuel-cell vehicles, but that’s all.

We could add the option to put hydrogen into a gas network so that domestic boilers and combined-heat-and-power stations could be fuelled by hydrogen. This would perhaps enable users to replace a bioenergy demand by a demand for extra low-carbon electricity.  Another technical possibility would be to combine hydrogen (made from electricity) with CO2 that has been captured from the air (again, using electricity) to make climate-neutral fuels that could replace fossil fuels in freight, aviation, and shipping.

A related policy response could be to increase our investments in research and development and innovation support to improve our understanding of these hydrogen and air-fuel synthesis options, and to drive down their costs.

So, overall, did the Energy Challenge Roadshows work? From the British Energy Challenge evaluation:

  • 89% of respondents said they learnt something new;
  • 80% of respondents said they had a clearer understanding of the energy challenge facing Britain;
  • 92% of respondents said they would discuss what they had heard with family/friends/colleagues/networks.

If we run similar events in the future, I think we need to make them longer so that there is a chance for proper deliberation and discussion of tradeoffs. I’d also like us to do a bit of before-and-after comparisons, to find out what people are changing their minds about.

What I’d really like to try is a similar deliberative event with a small number of high-profile opinion-formers, who would be asked to arrive at a consensus pathway, and report on what they learned.

10 Responses to “Reflections on the British Energy Challenge Roadshows”

  1. Roger Parker, Com' Energy Assessor says:

    Having read your Blog, it leaves me feeling uneasy. There is the dominance in the thinking of macro-economics and of the capital-intensive energy projects and distribution networks that fit that model. I don’t see an equivalant dominance in thinking of the 1st Principle of energy consumption – Cut Demand. In terms of the scale required, you must know that there has been a downgrading by this Gov’t, either through disinsentivising &/or de-supporting, of the democratisation of onsite energy production and of onsite energy-efficiency (ie.people doing for themselves). And may be it is becauseof the hidden agenda is that capital-intensive projects require a given demand for electricity going forward 10.20, 30yrs to make them economincally viable investments and attractive to investors. (notwithstanding that 60% of electricity is lost btwn production plant and plate).
    Again, this dominance of macro-economics is illustrated by a certain surprise in your comment, “Many of the cities were enthusiastic about building-insulation and local energy systems …. higher levels of building insulation and waste-to-energy were possible. I definitely think we should revisit these options”
    Thus, I urge you to change perspective, Start from the perspective of formulating policy, strategies, tactics to massively support the populace to do for themselves – to cut their demand, and to increase the energy-efficiency of their bldgs, equipment and controls and modes of transport. A radical approach on this front, a War on Carbon, would significantly reduce the need for new capital-intensive production and infrastructure projects and these funds could be directed to massively supporting this 1st Principle of enegy consumption – to Cut Demand. The knowledge, technologies, processes are already there to do it as Part L of the Bldg Regs shows; all that is lacking is the political will to Win this War on Carbon.

    • Grant Wilson says:

      Hi Roger, your comment about the losses of electricity between ‘production and plate’ at 60% seems to be a common misconception. I have met many people in energy research who have a similar view – and I usually send them the following.

      The losses from Transmission and Distribution are less than 10%.

      From paragraph 5.15 on page 114 of

      Digest of UK Energy Statistics

      Losses as a proportion of electricity demand in 2012, at 7.7 per cent, were up by 0.2 percentage points on 2011 (7.5 per cent). The losses item has three components
      • transmission losses (6.8 TWh) from the high voltage transmission
      system, which represented about 23 per cent of the figure in 2011;
      • distribution losses (21.1 TWh), which occur between the gateways to the public supply system’s network and the customers’ meters, and accounted for about 73 per cent of losses;
      • theft or meter fraud (1.0 TWh, around 4 per cent).

      kind regards

      • Think the commentator meant that 60% of primary energy is lost between the process of fuel being put into a power station and what is eventually usable power finally consumed. In that respect – he is correct – as DECC’s most recent Sankey diagram shows:

        Switching large coal and gas power stations to CCS and nuclear – whilst saving CO2 emissions – will also reduce overall power station efficiency.

        So, if more heating is transferred in the future to technologies such as heat pumps, it means that basic insulation is more important than ever – to make sure every kWh of electricity delivered is efficiently used. Otherwise, though we might move to a ‘lower carbon’ environment, we’ll need a power system conveying greater quantities of electricity, over increasing amounts of power system infrastructure, more wires, more transformers, more costs – where those T&D losses will then inevitably increase over the 10% currently observed.

  2. John Barwise says:

    Very interesting exercise – delivering this type of information at a level people can understand will allow the government to make informed choices about our energy mix in the future. Once people are properly informed they are more likely to engage in the debate. More importantly, people are more likely to actively reduce their energy consumption. Energy efficiency and behaviour change has to be the first priority to effectively change our energy-dependent culture.

  3. Norman says:

    Scientifically this is a nonsense and has been compiled on a ‘garbage in garbage out’ basis. UK PLC is up a creek without a paddle unless it addresses several topics which DECC clearly regards as peripheral, including 1. total energy consumption 2. how to operate a successful economy which can produce a surplus to pay for some imported renewable fuel 3. power to gas technology, without which security of supply is a delusion.

  4. mairede thomas says:

    I filled out a DECC online 2050 challenge, but found that the interactive challenge prevented me from increasing the nuclear GW capacity to the point where it was possible to remove all intermittent wind energy. So the designers of this ‘challenge’ have obviously constrained the options so that wind energy has to remain in the mix. Lovelock finds this a stupid approach, so do I.

    Taking wind out of the mix should obviously be an option.

    Also the ‘pathway’ should have price and costs added so that the public can factor that into their decisions.

    And of course the land and sea space per MW or unit of energy required by each technology should be factored in.

    For electricity generation it would be helpful to see the capital cost of plant and grid infrastructure, and the generation cost of each GW of capacity per technology, and to know how many GWs of capacity would have to be provided by each technology in order to secure the delivery of the UK’s electricity supply at peak demand.

    • Tom Counsell says:

      Hi Mairede

      Have you tried the more advanced version of the took here: ?

      It has:
      1. Options that allow you to avoid renewable electricity of you wish
      2. The cost implications
      3. The land and sea area implications
      4. The amount of backup capacity that might be required to cover the intermittent nature of some renewables


  5. Andrew says:

    Quite a lot has changed since the calculator was first designed: there’s lots of scope for updates, on costs and on the scale of what can be delivered and in what timeframe.

    In my fork, I’ve been trying to get a better UI for more options on heating, as you can see if you click on the coloured bars on the heating controls in the bottom-left of the screen.

    The district heating section inside the model needs a lot of work to be useful, and it may be best for the model itself to offer optimal fuel mixes: three key features of district heating are: (1) the potential for absolutely enormous very cheap energy storage; (2) the ease and economic value of combining multiple heat sources; (3) the huge economies of scale for solar thermal, and the potential for getting consistently large SPFs from industrial-scale heat pumps, e.g. by using solar thermal piped into the ground in summer to act as a seasonal heat store.

  6. Tim Pollard says:

    A really interesting idea in engaging public discussion. The danger of course is that you are talking to a dramatically small sample of people who are already self-selecting by attending. The successful solutions will have to be acceptable to individual householders and the supply chain providing them. The gap between what is desirable and what is deliverable can be an unbridgeable gulf.

  7. Michael Howard says:

    I attended the event in Nottingham, and am commenting in a personal capacity. I can obviously only comment on the Nottingham event.

    I found the event and the energy pathways exercise very interesting and they were valuable in improving understanding. Although the blog goes someway towards saying it, I didn’t feel that any real policy conclusions could be drawn from it regarding ‘what Nottingham (or the people in attendance) wanted’. At best they are the merest hints of where opinions may be.

    The exercise was really very rushed, particularly towards the end when we were running out of time and options were accepted or rejected seemingly on the basis of a small number of people putting their hands up or not.

    As noted in the blog if this was done again more time should be given to it, and I think it would beed to be a lot more time. It should also be clear how decisions would be made – i.e. based on a majority in the room or some attempt at consensus.

Leave a Reply

DECC @YouTube

DECC's YouTube feed

Share DECC's YouTube Channel

view all

Partners & Help