By Mark Winskel and Mike Kattirtzi, University of Edinburgh

There is an increasing sense of urgency about the global energy system transition. For many observers an urgent energy transition is also a necessarily disruptive one, in that it is only by radically remaking energy systems that an accelerated transition to low carbon and sustainable energy can be achieved.

Closer to home, there has been substantial progress in some parts of the energy system in the decade since the passing of the UK and Scottish Climate Change Acts. Other areas have shown little sign of change, and the transition ahead may well be more disruptive and intrusive than that seen so far. At the same time, there is also an emerging counter-narrative: that repurposing our existing energy assets (physical and social) offers the best and quickest transition path, since there is insufficient time to disrupt and remake.

What do experts think?

Attending energy events and keeping up-to-date with emerging evidence can instil a sense of different experts talking past each other. For those involved in whole systems energy research, and working at the research-policy interface, this can be deeply frustrating. To help address this, UKERC – working with ClimateXChange (CXC), Scotland’s Centre of Expertise on Climate Change – has spent two years analysing disruption and continuity in the UK energy system.

As part of that work, we surveyed around 130 experts and stakeholders about disruption and continuity-led change in the UK energy transition. The experts were mostly UK based researchers working on ‘whole systems’ research projects, but also included policymakers, advisory bodies, think tanks, businesses (old and new) and civil society organisations.

Where the experts agree

The summary results, published today, show that experts and stakeholders are agreed about the need to prioritise decarbonisation and the development of a green economy as the UK’s foremost energy policy driver.

There were high expectations about a handful of technologies and innovations in driving the UK energy transition over the next two decades: large scale renewables, improved buildings fabric and electric vehicles.

Other areas gaining strong support were demand reduction measures, using competitive markets to support low carbon technologies and supporting greater citizen involvement in local and regional change.

Where the experts disagree

At the same time, the survey revealed disagreement in some areas, such as the likely role of behaviour change and modal shift in the transport sector and the likely path for decarbonising buildings heat supply.

There was also disagreement on more general issues such as system ownership and governance, and despite the rise of disruptive thinking about energy futures, most experts and stakeholders expected continuing key roles for established energy organisations and infrastructures – but adapted to the transition challenge.

On the overall character of the energy transition, there was a roughly even divide between those anticipating a broadly disruptive or broadly continuity-led transition.

Implications

The results suggest caution in ‘reading-off’ policy priorities based on high-level narratives of either disruption or repurposing – the merits of either depend on the specifics of the problem at hand and the evolving evidence base.

For independent analysts and advisors, there is a need to understand the range of available alternative solutions, irrespective of their disruptive or repurposing credentials. In its recent report on the role of hydrogen in a low carbon economy, the UK Committee on Climate Change noted that there was no automatic ‘sunk costs’ case for repurposing the gas grid. Our results suggest that there is no automatic case for either repurposing or disruption as the defining logic of the UK energy transition.

A UKERC and CXC Briefing Note on the results is available here 
A working paper on the detailed results is available from the authors, on request.

For further information, please contact:
Dr Mark Winskel and Dr Michael Kattirtzi, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
Email: mark.winskel@ed.ac.uk ; michael.kattirtzi@ed.ac.uk

Mark Winskel is an interdisciplinary energy researcher and Senior Lecturer in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies in the School of Social and Political Science, at the University of Edinburgh. He is a Co-Investigator in UKERC Phase 3 (2014-19), and supports UKERC's policy engagement efforts in Scotland. He led UKERC’s review of interdisciplinary energy research in the UK. He is also Policy Director for ClimateXChange (CXC). Mark has been researching energy systems, policies and organisations for over 25 years.

Michael Kattirtzi is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He completed his ESRC-funded PhD thesis at the University of Edinburgh, exploring the history of social research influence and capacity within the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He has recently published his PhD findings in the first Research Handbook on EU Energy Law and Policy, and the Palgrave Communications special collection on Scientific Advice to Governments