Secrets of the Power Station: why now is the time to understand and have a say in how your energy is generated

In the UK, as with many other developed countries, domestic energy use is a major contributor to our carbon emissions – accounting for around a quarter of all emissions in the UK and heat generation is a huge part of this (representing 78% of non-transport related energy consumption in the UK- Greenpeace, 2018).

Of the total emissions associated with heat generation, the domestic sector accounts for 50 per cent so is rightly the target of a raft of carbon reduction policies. But how aware are we of how much energy we are consuming when heating our homes and how it is being generated? Our research into our changing and increasingly distant relationship with energy, found that prior to the widespread adoption of gas central heating in the UK, we had a much more tangible relationship with fuel and home heating. The research has been conducted in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire where, before gas central heating, most homes were heated by burning coal and also in Southern Sweden where homes would have been heated by wood burning stoves, prior to the widespread adoption of communal heating systems.

Some of those we have engaged with through the project remembered these times and explained how they would manage their heating budget simply by looking at how much coal or wood was left in the shed and how they were directly responsible for generating heat for the home by building and maintaining fires. Now in the 95 per cent of UK households that have central heating, we simply push buttons and heat fills our homes. We can feel it but we can’t see or smell it like we once could. We use it now and pay later. In Sweden, heat is cheap and plentiful and generated far from the home, delivered by underground pipes.

The changes can be seen as symptomatic of broader changes in our relationship with our domestic energy consumption which has been said to suffer from a so-called “double invisibility” – in so far as it can be no longer be seen nor connected to everyday actions. This invisibility, it could be argued, distances us from our consumption and the consequences of our actions in this regard. This represents a particular problem in the context of the increasingly urgent pressure on all of us to make more conscientious decisions about our resource consumption. Some resources are a very tangible part of our everyday lives, such as water, paper or petrol for example and while it may not always follow that we are better at reducing our consumption in relation to these more visible resources, visibility does at least help us to connect our everyday actions to their resource implications.

The disconnection between several generations and their energy consumption is problematic at a time when energy is more scarce and expensive than ever before and at a time when we urgently need to decarbonise our energy supply.

If we don’t know where our heat and energy is coming from, then how can we make informed choices about how it should be generated in future?

Most of us probably know that it is generated by power stations but what is being burned to generate the energy? We see the odd wind farm dotted around but how much of our energy is being generated in this way?

We are often encouraged through various campaigns to reduce the amount of energy we use but there are many reasons why this might not be the right approach to reducing our carbon emissions, not least in relation to heat as under-heating our homes carries proven health and wellbeing risks, especially for the very young and old. In light of this, it could be argued that changing how our energy is generated is as important as reducing how much of it we use.

Through our FoSS event: Secrets of the Power Station, we aim to bring energy users face to face with some of the more controversial approaches to power generation (i.e. energy from waste) and to equip them with the key facts necessary for them to reach an informed view on whether they support the approach featured as a part of our future energy mix. In doing so, we will bring some participants face to face with the inner workings of a power station for the first time in their lives.

This blog was written by:
Professor Aimee Ambrose
Professor of Energy Policy in CRESR (Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research) and Chair at The Fuel Poverty Research Network (FPRN).

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