The climate crisis is escalating: how can we get smarter with our energy?
2021/06/30 Anna Turns
Awareness of the climate crisis is at a record high, with 85% of adults now concerned about global heating, according to a survey by Ipsos Mori.
“People seem to be a lot more engaged after having seen impacts of climate change here in the UK where they live. We’re increasingly experiencing unseasonal heatwaves, dangerous flooding and extreme weather,” explains WWF head of climate Isabella O’Dowd. “The government, businesses and individuals have an important role to play in reaching the UK’s climate change targets. Right now, people want to know what they can do to help mitigate the effects of climate change.”
If every household takes action on energy efficiency now, we could achieve 11% of the UK’s ambitious 2050 carbon target to reduce emissions to net-zero. Everyone can contribute to reducing carbon emissions by being more energy-wise, according to O’Dowd: “Our houses need to be better insulated and our windows double-glazed, and we all need to be careful about the energy we consume and increase energy efficiency by rolling out heat pumps, smart meters, and switching to more electric heating rather than relying on oil and gas.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2019 report stresses that it will be impossible to keep global temperatures at safe levels unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced in all sectors, including land and food. As a result, more people recognise that climate breakdown isn’t abstract. It’s not a threat affecting remote communities, or far away in the distant future – it’s happening here and now.
The climate and nature crisis is already accelerating so many human-induced influences on our planet – from the destruction of vast areas of rainforest in the Amazon to the collapse of bee populations. As more species become endangered, including one-third of all insects globally, the ecosystems that we all rely on become more fragile.
Data from sciencedirect.com
With such astonishing loss of biodiversity and habitat, planet Earth is much more likely to reach irreversible tipping points. Environmental breakdown is inevitable if we continue this unsustainable consumption of fossil fuels.
Mark Wright, WWF’s director of science, hopes that environmental issues will be at the top of the agenda for political leaders: “Attitudes are shifting and now we need a step-change – the UK government needs to take radical steps to meet its target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”
WWF climate experts estimate that net zero could be achieved much sooner than the current 2050 target if we act now, but that calls for fundamental changes to the UK’s outdated energy infrastructure. Historically, the UK has been one of the biggest emitters and has an important role to fully decarbonise our energy system as quickly as possible. We need to make the energy greener and develop a more resilient smart system, as O’Dowd explains: “Our grid needs to be flexible so it can better manage supply and demand as we transition to more renewable energy. By equipping every home with a smart meter, power can be adjusted on a local and national level so the system is more energy efficient.”
Data from gov.uk
O’Dowd describes smart meters as “the enabler”, and they will undoubtedly be integral to the transition towards a low-carbon economy. To facilitate innovation, the government has pledged to offer every home and small business in the country a smart meter in the next few years – to date about 23.6m smart meters have been installed nationwide. “Smart meters allow consumers to understand their own energy use, and, with information from the in-home display, customers can start making small, money-saving changes such as switching off appliances which aren’t in use.”
Last year, renewable energy provided 43% of the UK’s electricity needs, overtaking fossil fuels for the first time. As energy usage becomes more complex with the integration of high-consumption devices such as electric cars, digitisation is crucial to creating a decentralised smart energy system that can flexibly match supply with demand. With more advanced technology in the future, a smarter network will make it possible to measure how much energy is being used, where and when. Smart meters that accurately measure customer energy demands enable this upgraded system to provide energy in the most efficient and cost-effective way.
The government estimates that £650m of energy gets wasted in the current distribution system, travelling from where it is generated to the point it reaches our homes. Smart meters can help reduce loss in energy by accurately forecasting demand and using more low-cost and renewable energy. “We need to ramp up our wind power and solar generation in order to reach our 2050 target of net zero, but these renewables don’t have an easy route to market,” says O’Dowd. “We want to push the government to raise its ambition – we know the technology exists and solutions are there but we need government support and its investment in our grid network to help that transition.”
Ultimately, a smart energy system will generate, distribute and use energy much more efficiently. At a national network level, a more flexible infrastructure will use energy storage, for example via batteries or heating, and will shift demand away from peak periods, because when demand is highest, more of the electricity we consume is generated by polluting coal stations.
In conjunction with the University of Oxford, Environmental Defense Fund Europe, and WWF, the National Grid has created a carbon intensity forecast that predicts the generation mix for the next four days in each region of the country. Energy users can enter their postcode and find out when the best time is to access green, clean energy. If your washing machine has a timer, you can set it to run at night, for example, when demand is low and more of the system’s energy is generated by renewables. In homes with solar panels, it might make sense to use electricity at midday if the sun is shining.
As the smart energy system becomes more interactive with advanced technology, smart meters will play a part in allowing the shift to more staggered night-time charging for electric car batteries to minimise carbon emissions and keep costs down. In the future, this management could become automatic, with more widespread “time-of-use” tariffs. Local peer-to-peer trading could become more commonplace so consumers could more easily trade the excess energy they generate from solar panels. And perhaps the carbon intensity forecast might one day be reported alongside the weather.
Data from wwf.org.uk
The Committee on Climate Change states that to reach our 2050 net-zero emissions target, we must reduce our carbon emissions by 15m tonnes a year, every year, starting now. “We’re in a rapidly changing world in terms of biodiversity loss, habitat destruction and climate change, so we’re heading into uncharted territory,” says Wright. “We are clever and technologically savvy, so we may be able to cope with what the world throws at us in the future, but is that a world we want?” he asks, adding that as the climate changes, we’ll need to adapt quickly.
For WWF, adopting smart meters is just one of the small changes we can each make, that our power companies do for us, that will help the overall system. It adds that smart meters help us to make changes to our power use – at a national, regional and domestic level – in ways that help cut emissions, which we need to do rapidly and deeply if we are to tackle the climate emergency.
Wright says: “To feed the growing population in a world with more extreme weather events, increased flooding and rising sea temperatures, we’ll have to farm crops differently – we might need to start growing novel varieties of crops that are better suited to the environments of the future.” In order to have this capacity to adapt, we need to protect biodiversity, on land and in the sea – every species plays a vital role in these ecosystems.
“We are investing in our insurance policy for the future by conserving our habitats and wildlife,” adds Wright. “While the world’s oceans and forests act as an important carbon sink [by sequestering some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere], we still need to reduce our energy usage and carbon footprint,” says Wright, who believes that the solutions lie with us and that it’s not our place to deny nature’s right to exist through casual lack of forward-thinking: “I have never seen a polar bear or a blue whale in the wild, but my life is richer because I know they’re somewhere and I want my children to know they have the potential to see them.
“Nature rewards the patient – every species has a story to tell, even little beetles and velvet worms. If you allow nature to tell you its stories, you’ll unravel a real tapestry of life. We will be poorer if we continue to unpick that.”