Windmills of the mind

Why the UK government's energy policy is more concerned with changing our behaviour and mindsets than with actually supplying more energy.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

On Thursday 27 July, two things happened in the West End of London. Most obviously, several thousand businesses in the centre of the capital experienced a series of power cuts at the hands of EDF, the French electricity supplier. Oxford Circus underground station was closed for more than an hour. Much less obviously, London mayor Ken Livingstone launched a report by the London Energy Partnership, which counts among its participants not just the mayor and the Department of Trade and Industry, but also….EDF. Titled Towards Zero Carbon Developments – Supportive Information for Boroughs, the report tells London’s 32 local authorities how they can do Livingstone’s bidding and each develop a ‘zero-carbon’ building by 2010 (1).

The coincidence of these two developments reveals a lot about how the debate on energy is likely to evolve over the next few years. On the one hand, even the right-wing Daily Mail proved ready to denounce the performance of EDF in the crisis as ‘shambolic’ (2). On the other hand, EDF itself put forward a recommendation fully consonant with Livingstone’s left-wing ‘Energy Strategy’ for London. EDF said: ‘Prudent use of power by those in the affected area – for example turning off air conditioning where possible – will help this situation.’ (3)

Livingstone can only agree. The first injunction of Towards Zero is: ‘Use less energy (Be Lean).’ (4) The report also has a harsh word for ‘retrofit installations of energy-intensive air conditioning’ (5).

It’s all agreed, then. Electricity suppliers are useless, but in a summer shortage every morally responsible individual must turn things off. Indeed, like central government, the London Energy Partnership wants to ‘encourage behavioural change amongst users through raising awareness of efficient energy use and ensuring consumption data is easily accessible, and even “real time”’ (6).

Reduced energy consumption, however, is not the Partnership’s only answer to energy problems. Echoing the government’s recent energy review, The Energy Challenge, it insists that local authorities establish decentralised sources of power (7). Warning, in prescient style, that ‘rising energy costs and risks of disrupted supply are expected in the future’, Towards Zero advises that property developers and building occupiers will ‘benefit from on-site generation/community heating through reduced risk and security of supply’ (8).

Far be it for EDF, or anyone else, to build a new power station to supply the burgeoning energy needs of the nation’s capital. Anything but that! But how, then, does the London Energy Partnership propose to pursue the microgeneration of energy on-site, so as to guard against EDF-style interruptions of supply?

Rooftop education

To its credit, the Partnership does prefer large, district-level Combined Heat and Power (CHP) schemes to CHP installations done at the level of individual buildings (9). Nevertheless, it always plays up the micro side of microgeneration. It proclaims that ‘the new generation of micro-turbines and roof-mounted devices now provides the opportunity for electricity generation on many high-density urban buildings, which tend to experience lower wind speeds’, and hopes that, if properly maintained, rooftop gardens could provide enough moisture to keep angled solar photovoltaic panels cool (10).

It would be nice to hear more about the performance of this ‘new generation’ of devices. No doubt they are cheap to buy, install, meter and operate; no doubt, too, they boast incomparable efficiencies and outputs. But the really interesting thing about the installations that the London Energy Partnership has in mind is where they are likely to be erected first. Houses are one candidate; but a more likely one is schools.

Partly that’s because a large school, once again, is a more sensible place to pursue microgeneration than a single home. But there is something else as well. Towards Zero has more to say about schools than about hospitals, which if anything are even larger. Why the preference? Well: a school wanting to become a low- or zero-carbon development will, we hear, be interested in ‘educational opportunities and links with the curriculum’ (11). And the London Energy Partnership inserts a comprehensive case study on Kronsberg, Hannover. There, it reports, an Energy Counsellor ‘worked with individual people in their homes or at the schools and other local institutions’ so there could be ‘user feedback’ on energy systems and their management, and ‘related lessons learnt’ (12).

It’s clear enough. Schools are a place where kids can rally round demonstration projects in microgeneration – and adults, too, can be made to see the light.

Once again, the Partnership is not alone here. In its treatment of microgeneration, the DTI’s energy review proclaims: ‘The government is giving particular attention to schools.’ (13). And Our Energy Challenge, an earlier, 51-page DTI report just on microgeneration, has this to say:

‘As well as providing low carbon energy to homes and small commercial buildings, microgeneration can provide the same service to community buildings, such as leisure centres and schools. In such premises, not only does the microgeneration installation help to reduce carbon emissions; it can also help to educate and inform communities about energy and, hopefully, persuade people to reduce their own carbon footprint.’ (14)

So, a windmill on a school can help educate the ignorant about climate change. Indeed, the DTI goes further. In a special section titled ‘Renewable Energy in Schools’, it writes:

‘Education of the next generations in a way that energy efficiency and the need for cleaner energy become an integral part of their mindset can help to influence their future behaviour (and maybe even that of their parents) and move us towards the desired cultural shift. One of the most effective ways to engage the interest of children in the energy agenda must be through interaction with new technologies. The installation of renewable technologies in schools can bring the curriculum to life in ways that textbooks cannot. With schools often being the focal point of communities, the installation of renewables could help to shape attitudes in the wider community.’ (15)

Thus, by building a source of renewable energy on a classroom roof, the DTI hopes to indoctrinate both children and ‘maybe’ even their parents in The Right Way to Behave.

The windmills of their minds

So far, neither Ken Livingstone nor the DTI has suggested that newly energy-aware children take it upon themselves to tell the authorities when their parents are guilty of misconduct in their e-styles. But an atmosphere is being created in which such a course of action, too, might be deemed The Right Way to Behave. The focus on schools as a laboratory for moving us all ‘towards the desired cultural shift’ is deeply sinister.

Let’s be clear, too, that the purpose of government energy policy in schools is to put the moralistic dogma ‘Microgeneration = Good’ into people’s minds. It has little to do with actually generating energy. Thus the DTI approvingly quotes a Hub Research Consultants report for the Sustainable Consumption Roundtable – a joint initiative of the National Consumer Council and Jonathan Porritt’s official Sustainable Development Commission. Speaking of its sample of three schools and about 20 households equipped with microgenerators, Hub enthused that while some only produced ‘very modest’ levels of energy, ‘the behavioural impacts in terms of energy awareness and efficiency were often still considerable’. The ‘qualitative’ impacts of microgeneration, it’s argued, ‘can be substantial, presenting a living, breathing and emotionally engaging face to energy consumption’ (16).

Next time the film production houses of Soho and the retailers of Oxford Street have a blackout, then, don’t expect a discussion of how London, a growing city, needs hundreds of megawatts more capacity in efficient, centralised power supply. Instead, look up to the skyline for school-based solar panels set out in elevated gardens. Look up, too, for imposing pedagogic windmills.

These, it seems, will be the new altars of our age.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester and a columnist at IT Week. He is speaking in the session Putting design and technology to good use at the Battle of Ideas in London in October 2006.

(1) London Energy Partnership, Toward Zero Carbon Developments – Supportive Information for Boroughs, 27 July 2006

(2) Sean Poulter, Hot weather causes London black-outs, Daily Mail, 27 July 2006

(3) EDF, Power supply interruptions in the Soho area of London, press release, 27 July 2006

(4) London Energy Partnership, op cit, p23

(5) Ibid, p27

(6) Ibid, p24

(7) Ibid, p35

(8) Ibid, p40

(9) Ibid, p18

(10) Ibid, pp16, 26

(11) Ibid, p51

(12) Ibid, p95

(13) Ibid, p71

(14) DTI, Our energy challenge: power from the people – microgeneration strategy, March 2006, p4

(15) Ibid, p10.

(16) Ibid, p8, quoting Sustainable Development Commission, Seeing the light: the impact of micro-generation on the way we use energy

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Topics Science & Tech


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