Daring to Dream

This is an extract from the introduction to Repowering Communities

It is June 2034. Prashant is at home alone in London. He’s lived in the same house  for 25 years, which is now super-energy efficient. Stephen has moved to Keswick in the Lake District – partly to work with local councils and the National Park Authority to promote clean energy and partly to try and keep fit by walking up mountains. They’ve arranged to speak on skype-render.

Stephen patches into the call: ‘Sorry I’m late. Just been watching the football’. ‘There was a football match?’, Prashant says blankly. He notices the dial on the energy display go red as the electricity tariff jumps to its maximum level. All around the country kettles, toasters, microwaves, the phone exchanges are swinging into action, craving power as people exit the football holograms. The grid balancing software will be assessing the spike in demand and sending out an offsetting flow of instructions: electric cars will flick from recharging their batteries to supplying power, washing machines will wait until the price of power drops, fridges will power down for a few minutes.

‘Yes, England have won the World Cup’, says Stephen, unable to control his delight (and not trying very hard to do so). ‘Amazing. Proves that anything really is possible’.

Prashant tries to sound interested, but only perks up when the conversation switches to energy. ‘So here we are, 25 years after deciding to write that book. Not everything we argued for has happened, but most of it has. Local councils and other community groups have led the energy revolution. National governments have woken up to the scale of the challenge – and the scale of the revenue they could get from taxing energy properly. The climate sceptics have realized that economies built on renewables are more successful than those based on fossil fuels from unfriendly parts of the world. Who’d have thought it?’.

Energy prices – even before the carbon and energy tax – have quadrupled as the demand from the Indian and Brazilian petrochemical industry gobbled up global gas output. Prashant’s praise for local councils is in part based on his experience in Camden, London, where he lives. The council had set up an energy services company (ESCO) in 2012 initially as a contract with the local transition  town to provide energy efficiency, but this brave initiative had grown and it now provided Camden residents with all their domestic energy needs. Residents pay the same flat fee (and any extra charges when they override the system defaults) based on their house and lifestyle choices.

Prashant’s home is heated from a district heating (DH) system. The heat network had been very successful, enabling the council to decommission the residential gas supply in 2025. The hot water is sourced from a 1.5 gigawatt (GW) coal power plant near Didcot fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS). In summer, power is provided solely by UK’s 35GW hydro, wind and tidal power and by Britain’s new nuclear plants – the fifth of which finally came on line last year but not before dragging its French parent generator company into receivership.

The hot water is supplied through a vast pipe laid on the bottom of Regent’s Canal. The mutual that owns the canal also uses it to convey liquefied carbon dioxide (CO2) from the power station through the carbon grid to disposal sites in the North Sea. There is a delicious irony to this; until the 1960s the canal was used to transport coal into London, now it was transporting waste gases and surplus heat from combusting coal. People fishing in the canal probably have no idea that just below the surface of the still waters super-insulated pipes carry CO at ?60 degrees Celsius (°C), just a few inches away from the DH pipes carrying water at 110°C. The power station at Didcot only operates in the winter months; its power is chiefly used for the seasonal demands from heat pumps in London’s leafy suburbs and hot water for the heat networks that permeate inner London.

The installation of the heat network had gone smoothly. The one in Prashant’s street was installed in a week. Thames Water had won the franchise to install and operate the DH system throughout north London. In many ways it had been a no brainer since the company was anyway upgrading the drinking water network and it made sense to install the hot water network at the same time. Its robot moles had replaced the pipework without a trench being dug. Staff from Camden ESCO had installed the heat exchanger and shown Prashant and his wife how to operate it. It was even more straightforward than the gas condensing boiler that it replaced. While they were there, the ESCO’s staff went around the house and checked it for airtightness and used a thermal imager to find and rectify any deficiencies in the insulation. The heat exchanger hadn’t worked properly at first but the ESCO fixed it within a week; perhaps the fact Prashant’s wife is a local councillor and on the ESCO’s management board might have helped.

Because the house is in a conservation area and shaded by tall buildings it had been impossible to install any external insulation at the front of the house, or any solar technology. The ESCO had fitted remote control circuits to the fridge and washing machine that allowed the appliances’ operation to be governed remotely using information from Elexon (the company that administers the contractual codes and rules for settling financial flows between generators and suppliers) on the price of power. Some of the ESCO’s suggestions and incentives had surprised Prashant; he was compensated £25 to move the fridge from the kitchen to a cooler location beneath the stairs. All the lights and monitors were replaced with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and this had further reduced the house’s already very low electricity use. Prashant gets the first 2000 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year of electricity included in his standing charge. He and his wife have never exceeded this limit. When he had the downstairs floor remodelled last year, the builder(certified by the ESCO) said there was a £1000 subsidy to build a lobby just inside the front door.

No one in the street knew or cared about how the power industry worked. The ESCO had taken over responsibility for energy supply when Camden implemented its powers to localize energy supply in 2017. The local authority had awarded the franchise to Camden Heat and Power, itself a commercial venture run by the transition town. The ESCO produces and dispatches electricity from its energy-from-waste plant in Wembley, which is co-owned with several other boroughs. Most of its electricity comes from the ‘Big 8’ energy generators. At night the generators idle their fossil and biomass plants. Intriguingly this means that only base-load power is dispatched from the centralized generators. At these times the cost of power is determined by the ESCO’s demand-side management (DSM) decisions instead of the power station’s ‘merit order’. The man or women in the street doesn’t need to know this, but this flip in the market means that energy demand, not energy supply, has the upper hand in the power market.

This reversal means that energy price is determined by a million demand-side decisions and not by the generators. This flip would have caused the whole energy market to judder to a halt but some wise decisions in the 2010s enabled the demand-side market to flourish. The fossil fuel generators’ financial position had become more precarious as they were exposed to the uncertainties in fossil fuel prices. The financial markets created long-term contracts to help them plan and finance for future changes in fossil fuel and carbon market prices. The ESCOs now have the majority of the seats on Elexon and they have created a stable administered price of electricity, which works in their interests to provide a predictable revenue stream to pay their members and investors.

Stephen lives in a rented flat in Keswick, a town in the northern Lakes. He’d moved there in 2020, and was happy to rent because in 2015 the UK government started regulating the energy efficiency of the private rented sector. This was six years after the Swedish government had done the same, but to be only six years behind the Swedes wasn’t too bad for British politicians of that era. Catching up with Scandinavia on carbon taxes had taken the UK a quarter of a century.

Keswick council had installed solar thermal panels to heat hot water on most of the properties in the town, having worked out that solar photovoltaics for electricity generation are not ideal for northwest England but that solar thermal is highly efficient and economic even in the Lake District where, as the name suggests, there’s a fair bit of rain. The Lake District National Park Authority has increased the amount of hydroelectricity produced, not by building reservoirs but through ‘run-of-river’ schemes that don’t ruin the beautiful landscape. It has increased the use of waste wood from the forests for heating and electricity generation in decentralized combined heat and power (CHP) plants, with the heat distributed via small DH systems. A much larger DH scheme brings heat long distance from power plants on the Cumbrian coast to towns like Lancaster and Kendal.

The National Park Authority has consistently supported most (not all – some landscapes are simply too precious to alter) proposed wind farms in Cumbria, recognizing that the greatest threat to the landscape was uncontrolled climate change. But the fact that a wind farm would be visible from inside the national park was not in itself reason to oppose it. On clear days (which do occur, even in the Lake District) many forms of human activity are visible from the mountain-tops: cities, motorways and power stations. The local authorities around the Lake District also became supportive of wind farms, not least because from 2010 they had been able to make money by selling the electricity and from 2011 had got the business rates from any new wind farms in their area. Eden District Council, to the east of the national park, had lived up to its name by becoming one of the first areas to get all its energy from renewables.


The above account is of course science fiction. Neither of us expects England to win the World Cup within our lifetimes. The rest however is possible. To find out why we think so, and how it could be done, please buy our Repowering Communities book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Repowering-Communities-Prashant-Vaze/dp/1849712670/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1312374239&sr=1-1)




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