Tag Archives: energy

The Low Carbon Dichotomy: Efficiency Versus Demand Reduction

by Briony Turner


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One could say that effective low carbon solutions will be those that respond to the requirements of energy infrastructures and to the ways in which people actually integrate the social and technical aspects of energy systems to achieve comfort, cleanliness, and other ordinary ways of life.  This requires developing a better understanding not only of householders’ daily practices within their homes and how adaptable these practices are but also the practical application of this understanding into standard industry working practices.

An international climate change audit found that the UK lags behind others in Europe on programmes to move consumer choice to more energy-efficient appliances, recommending that the government “undertake evaluations of effectiveness based on real practice in homes so that programmes can be responsive and kept on track”.   We increasingly have the research findings to enable this.  Take for instance Harriet Bulkely and Sara Fuller’s article in Area which explores how British people who have recently migrated to Spain actually adapt to new regimes of heat. Intriguingly, one of their findings is that adapting to the heat may potentially result in “increasing vulnerability to the cold, demonstrating how responses to stresses on thermal comfort are culturally and materially conditioned”.

So, bearing in mind the challenges posed by cultural and material norms, people’s expectations of comfort and the potential for adaptability, all-be-it with repercussions, there is an additional challenge in the form of a divergence in industry strategies within the UK, at the heart of which is the interlinking black box of domestic practices. The built environment industry is focused on low carbon in the form of reducing emissions of buildings through improving their energy performance, reducing their overall energy usage, i.e. focusing on how much electricity the buildings (including the human activity within them) use.   Yet, the energy supply industry sees the issue, within a future grid system based on inflexible nuclear generation and intermittent renewable generation, as one of balancing supply and demand.  This requires demand management which is not just focused on how much electricity people use, but, is actually more concerned with when they use it –for more on this, see Sarah Higginson and colleague’s 2011 conference paper.

Both industries diverge on the strategy for tackling people.  Whilst both confine people to the term “end user”,  the supply industry regards the end user as an object necessitating “demand management” whereas, the built environment industry sees the building (which contains the end user) necessitating “demand reduction”. The householder has in many ways been divorced from the home, with the focus of behaviour change activity resting predominantly on utility supply and demand chains.

Both industries concede some acknowledgement of the impact of individual behaviour on energy demand with most interventions in both industries aimed at encouraging activities based on small lifestyle adaptations that enable continuation and/or enhancement of existing standards and conventions. Yet the dichotomy of managing energy demand to uphold/lock in/enhance existing ways of life when everyday practices are constantly changing is widely criticised –for those interested in this have a look at Yolande Strengers’ paper on ‘Peak electricity demand and social practice theories’.

To achieve the ambitious energy consumption and carbon emissions reductions set out in statute, low energy/low carbon design and retrofitting needs to shift from focusing on building energy performance, to domestic energy performance, with the building fabric, services and interior design being better understood as contributory factors to locking in, but also with the potential to change domestic energy practice. This perspective leads beyond the supply and demand rhetoric to analyse how energy systems lock in or challenge existing unsustainable needs and what opportunities there are across the material infrastructures to change domestic practice.

books_iconSara Fuller and Harriet Bulkeley, 2012, Changing countries, changing climates: achieving thermal comfort through adaptation in everyday activities, Area, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01105.x

GJ book reviewSarah Higginson, Ian Richardson and Murray Thomson, 2011, Energy use in the context of behaviour and practice: the interdisciplinary challenge in modelling flexible electricity demand presented at Energy and People: Futures, Complexity and Challenges Oxford University 20-21 September 2011

GJ book reviewINTOSAI, 2010,  Report by the INTOSAI Working Group on Environmental Auditing:  The Climate is Changing – Key Implications for Governments and their Auditors

GJ book reviewYolande Strengers, 2012, Peak electricity demand and social practice theories: Reframing the role of change agents in the energy sector, Energy Policy 44 226-234

Geography, imagination and understanding the world around us

Logo of the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2011. © Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

by Madeleine Hatfield

As the first term of the UK’s current academic year draws to an end, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference of August and September already seems a long time ago – in fact, planning for next year’s conference in July is well underway. Those who attended will remember a wide range of papers and presenters sharing their research under the theme of ‘Geographical Imagination’. Several of the research projects behind these presentations also made the news, showing how geographical research informs wider debates, including Tom Hargreave’s work on smart energy meters, Jon Anderson’s research on surfing and coastal conservation and Jenny Pickerill on the short-comings of ‘eco-bling’.

The Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers journal offers another window onto the geographical imagination with its Virtual Issue guest edited by the conference chair, Stephen Daniels (University of Nottingham). This brings together papers – still free to access online at the time of writing – published across the history of the journal and shows how the concept of a geographical imagination can provide a new way of understanding places, how we think about them and how we represent them through our writing and maps. Our understanding of the world around us is always influenced by our imagination, not just when we dream or write stories, and our imagination is equally fed by everything we see and do – reading the news, attending lectures or going on holiday.

Daniels, S. ed. 2011. Virtual Issue on The Geographical Imagination. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

Dr. Jon Anderson’s Spatial Manifesto website with audio and visual media coverage from the BBC.

Bawden, T. 2011. The Smart answer to the energy crisis? The Independent, 1 October 2011. [Report on Tom Hargreave’s research as presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference]

In Loughborough. 2011. When eco-friendly means eco-bling. 15 September 2011. [Report on Jenny Pickerill’s research as presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference]

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference.

Giving carbon a social life

I-Hsien Porter

Last week, the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne announced “green measures” to encourage energy companies to invest in renewable energy.

By imposing a surcharge on non-renewable energy sources, the plans aim to make renewable energy a more financially attractive investment.

However, renewable energy sources (particularly wind farms and nuclear power) are not without their critics. There was also a warning that household electricity bills could rise by 30% as the surcharge on non-renewable energy is passed onto consumers.

So carbon emissions are not just a physical process driving climate change. Carbon is now a market commodity. Geographers are well placed to study its economic, social and political implications.

Michael Goodman and Emily Boyd introduce this month’s special edition of The Geographical Journal with an editorial on the “social life” of carbon.

International conferences, such asCopenhagenin 2010, have demonstrated that governments have limited ability to agree and enforce regulations. Ultimately, it is the choices and politics of consumers themselves that will drive the response of multinational companies and regulators.

Framing carbon in terms of social, economic and political processes, as well as a physical one, allows geographers to contribute to understanding and encouraging a reduced reliance on carbon.

The Daily Telegraph (9th July 2011) ‘Power bills to soar by 30% in ‘green’ reforms.’

Goodman, M. K. and Boyd, E. (2011) ‘A social life for carbon? Commodification, markets and care.’ The Geographical Journal 177 (2): 102-109

Energy dilemmas

I-Hsien Porter

In a paper in The Geographical Journal, Michael Bradshaw describes two pressures facing energy policy.

First, there is the need to guarantee a reliable and affordable supply of energy. Energy security can be threatened by domestic disputes (e.g. in France, recent strike action caused the country to import large amounts of electricity) and international tensions (which led Russia to restrict gas exports via a pipeline to Belarus, in June 2010).

Second, the current reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) is unsustainable. The economic and environmental costs of extracting fossil fuels, alongside the threat of climate change, means that it is increasingly difficult to match demand with carbon-based energy sources.

The Statement on Energy Policy, recently announced by the UK government, reflects these concerns. The policy envisages half the new energy capacity built in the UK between now and 2025 will come from renewable sources. Nuclear and wind power are highlighted as key areas for development.

However, as Bradshaw argues in his paper, emerging economies in the global South will cause a shift in global energy demand and production. Geographers can play a key role in informing national policies and investment, by linking changing patterns in global energy use and resource distribution, to national and local impacts.

The Guardian (18th October 2010) ‘Severn barrage ditched as new nuclear plants get green light’

Bradshaw, M. J. (2010) ‘Global energy dilemmas: a geographical perspective’, The Geographical Journal (Early view)

(Em)Powered by Waste?

By Georgia Davis Conover

The Durham region near Toronto, Canada is weighing a couple of options for disposing of municipal waste.  One possibility: a landfill, which some are calling a bowl for garbage.  Government officials are also considering the possibility of funding what is called a waste-to-energy plant, more simply put a facility that burns garbage in order to generate electricity.   While the city was considering its disposal options, the Star newspaper in Toronto went to Detroit, Michigan, to look at that city’s waste-to-energy plant where it discovered that since the city committed to the incinerator nearly two decades ago recycling is virtually unheard of.  In fact, Detroit did not begin a curbside recycling program until this summer.  Other American cities have had so-called curbside recycling for more than a decade.   Detroit, as a municipality, has not shown an interest in recycling because recyclable materials are good fuel for the energy plant.

In his article, “Strategies for Sustainability,” Stewart Barr argues that the energy consciousness of the public is influenced by a number of outside factors.  And the likely hood of someone recycling or saving energy can be tied not only to their feelings about the practice but also to situational variables.  He argues that those who are trying to influence environmental behaviors need to keep the multiple influences in mind when crafting their message.

Read The Star article.

Read Barr, Stewart.  2003.  Strategies for Sustainability. Area 35(3):227-240.