The British are coming… (or how spreading low carbon energy policy is becoming a bit of a thing in Britain)

What does energy efficiency mean in the opposite sides of the Atlantic? Marilyn Waite focuses on the transatlantic teaching of energy efficiency from a study tour in the UK.

Is energy another means by which the “special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom is maintained?

“Guid mornin! Hou ar ye?”

Everyone listens in at the unfamiliar yet extremely inviting Scottish accent. We are listening to a government official explain the United Kingdom’s energy efficiency strategy. In the room are fourteen emerging leaders in energy and environmental policy from both sides of the Atlantic.

Well, almost.

We all started out on one side of the Atlantic, with one (or even both) European and North American passports, and with professional experience in areas ranging from the megacity of Paris, France to the small town of Bozimen, Montana, USA. The line-up includes a Swede (who everyone mistakes for an American) working in a US embassy on climate change communication, a New Yorker teaching energy policy in Beijing, an Austrian solar entrepreneur, a Texan working for the German Development Institute in Bonn, and a professor in Kentucky reminiscing of the days when he taught at Kings College in London.

As we were shuffled through a London government building, we definitely saw energy efficiency at work: automated lighting; computers turned off when not in use; a visible “A-G” energy efficiency rating for the building; and, last but not least, employees crammed inside a few square feet of shared space who can practically hear each other’s heart beat…

...there are lessons in energy and environmental policy to be learned and shared in Europe, the United States, and worldwide

But perhaps that’s my US experience talking, with the luxury of more space available per capita, combined with my experience of French working conditions, with the thought of an open space work environment provoking a sense of protest and injustice.


The beauty of the ELEEP experience is that it brings together a group of passionate professionals who believe that there are lessons in energy and environmental policy to be learned and shared in Europe, the United States, and worldwide, while realizing that even within well-defined borders, there are differences and parallels alike.

It’s an intriguing time to be in the United Kingdom. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is being buried today, and despite the protests, even those of a different political persuasion than Thatcher mention, “She at least said that we need to do something about climate change.”

If only it were that simple.

Everyone from a member of the Labour Party in the London National Assembly to Tory Party top advisers in energy and environment were hailing Margaret Thatcher, in memory, as a climate champion. There was a Thatcherite aura in England to say the least. The truth is “a tad bit” more complicated. In a 1989 speech to the United Nations in New York, the chemist-by-training Thatcher stated,

“We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere. The annual increase is three billion tonnes: and half the carbon emitted since the Industrial Revolution still remains in the atmosphere. […] Put in its bluntest form: the main threat to our environment is more and more people, and their activities:

  • The land they cultivate ever more intensively;

  • The forests they cut down and burn;

  • The mountain sides they lay bare;

  • The fossil fuels they burn;

  • The rivers and the seas they pollute.

[…] But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level.”

However, Thatcher’s stance on climate change later transformed. In her 2003 book Statecraft, Thatcher established herself as a climate skeptic, calling global warming unproven and remedies to reduce carbon damaging to the economy. As a clear example of transatlantic “knowledge” sharing, Thatcher drew upon many dubious US publications. In the chapter Hot Air and Global Warming, Thatcher notes,

“The doomsters’ favourite subject today is climate change. This has a number of attractions for them. First, the science is extremely obscure so they cannot easily be proved wrong. Second, we all have ideas about the weather: traditionally, the English on first acquaintance talk of little else. Third, since clearly no plan to alter climate could be considered on anything but a global scale, it provides a marvelous excuse for worldwide, supra-national socialism.”

While cheaper gas is helping to provoke the shutdown of coal plants in the United States, the closing of British coal plants is policy-driven.

Despite this change of heart, there seemed to be consensus among the three major British political parties about the need to transition to a low-carbon economy to help abate climate change. For Westminster, the future energy mix of the United Kingdom would include renewable energies such as solar photovoltaic, wind and biomass, nuclear energy, and gas.

Yes, Gas. A fossil fuel.

While it’s not the same for all of the UK, Southeast England has a far-reaching district heating system. And while biomass can be a low-carbon source that can replace the gas fossil fuel, there are limits to how much biomass can be counted as renewable, as well as air quality concerns surrounding biomass (increased levels of particulate matter).

Is energy another means by which the “special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom is maintained? The idea of treating gas as a low-carbon source of energy is certainly present on both sides of the Atlantic. Carbon emissions actually rose last year in the United Kingdom partly due to cheap coal imports from the United States, where the shale gas boom has had an impact on the price of other energy sources. However, while shale gas represents about 30% of natural gas production in the United States, it is not yet being exploited in the UK. 2011 gas imports in Britain broke down as follows: 40% from Qatar (LNG), 40% from Norway (piped), 1% from Belgium, 12% from the Netherlands, 2% from Nigeria, and 5% from other areas in the form of LNG.

Britain has removed a moratorium on fracking

Britain has removed a moratorium on fracking, and the UK Treasury has proposed a series of tax measures that would make shale-gas exploration and production more attractive (includes linking taxes paid by UK offshore energy firms to prospective onshore shale-gas drilling and permits field allowances for shale gas).

While cheaper gas is helping to provoke the shutdown of coal plants in the United States, the closing of British coal plants is policy-driven. The policies that are forcing an “implement CCS or close down” approach are two-fold: the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) and the EU Industrial Emissions Directive (IED). CCS is not yet proven on a commercial scale, and therefore, coal’s future looks bleak in the UK.

The group of ELEEPers soon left England to head to Scotland, where we all fell in love. Something about the uniformity of the sparkling granite and beautiful countryside near the city of Aberdeen made our Kentuckian tell SCARF, a social enterprise focusing on energy efficiency and sustainable energy, “Hi, my name is Paul; I’m a professor of energy security in the United States…and I’m available for hire.” Between the haggis and date pudding with butterscotch sauce, we were all contemplating how to become a part of the strong economy of Aberdeen.

Scotland’s view of a low carbon economy differed from that of England. Scotland has the ambitious goal of achieving the equivalent of 100% of gross electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2020. Devolution allows for a certain level of autonomy in energy decision-making, but Westminster still sets overall policy.

The future Scottish energy mix may include a hydrogen economy, electric vehicles, hydropower, biomass, and solar photovoltaic energy. Most notably, Scotland plans to use their offshore know-how and the fortuitous wind speeds of the North Sea to increase offshore wind and marine energy.

“Some people just want Renewables Bling,” a manager from the renewable energy private industry said jokingly. “I mean, does it really make sense in certain contexts to put up that one PV panel?” We concurred.

The most interesting aspect of Scotland’s renewable energy agenda was not the typical wind and solar power that dominates other market discussions. The group of ELEEPers was intrigued by the push for extracting and harvesting waves and tides—marine energy.

“So when do you think wave and tidal energy will be commercialized?” we frequently asked our hosts.

Researcher at Robert Gordon University: “Hands-down 2015; the blackouts in the UK will have everyone running to ocean energy.”

Many of us in the room silently chuckle at the optimism.

Official at the Aberdeen City Council: “Perhaps 5 years”

Guestimate from someone at the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group: “It depends what you mean by commercialization…maybe 10 years”

Someone from the private sector: “Optimistically…15 years”

Some of us think it’s a stretch, but it would be a shame not to exploit the potential for this renewable energy source.

Our time in Scotland was coming to an end. We had our last fried haddock, discussed the lessons learned from our trip to take back to our companies and organizations, and said farewell to the seagulls.

Our new Scottish friends bid us farewell: “Ha a guid journay.”

As we went our separate ways, I thought about at least one uniting theme from our UK study tour. What Scotland and England do have in common in their energy policy is a grassroots, on-the-ground effort for energy efficiency in the residential buildings sector. In an effort to find the most sustainable means to extract, harvest, convert, store, transmit, distribute, and use energy, one can easily overlook the use stage.

Energy efficiency involves behavior change—a distant notion in a sector dominated by scientists and engineers. There are many efficiency incentives, including the UK Green Deal. In London, for example, the “RE:NEW” project aims to retrofit 1.2 million homes with energy efficiency measures by 2015. The five-step process happens as follows:

  1. A RE:NEW assessor knocks door-to-door.

  2. The assessor goes into the home and carries out a whole-house survey, gives energy saving advice and installs appropriate easy energy efficiency measures. The assessor books appointments for further measures to be installed.

  3. A contractor visits the home and installs further measures where appropriate (such as boilers and renewable energy).

  4. Households can contact the Energy Saving Trust for follow-up advice.

  5. Data from the homes are fed back to the local authority.

Although Paul Revere did not actually shout the phrase later attributed to him ("The British are coming!"), the ending of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fellow poem “Paul Revere's Ride” alludes to door knocking and messaging:

“So through the night rode Paul Revere; And so through the night went his cry of alarm To every Middlesex village and farm,--- A cry of defiance, and not of fear, A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door, And a word that shall echo for evermore!...”

Only now, if Paul Revere were to knock at my door claiming the British were coming, I would know it would probably be to suggest some loft insulation, smart metering, and double glazed windows.

Now that’s something that we can support on both sides of the Atlantic.

Written in April 2013 while on a ELEEP study tour.

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