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Green energy needs to be as common as a mobile phone

Ted Hopcroft
PA Consulting Group
The Times, page 59
14 September 2009

The Government’s low-carbon transition plan comprises five key points, ranging from securing international climate agreements to action on carbon budgets.

All the points are important, but it is the fifth that will make the real difference — “supporting individuals, communities and businesses to play their part”.

This plan will work only if individual consumers embrace it and change their behaviour. This change must be significant and go much further than simply switching the television off standby or installing a few low-energy light bulbs. Its success depends on motivating individual consumers to make energy efficiency a priority.

This is a highly ambitious aim, but recent history has highlighted the consumer’s capacity to embrace change rapidly: the internet has transformed the way in which we get our information; our telephone service has metamorphosed into a mobile world with ubiquitous voice, data and video.

We have a comparable opportunity to transform our energy supply by augmenting large-scale power generation with community and consumer contributions. Can we achieve this? The internet and mobile communications are successful because they have become a core element of 21st century life. The Government’s plans need to create a similar environment for green lifestyles.

To achieve this, the consumer will need the right information, the right incentives and the right attitudes.

It seems that the information will come via smart meters, which will provide details of energy usage. A recent survey by Energy Insights, the research group, found strong demand, with 68 per cent of respondents requesting a device.

But is there an incentive to reduce usage? The initial evidence is promising. Dissatisfaction with energy bills has doubled in the past two years and two thirds of consumers say that they would use energy more efficiently given appropriate information.

Would this be sustainable? The lesson from the oil-price shock of the Seventies is that behaviour changed, but then consumption gradually reverted to earlier levels. We need financial incentives to entice people to move from energy savings to selling to the national grid. Perhaps we need an “energy clubcard” that rewards us for contributing to the national supply.

Financial incentives must be interwoven with attitudinal change. Maintaining momentum will require education. This is a plan for 2020, when today’s children will be buying their first cars and paying their first energy bills.

Green energy supply must become the norm — no one asks why someone has a mobile phone or internet access, but they’re bemused when someone doesn’t have these things. How do we achieve the same for green energy?

The Government should be congratulated on the low-carbon transition plan. It is a bold document that addresses today’s key issues. But the plan will not just be implemented top-down and must not be confined to industries and their bodies. The challenge for the Government is to win the hearts and minds of the British population and build enthusiasm and commitment in a critical mass of people to change behaviour.

Ted Hopcroft is an energy specialist at PA Consulting Group.

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