Decarbonisation, decentralisation, digitisation: the changing energy landscape

The energy landscape in the UK is currently undergoing a major transformation, presenting both opportunities and challenges for organisations working on the frontline of clean energy.  Add to that the fact that the erstwhile Department for Energy and Climate Change has now been subsumed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – whither climate change? – and we could be on the verge of a brave new world, one that hopefully encourages closer links between energy and cleantech innovation, and the chance to develop a thoughtful strategy for the future of low-carbon energy in this country.


This year’s crop of Ashden Award winners is well placed to respond to the ever-shifting sands.  The joint winners of our Sustainable Communities Award – Low Carbon Hub and Repowering London – have already proved themselves resilient in the face of an onslaught of policy changes over the past 18 months.  

Low Carbon Hub has launched its own manifesto, setting out why community energy is a fundamentally important part of the UK’s national energy transition.  Their ambition is for the whole of Oxfordshire to be powered by an interconnected series of smart micro-grids centred around multiple small-scale, community-controlled renewable energy schemes.  

As well as supporting communities to install and manage solar panels on housing blocks and communal buildings in Brixton and Hackney, Repowering London have recently joined forces with Transport for London.  They now have permission to create 50 energy gardens across London’s Overground stations.  The organisation has also been appointed as a community energy provider by Lambeth Council and is working with them to bring solar energy to Electric Avenue and the Brixton Market area. 

Social businesses like Low Carbon Hub and Repowering London are decentralising ownership of energy resources and reinvesting surpluses in community-benefit activities, like fuel poverty alleviation and energy efficiency projects. They have a critical role to play in ensuring that the UK’s energy transition does not recreate ‘business as usual’.   


Making the UK’s big cities more energy efficient, and sourcing more of their heat and power from decentralised energy sources, will not only reduce carbon emissions, but will also help to create energy stability, when we are having to rely increasingly on fuel imports and our existing energy infrastructure is ageing.

As part of his London mayoral manifesto, Sadiq Khan pledged to learn from existing initiatives in Nottingham and Copenhagen among others, where municipal owned, not-for-profit energy companies are offering citizens greater control over managing their own energy needs.

With this in mind, he announced the launch of Energy for Londoners – a not-for-profit clean and green energy company - to support communities that want to set up their own clean energy generation schemes. It will assist the roll out of projects like the Bunhill Energy Centre in Islington that takes waste heat from the tube to warm over 1000 homes in the capital.  At present, London only accounts for around 2.5% of solar installations nationwide and is in dire need of a dedicated solar strategy - which has been promised for next year - if the capital is to have any chance of becoming a zero carbon city by 2050.  At Ashden, we are currently working with the Greater London Authority to look at how London can become more energy smart, drawing on the experience and expertise of some of our Award winners.


In the last budget, the Treasury accepted the recommendations of a report by the National Infrastructure Commission on how to support the development of a “smart power” system that could save consumers up to £8 billion a year.

The changing patterns in both the demand and supply of electricity are putting the power grid under ever increasing stress. This makes it more challenging to allow for peaks and troughs in demand, manage intermittent and dispersed forms of generation, and ensure that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to keep the lights on. As more and more coal generation drops away, the need to innovate is becoming more urgent.

Smart energy companies, like 2016 Ashden Award winners Tempus Energy and Open Energi, are transforming the way businesses buy and use electricity through flexible demand technology.  They work with commercial customers to identify electrical equipment, which does not need to run continuously or does not need to run at a particular time, and then install their technology to turn that equipment on or off, and therefore their electricity demand up or down, in response to wholesale prices, network charges and conditions on the national grid.  This is an approach which, as it is scaled up, will reduce the need to keep inefficient and polluting reserve power stations running, and means fewer new power stations may need to be built in the future to keep the lights on. 

UK coal plants are due to be phased out by 2025. But, although the National Grid has plans in place to preserve security of supply and is supportive of the kind of ‘disruption’ being shown by Tempus and Open Energi, we are still lacking robust, stable policies from government in order to both speed up the transition to cleaner energy.  Given the lack of national leadership, it’s to be hoped that devolved governance to ‘metro mayors’ in Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and other cities in 2017 will give greater space to business innovation and transformative change when it comes to embracing low carbon energy.     

Mike Snowden is a UK Programme Officer at Ashden, a charity that champions and supports leaders in sustainable energy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world

Photo by Andy Aitchison/Ashden: The National Grid control room at the their headquarters in Wokingham

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.