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Save Your Energy and Educate Consumers

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I recently attended the ninth annual Energy Summit hosted by The London Business School where keynote speaker, Dr. Ivan Marten, Global Leader of the Energy Practice for Boston Consulting Group, identified the 21st Century as the 'energy and natural resources revolution'. The UK energy market is on the brink of a revolution as smart systems driven by intelligent software, real-time monitoring and management of the energy grid are poised to become a disruptive technology and change the manner in which we manage our energy consumption. Yet with energy companies raising prices, and a colder than normal start to winter sees heaters blasting around the UK, many people feel disenchanted and resent the onus of the larger, country-wide energy challenge being placed upon them.

That we are facing a huge challenge is not a great surprise. We are currently predicted to increase our population by 50% between 2000 and 2050 and consequently our energy consumption is likely to double in this period. It is in fact estimated to rise by 47% by 2035 alone, with non-OECD countries driving 90% of this. Alongside an increase in the rise of population, a rise in the quality of people's lives (which shares a direct positive correlation with energy consumption) is also pushing up energy needs in the UK. But the issue gets even more complicated when you account for governments' and countries' attempts to achieve set carbon targets, thus keeping the planet below the global warming 2°C target (the scientifically agreed limit temperature rise required to avert the worst possible consequences of global warming).

For example, the scientific consensus from the Change Institute at Oxford University identifies that for the UK to play its part in helping the world avoid a rise of more than 2°C, we must reduce our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. As such, with the household sector representing 27 per cent of our total emissions, it is imperative that the low-carbon revolution starts at home. The introduction of smart- meter systems is allowing energy consumption to finally become something that is customised and incorporates levels of differentiation, which sees the consumer physically interacting and monitoring their energy consumption. And, by placing the consumer in an active role, behaviours towards sustainability are being forced to change. This will certainly be the case, if the UK regulator, Ofgem, achieves their 2019 target of installing up to 53 million electricity and gas smart meters throughout some 30 million households and small commercial entities. Indeed, the goal for commercial and industrial (C&I) operators is 168k meters by the end of 2014.

However, because people are the only agents who can invent, adopt, ignore, reject, adapt or subvert technologies, an interim assessment by Hillman and Fawcett (2005), has predicted that at least a third of the carbon savings will need to come from the residential day-to-day behavioural changes, as opposed to effective use of new technology or fuel switching. Some of the changes relating to daily occurrences include:
• Installing compact fluorescent lamps and light emitting diodes
• Refusing to buy unnecessary appliances
• Reducing standby capacity
• Use energy more carefully by responding to electricity monitors and reading the meter
• Respond to the Energy Performance Certificate and improve the home, so it moves up a band
• Install low- and zero-carbon technologies.

Though begrudged by many, I believe these are steps in the right direction, as energy use, and more importantly waste, are key to getting through the challenge of the energy vs. sustainability debate. I feel that in order to engage society as a whole, the debate needs to be changed to include them. In particular, in order to avoid total environment, energy and climate change disenchantment and/ or boredom, the media (including the force of that is social media) needs to lead the way and start incorporating this personal responsibility into the debate. In Northern Ireland for instance, energy awareness has increased following media reports of the region leading the way with 64% of homes now considering themselves to be 'environmentally aware', with 44 per cent of these having taken direct actions to cut back on their home energy consumption at some point over the past year.

Whilst I am not suggesting that we as a nation start reducing our beef consumption (fewer cattle would produce less methane and require less feed, which is produced by using energy-intensive fertilizers), the individual householder is an extremely important player in the energy debate and the involvement of the general public is critical to the successful development of a low-carbon strategy. Reducing energy demand and carbon emissions cannot be left solely to technology and Government regulations. As with the information revolution starting in the late twentieth century, this 'energy and natural resources revolution', can only truly arrive when a multitude of stakeholders converge along the same lines. However, whether this convergence comes from a policy of "nudging" people into making wiser choices through limiting their options and the information available, only time with tell. In the meantime we will have to face the fact that the world is changing rapidly and the way we produce, transmit and consume energy must keep pace and become more customer focused.