Continuity and Disruption in UK Energy System Change: Mapping Expert Differences – and Understanding their Implications

Mike Kattirtz, University of Edinburgh

Energy systems globally are undergoing dramatic changes, and many observers anticipate accelerated changes in the years ahead. The changes are being driven by a combination of high-level national and international policy agreements, as well as more bottom-up, insurgent changes in the cost and performance of energy technologies (supply, storage and use) and also changing consumer behaviours and social practices.

Less visibly, energy systems also exhibit strong elements of continuity, in terms of the renewal, extension and repurposing of existing technical infrastructures and institutions. This pattern of both disruptive and continuity-based change, which is particularly evident in the UK energy system, is reflected in energy experts’ varied prescriptions for energy system change. As a result, there are multiple working definitions of the energy system change and system integration, with many questions and uncertainties about future pathways such as the extent of system rescaling, the key public and private agents of change and the extent to which consumers and citizens are likely to play a significant role in driving change.

In their review of energy scenarios, McDowall et al. (2014) noted the benefits of those studies which incorporated a diverse range of stakeholders and experts, and processes which were enable different views and evidence-bases to be articulated and confronted in a structured and constructive way.

Taking forward these recommendations, the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has recently conducted a detailed survey of well over 100 UK energy stakeholders (researchers, policymakers, business leaders, advisory groups and others) aimed at mapping differences among energy researchers and stakeholders on the key strategic concerns for UK energy system development. The survey considered the changes facing the UK energy system over the next 20 years, including questions of governance and ownership, the role of citizens and consumers, possible energy system shocks and wider landscape pressures, and more specific patterns of continuity and disruption in heat, power and transport sectors. Survey respondents also had the opportunity to reflect on the fitness for purpose of UK energy policy and research.

Following on from the survey, a stakeholder workshop in March 2018 considered the implications of the survey results for UK energy policy and strategy, and used the survey results to help develop disruptive and continuity-based transition paths for UK energy system change to 2040. The survey and workshop form part of a wider ongoing project on continuity and disruption in the UK energy system being conducted by UKERC.

Our paper and presentation will report the results of the survey and workshop, and consider their implications for UK energy system governance. The findings highlight a lack of consensus on the likelihood and desirability of disruptive or continuity-based changes across a wide range of policy and strategy issues, across many aspects of UK energy change, both in specific sectors such as power, heat and transport sectors, and the energy system as a whole – including the future role of consumers and citizens in change. The results also suggest a perceived need for reaffirmed UK policy commitments to decarbonisation and energy demand reduction.

Reference: McDowall W., Trutnevyte E., Tomei J., Keppo I. (2014) Reflecting on Scenarios, UKERC Working Paper, UK Energy Research Centre, London.

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