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Powering ahead

The UK's energy system is no longer fit for purpose. Drastic changes are required if electricity nee

This article first appeared in the New Statesman supplement 'Smartening up: Powering the UK's future energy needs through innovation andtechnology', sponsored by IBM.

The UK energy system is facing a crisis. This is a slow burn crisis, with time for us to act and avoid its worst consequences. Paradoxically, having time to make changes works against as well as for us.

Building the new generation, transmission and distribution assets that we need is a mammoth task, and one that will take years, if not decades, to complete. Changing the ingrained behaviours of an entire country, across multiple generations and cultural backgrounds, will be no quick and easy task. The regulator is getting to grips with the structural changes needed and the utilities are beginning to alter their business processes and refresh the underlying technologies as a result. With all the consequent risks and complexities, the transformation programmes to effect these changes are multi-year efforts. No one involved is arguing for less time.

However, the very fact we appear to have time on our side presents a real and serious danger, one that we at IBM believe is receiving insufficient attention and urgency. The development of a smart energy system, both the smart grid and a smart energy market, is crucial. A smart grid is one in which IT and analytics are used to maintain the integrity of the system, protect individual parts from damage and change the flows and usage of energy. A smart energy system uses prices and commercial agreements to shift both demand and supply behaviours to the benefit of all participants.

At IBM, we believe this will not result from the current piecemeal developments of new technology nor from the market reforms so far under discussion. The experiments being encouraged by Ofgem under the Low Carbon Networks Fund are well intentioned and will provide useful outcomes, but their time line means they will bear fruit too late. On the current trajectory, we will be faced with trying to knit together disparate and potentially incompatible developments rather than putting in place first the framework within which component level innovation can be left to the market.

Our energy system is not a collection of discrete components, each of which must do its own job: turbines to generate power from wind; high-voltage wires to transmit power; meters to measure and report usage; and transformers, power stations, electric vehicles and more besides, each with its own specific purpose. It is a system of systems in which the operation of each part must be connected, integrated and balanced, and which must inter-operate with others: transportation, water and sewerage, city infrastructures, buildings, hospitals and more.
We do not simply require each part of the rebuilt system to operate a little bit better, cheaper and cleaner, though this is a part of the challenge. Neither will it be enough to have the system as a whole work a little more efficiently but in the same way as it does today.
In order to replace as much as a third of our total generating capacity by midway through the next decade, cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, scale UK renewable energy to 30 per cent of the total used by 2020 and avoid a doubling or more of energy costs, we will need the energy system to work in a different, smarter way.

Maintaining the equilibrium

Generation is becoming far more distributed, driven largely by the increase in wind farms and the generation from domestic sources such as solar PV. This requires our distribution and transmission system to handle flows of power that are very different from those for which the existing hub-and-spoke topology of the grid was designed. This is not to say that our current system is dumb, far from it, but it will need to become more flexible, dynamic and resilient.

Already, our demand patterns cause difficulties, with peaks of consumption in the morning and evening. Total capacity must be capable of meeting these peaks while at the same time scaling down to the troughs. The present system balances, by and large, by flexing supply to meet demand, and it does this by using flexible but expensive and emission-producing fossil fuel plants. It is true we have some so-called "dispatchable" demand and some pumped storage which can be used to alleviate problems and there are some tools that help with system balancing.
However, we will need far more responsive mechanisms, capable of shifting large amounts of power into the lower demand periods. This is because we will face both more intermittent and less predictable supply and demand.

Wind, solar and, in the future, wave generation are intrinsically intermittent and relatively unpredictable. What is more, our dependence on weather systems can at times result in periods of depressed generation from these sources. Tidal generation is more predictable but, depending on the technologies used, is also variable. So, the energy system of the future must be able to deal with these periods of excess and shortage by means of adjusting demand to fit supply and utilising storage methods including batteries and heat storage.

The system as a whole must shift from one which increases supply to meet demand to one which flexes demand to meet supply. Operational constraints demand that we have relatively constant usage of "baseload" generation (nuclear and gas power stations). As a result, we must "shape" demand to meet the fluctuating patterns of renewable generation.

Bridge the gap

We can rely to an extent on people wasting less and using less, particularly at cheaper, "off peak" times. There are tools available here: education so the population better understands the crisis we are in; real-time information on how people can reduce consumption; "nudges" to change behaviour such as default modes of operation; and price signals that indicate when it is cleaner and cheaper to, for example, turn on the laundry. But behaviour change is notoriously difficult to achieve, and the evidence to date is that it will not achieve enough to bridge the gap.

So, a more reliable solution is needed, one which combines the power of market forces and the reliability of automated control within a new arrangement in which there is a win for all: lower bills for customers; lower costs for utilities; less need to burn fossil fuels; and, for our economy, an ability to rely on home-produced renewables rather than imported fuels.

This is what we call a smart energy system. It is why IBM and other companies such as Toshiba and Cable and Wireless have joined forces with energy retailer and network operator Scottish & Southern Energy, community interest company EcoIsland and others to create such a system on the Isle of Wight. This project will develop a range of power solutions within a smart grid and will result in the island becoming energy self-sufficient by 2020. It will bring savings and jobs, and will provide the UK with a route map to the smart energy system we need.

Jon Z Bentley is Smarter Energy Lead, IBM Global Business Services, UK and Ireland.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman supplement 'Smartening up: Powering the UK's future energy needs through innovation andtechnology', sponsored by IBM.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.