Chris Goggin, Associate Director of Operations at Rinnai, looks at what the government and industry needs to do to tackle the ‘energy trilemma’ to ensure a low carbon future for the UK.

There is a growing consensus that climate change must be halted now by a whole raft of changes to our behaviour and habits, unless we wish to play chicken with irreversible global consequences.

This article identifies the emerging theme of the ‘energy trilemma’ within the UK and critically discusses the three main tenets of the energy trilemma:

  • Energy security
  • Sustainability
  • Affordability. 

66% of energy used domestically in the UK is for heating, so both our industry and the government have a vested interest in preventing the potential impact of this macro-environmental theme.  

There appears to be an urgent need for awareness campaigns that aim to change our perception and habits of using energy in the home environment. 

These campaigns should be driven by the UK heating industry, while calling for support from the government to assist in changing the energy consumption behaviours of consumers nationwide. 

There is substantiated evidence from other areas of the globe that change can happen and take effect with the strategic response of social marketing in the form of ‘nudge’-based campaigns.

A key element of the energy trilemma is related to the security of energy supplies, which is crucially important if the UK is to produce a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It is noted by many sources that North Sea oil and gas reserves are in decline.

The UK had previously been a major exporter of energy, however it is again a major importer of fossil fuels. This reduction in fossil fuel production is coupled with several of the existing coal and nuclear sites coming ‘off system’ in the coming decade. This is leading to significant fears over the threat of the lights going off, with the UK energy regulator stating that the statistical probability of severe power blackouts would increase.

The lack of energy sustainability, coupled with a loss of energy security, leads to the final element of the energy trilemma – affordability. 

The UK agenda has always been dominated by concerns about the affordability of heating specifically, linked with anxieties about public health. These anxieties stem from an increase in deaths during cold weather mainly due to poor insulation of UK housing stock. Office for National Statistics figures show every year a peak in the number of deaths during winter months that run to the tens of thousands.

The UK government is reluctant to let prices rise to a level required for new low carbon investment because of concerns over the impact on the affordability. This policy hiatus is further enhancing the potential impact of the energy trilemma.

To avoid the outcomes of the energy trilemma, the UK must transform its energy sector. However, this transformation is hindered by great uncertainty as to the central policy objectives and agendas which are driving UK governance. 

Therefore, it appears that one of the most rational avenues of action is that the heating industry, supported by national government, undertakes a program of social-based ‘nudge’ campaigns to allay the impact of the energy trilemma by reducing long-term consumption. 

‘Nudge’ techniques are described by as actions that alter people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. 

It is pleasing to see such ‘nudge’ techniques already being incorporated by government, such as with the smart meter roll-out, but more can be done.

The heating industry, supported by government, can utilise a social marketing agenda to reduce energy consumption and subsequent costs, through education and ‘nudging’. The expertise of the industry and its knowledge of the consumer, supported by government regulation and incentives, could create the winning formula. 

The key failings of the Green Deal and other government approaches was their inability to truly understand the audience benefit. These benefits need to be clear, to give people something to tap into and satisfy the underlying motivation of groups. These benefits be health, a cleaner environment, access to services, or even money. 

This step change away from monetary incentives towards energy reduction programs could focus on audience benefit, with an educational approach to changing and evoking social norms related to energy consumption. 

Sounds drastic? Many would argue that we are in drastic times, requiring drastic measures.