SoNaRR2020: Transforming the energy system
The global energy system is one of the main drivers of the climate emergency. The transition to renewable energy sources is both vital and inevitable for sustainable development. The consistent availability of renewable energy is a central goal of sustainable energy concepts, alongside energy efficiency and sufficiency.
The production and consumption of energy in Wales creates a wide-range of pressures for ecosystems and public health here and across the planet.
The generation of energy (both from fossil fuel and renewable sources) drives a number of local and global pressures such as:
- Consumption of natural resources
- Production of atmospheric emissions
- Consumption of water
- Generation of conventional and nuclear waste
- Increase in land use
- The installation of infrastructure
They all have effects on habitats, and flora and fauna.
The use of fossil fuels causes adverse human health effects and harms crops, forests, water ecosystems, buildings and infrastructures. Nuclear energy, another conventional energy generation source, also entails risks to health and ecosystems.
Renewable energy technologies are also contributing to environmental pressures on land, ecosystems and human health, and depletion of resources. These pressures are greatest when local and regional conditions are not properly addressed during the project design and implementation phases. The import of solid biomass, biofuels and bioliquids, to meet Europe’s growing demand for alternative fuels, is associated with significant impacts on biodiversity (The European environment – state and outlook 2020).
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature report of 2008, most factors leading to the accelerating loss of biodiversity are linked to the development and increasing use of energy by society. These links are both direct, e.g. fuel use, and indirect, e.g. support for food production and consumption.
The ecosystem sphere
Looking at urban areas as ecosystems allows a systems approach to changing the way society produces and consumes energy.
According to the Committee on Climate Change report of 2019 the UK’s legally-binding climate change targets will not be met without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.
Opportunities for emissions reduction from buildings are primarily energy efficiency, generation of low carbon electricity, and moving to low carbon heating and cooling. Action on these measures requires coordination across urban areas and need to be planned strategically.
Wales has some of the oldest and least thermally efficient housing stock in Europe. The Welsh Government has implemented a number of initiatives to improve the efficiency of the Welsh housing stock and the percentage of dwellings with adequate energy performance. This is a significant improvement but housing stock will need to be made even more efficient and operate at close to zero emissions (Welsh Government, 2019).
Urban areas can play a significant role in reducing carbon emissions and other environmental impacts of energy generation, through local generation, energy efficiency and demand management. Key opportunities for low carbon electricity in urban areas include solar panels, energy storage and electrification of heating.
Some local impacts can be managed at the ecosystem level, such as improving the energy efficiency of homes. At a more strategic level, looking at the economic and social spheres, more options to change the energy system become available. Options for improving energy efficiency can be taken through the economic sphere. While reducing energy consumption in the social sphere is the cheapest and the most effective way to decarbonise our energy system (Energy Efficiency 2019)
The economic sphere
According to the International Energy Agency report of 2019 energy efficiency improvements globally and nationally are slowing down and opportunities to reduce costs and emissions are being lost.
The report concludes that although technological improvements are taking place, they are being slowed down by a mixture of societal and economic trends that are driving more energy use.
Whilst carbon prices and low carbon subsidies raise energy costs for end-users, reducing consumption and improving energy efficiency can reduce energy bills, reduce import dependency, and reduce demand at peak times. Cost saving through energy efficiency measures can also boost overall industrial productivity (Energy Prices and Bills: Impacts of Meeting Carbon Budgets)
Rapid falls in the costs of solar panels and battery storage, combined with the roll out of smart meters, provide the basis of a very different way of producing and consuming energy. This is leading to a greater emphasis on local energy generation leveraging change in the social sphere.
The social sphere
The changing mix of technologies used by Wales to generate its electricity has been largely driven by stricter environmental regulation and growing social concern with carbon emissions and air quality.
Reducing energy consumption, increasing efficiency, renewable energy development and decarbonisation are all necessary. Delivering all of these at the same time poses a significant challenge to the energy sector and will involve a joined up approach between the public and private sectors.
The centralised, 20th century model of energy generation and provision is now transforming itself to become flexible, sustainable and user focused. This transition involves more stakeholders acting across many non-energy specialist sectors. The way energy is used, and the interactions energy users have with the energy system is constantly evolving.
Customers are moving towards a more direct interaction with suppliers and the rise of ‘prosumers’ highlights one of the most exciting trends in energy transition and renewable energy. Prosumers are energy users who produce energy through, for example, solar panels installed on or around their houses and using innovative equipment such as heat pumps, energy storage devices (such as batteries) and electric vehicles that will interact with the energy market through different pricing mechanisms such as time variable tariffs.