By Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central
This month’s Climate Change Agreement has been hailed as a historic step forward on the road to saving our planet. Two weeks ago, leaders from 190 nations gathered in Paris to try and reach a new global agreement on tackling climate change.
According to media reports, negotiations were tough, with organisers having to extend the conference by a day to allow more time for consultation.
But while the new agreement is certainly encouraging, commitments will only be as good as the technology that is deployed to help achieve them.
In a recent paper for Smart Energy GB, leading climate change expert Professor Dieter Helm argued that “without massive technological change, global warming cannot be cracked”.
According to Helm, the world is in the middle of a transformation in the way electricity is generated, supplied and consumed, while the success of developing and rolling out new technology will largely determine the ability of countries to meet their commitments. And as well as saving the planet – and improving the lives of future generations – this technological revolution is a tremendous opportunity for the UK.
David Cameron may have decided to abandon all that ‘green crap’ once he achieved power but in so doing the Government also undermined significant potential opportunity for the UK. As Mariana Mazzucato the renowned innovation economist put it, “Green development can be about much more than renewable energy; it can become a new direction for the entire economy”.
Since the election the Government have been dismantling incentives for solar and becoming increasingly hostile to wind. They are virtually outlawing onshore wind turbines. The UK will be the only country in Europe to do so.
The UK government is now actively hindering investments in wind and solar power. And just last week the Chancellor withdrew the £1 Billion committed to carbon capture and storage.
Meanwhile, across the world other countries are doing the opposite.
Investing and supporting clean energy, which in turn will form the basis of new green industries, create skilled jobs and secure our energy supply. China is investing trillions in green technology as it recognises both the environmental and the economic imperative.
But there is some good news in what is generally a retreat from technology investment – we are finally beginning to see the delayed but hugely important national smart meters rollout.
Historically, much of the focus of climate change initiatives has focused on supply side reform – the way in which our energy is generated and whether it comes from renewable sources as opposed to oil or coal.
But just as important is the transformation of demand side through smarter and more sophisticated energy systems
Smart meters help achieve this. They will be offered to every home and microbusiness in Britain by 2020. In all around 53 million new gas and electricity meters will be installed.
Smart meters provide fast and accurate data on energy use of households. For the first time, bill-payers are able to see exactly how much their electricity and gas use is costing in pounds and pence. This will enable householders to become efficient in their energy usage.
But more than this, smart meters will enable a system-wide transformation of energy transmission – a smart grid. Capturing live data around supply and demand is absolutely vital is we are to transfer onto more renewable sources of energy.
Solar and wind energy are intermittent and unreliable, with abundant supply rarely produced exactly where and when needed most. So we need new technology and new mechanisms to store and distribute.
Smart technology has a vital role to play here by supporting the decentralisation of electricity generation – allowing households to know exactly how much energy their solar panels or turbines are producing.
With greater electrification (of heating, appliances and transport), these challenges become even more relevant. If millions of people come home and plug in their electric cars at 6pm, the energy systems of the future must be able to cope.
The programme is still at an early stage but it has enormous potential to deliver the energy infrastructure we need for the future – an infrastructure capable of enabling low carbon supply and demand.
With the right regulatory framework it can also provide a platform for innovation by tech start ups helping put the UK back at the forefront of the digital green economy.
We need to make sure that we have the right public debate and engagement – technology is only as effective as the people who use it. I want my constituents to feel that they are in charge of this change to their lives, owning the data generated and benefiting from the savings made. I’ll be holding the Government, and the energy companies to account on that.