September 2020: Green washing, summer placements, world energy stats and more


Green washing?

Google says it has wiped out its entire carbon footprint by investing in “high-quality carbon offsets”.
BP will supply renewable energy to Microsoft as part of a wider strategic cooperation between the two companies.  Facebook has announced it will completely decarbonizing its supply chain by 2030, and will eliminate or offset all of its own emissions this year.

But will this work? Or is it just green washing?  What is offsetting, and have you heard of the new concept of insetting?  What about green electricity tariffs and power purchase agreements: do they really source renewable electricity for consumers?

We need to reduce our emissions fast, that’s undeniable. But what do these actions achieve on the ground? What is their impact? Do they create positive change and reduce our greenhouse gas contributions?

If you are interested in learning more, join the CIBSE webinar on Friday 25 September, at 12 noon to hear from a trio of experts working on these issues.

Should we increase taxes on oil to decarbonise transport?

How can we address the uneven playing field of energy, where fossil fuels attract large subsidies compared to clean and renewable technologies?
The coronavirus outbreak, and other factors have sent global oil prices tumbling to their lowest level for a very long time. Demand is still low, due to the continued low level of travel, industry activities, and shipping.

One approach is to seize the political opportunity to introduce higher duties on hydrocarbons while leaving retail prices unchanged. This would incentivize long-term investment in sustainable energy, and generate revenue to help finance the “green transition” in a socially tolerable way.  Alternatively, a specific transport tax may be more effective and support the uptake of active travel and electric vehicles. What evidence is there that these policies would work as desired?

Hear from Daniel Hardy from the University of Oxford and William Todts of Transport & Environment who will set out their views and then answer questions on 30 September at 11am. Register here.


Our discussion on hydrocarbon tax will be the last of our summer webinar series that has covered a range of different topics.

Videos of the talks and discussions are available, and also the slides, so you catch-up on any that tickle your fancy:

Energy and the Literature of Moral Dilemmas with David Aberbach, Antonella Mazzone, and Helen Gavin (University of Oxford)


   Isabel’s blogs   

Over the summer, I have really enjoyed working with Isabel Diersen, a Harvard undergrad who, due to Coronavirus, did a remote placement with EcoSync, which is developing ways to minimise wasted energy from heating unoccupied buildings.

It’s not easy to work with people you’ve never met before, thousands of miles away, with time differences, but Isabel rose to the challenge!

You can read more about her experience in her delightful blogs:

EcoSync is a start-up company that has come up with a solution to address all 3 issues of CO2, namely pollution, cost, and wasted energy.  The solution is simple:  stop heating empty rooms!
It is a simple solution yet people don’t do it, or it’s not easy for people to do it…   To address this, Ecosync has created a cloud-based platform to synchronise existing building technologies (e.g. room booking systems and heating controls) to identify empty rooms and create responsive heated zones where needed.

   The new UK Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill   

While the world continues to reel from the impact of COVID-19, the far bigger waves of the climate and ecological crisis are looming large on the horizon.

To address this, the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill (a private members bill), passed the first stage of its UK parliamentary journey on 2nd September 2020.

While the UK parliament declared a climate emergency in 2019 and set itself a legally binding target of Net Zero by 2050, more than a year has passed with insufficient progress. Action is urgently needed. The Climate Change Committee’s 2020 Government progress report has said that “policy implementation has not yet met the required ambition”. Hence, we are not even on track for the current 2050 Net Zero target, let alone limiting warming to 1.5°C.

The CEE Bill would significantly expand the remit and scope of the Climate Change Act 2008. It would assign duties and implement a strategy that meets more ambitious targets for both climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as stronger criteria of justice, responsibility and safety.

The objectives of the CEE Bill are to:
1 Ensure that the UK plays its fair and proper role in limiting global temperatures to 1.5°C by:

    • taking account of the UK’s entire carbon footprint domestically and internationally, necessitating real action on emissions reductions
    • circumscribing reliance on speculative future carbon capture technologies

 2 Actively conserve the natural world by:

    • protecting and restoring the UK’s ecosystems, with a focus on biodiversity, soils and natural carbon sinks
    • mitigating the damage to nature caused by supply chains, domestically and internationally
    • accounting for the UK’s ecological footprint

How the Bill could be ground-breaking
Its proponents claim that the Bill will change the current status quo and drive a more rigorous and ambitious approach.

    • Global fairness will be acknowledged by legally enshrining the principle of “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities” in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
    • Consumption emissions, and production-related emissions,  will be included to recognise a full picture of the UK’s global carbon footprint. Consumption emissions incorporate emissions released overseas as a result of goods manufactured abroad for UK consumption and account for 46% of total UK emissions.
    • Natural climate solutions will be used as the only method for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for example active management to conserve and restore soils, forests, peat bogs, and coastal ecosystems.
    • Unproven negative emissions technologies will not be used e.g. carbon dioxide capture such as direct air capture, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, burying of biochar, geoengineering approaches, such as ocean iron fertilization to offset emissions related to the energy supply sector. The bill allows some offsetting for the agricultural, cement and steel sectors and the UK’s historical carbon debt.
    • The Bill calls for restoring the abundance, variety and health of ecosystems, and the enhancement of the ecosystem services they generate.
    • The Bill introduces measures to protect ecological systems damaged by supply chains, and to hold accountable UK companies and individuals for any ecologically harmful supply system.

The CEE Bill sets both a blueprint and a benchmark to drive ambitions ahead of COP26. The UK will co-host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021 and is well placed to become a standard-bearer for serious climate and ecological action on the international stage, and implement a robust and profound green recovery from COVID-19 impact.

   World Energy Stats   

The International Energy Association (IEA) has released it’s 2020 Key World Energy Statistics showing top-level numbers across the energy mix.

The chart below shows the world total energy supply by source, over 1971-2018.  Depressingly, the contribution of wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy is very small  – so small in fact they are bundled into the category ‘other’.

The chart below is a little bit more promising, and shows electricity generation in the world by source, over 1990-2018.  Renewable sources contribute ~6,000,000 GWh of the total ~27,000,000 GWh produced.

 Power companies blocking renewable investment

The above charts starkly highlight the findings from an Oxford study that shows that only 10% of  energy suppliers or large scale utility companies globally have prioritised renewables over fossil fuels, and that even those are still investing in coal and natural gas power stations.

The  researcher, Galina Alova, analysed more than 3,000 utilities worldwide, systematically quantifying their transitions from fossil-fuelled capacity to renewables over the past two decades.

The findings showed that three-quarters of the utilities studied did not expand their portfolios. Of the remainders, a handful grew coal ahead of other assets, while half favoured gas and the rest prioritized renewables growth. While 15% of the renewables-prioritizing utilities were reducing their fossil-fuel portfolio, 60% were not.

A large share of power assets are far from retirement age, and a third were added only in the last ten years. Given their longevity, these power plants are here to stay for decades, leading to carbon lock-in unless they are retired early.

On a hopeful note, Galina states that at least part of the increase in utilities’ gas capacity might be due to its role as a transition fuel, providing load-balancing services to variable renewable energy generation.

Should countries and their utilities fail to overcome electricity system inertia, meeting our Paris climate agreement goals and progressing the transition to clean zero emission power will inevitably be slow, no matter how fast global renewable energy capacity expands.

   Words, words, words   

In this regular feature, we shine a light on words used in energy circles.  Last month, we featured capacitors.   This month: short run and long run marginal costs! 

How does the shift to a power system with distributed energy resources affect the way in which we pay for electricity – not just what we consume, but all of the required infrastructure from pylons to the cables connecting our homes?

Increased renewable energy has altered the fundamental economics of wholesale energy markets, which historically were often purely based on the economics of short run marginal costs.

Short run marginal costs relate to the costs of producing a unit of electricity, such as fuel and operational expenditure.   Long-run marginal costs cover the cost of meeting demand indefinitely i.e. the construction of a new generating unit and the generation, transmission and distribution costs to meet the highest demand.

Many aspects of a decarbonised energy system are radically different to one based on fossil fuels. For example, they feature:

  • Zero short run marginal costs
  • Smaller scale of energy generation
  • A new role for demand side actors
  • The possibility of peer to peer sharing

With fossil fuel energy generation, short run costs were known and formed a predictable basis on which to base costing structures and power markets.

The increase in renewable energy has changed this predictable costing basis.  While both the short and long run marginal costs for renewable energy is reducing, with short run costs being nearly zero, and long run costs following a trend that will see them dropping below fossil fuels, the variable nature of renewable energy, and the need for storage and other technology to meet demand causes increased complexity and the need for risk management.

How should this be factored into network pricing? What is the basis or way in which we can balance the need to recover costs, ensure supply, while incorporating social desires such as simplicity, predictability and fairness, as well as decarbonising our energy supply?  How can the regulators create and steer a broad framework of principles to a desired direction that is fair and agreed by all?

The need to move to meet Net Zero and create wholly flexible energy networks means that the need to agree these trade-offs has become urgent.

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