What’s stopping us?

You probably noticed we now have official endorsement of a zero carbon target for the UK. There’ll be disagreement about how it’s framed, and the timetable. But it’s a great thing to see. 

It is also the cue for a lot of work. We’ll still need activism, and argument. But perhaps at a different level. 

Here’s the thing. It’s been common to use rhetoric something like: “We know (or think we know) what needs doing to decarbonise our economy. So what’s stopping us getting in with it?”

And we needed to have the argument at that general level. If people want to oppose doing something, they can usually bring up God, time or money. It’s against our faith. We’re too busy. Or we can’t afford it. So back off.

On climate change and carbon emission targets, though, maybe we have finally got beyond those arguments. See the widespread dismissals of our Chancellor Philip Hammond’s moan that zero carbon would cost a trillion pounds – from Downing Street on down. It was quickly pointed out by practically everyone that he is treating an investment as a cost, and ignoring the returns.

So can we now expect a zero carbon transition to go ahead smoothly? Well, no. There are, of course, still huge questions about how to undo the future plans of oil and gas companies to stay in the fossil fuel business. And the impact of net zero carbon targets on some kinds of consumption, on fair distribution of costs, even on the commitment to unlimited economic growth forever, needs much more discussion.

Meantime, we also now really need to get stuck in to a huge amount of detailed work on exactly how to approach zero carbon, in each sector. And that calls for some lower level answers to the “what’s stopping us?” question, ones that we can do something about.

So one of our priorities now is to give more attention to what we’re calling barriers and blockers. Things that are impeding parts of the transition that we can think of ways to change. They can take various forms – some might be legislative or regulatory. Some are financial, Some will be behavioural or even psychological. (We’ve a suspicion those might be harder to agree, or to act on…).

Either way, our first step is to try and define them. We’ve made a list of the ones we’ve already spotted. We’d like to add to it, to make it as comprehensive as we can. Then we can have a bit more of a think about which ones to prioritise. We probably can’t work on all of them at once. And we need to figure out how to ease them, or even remove them altogether. Some of that work will be regional, which is what we’re for. Some may need national action. Some may even be more local. Or we may need to co-ordinate all three. We’ll see. For now, here is our list. Can you add to it? Do let us know. And look out for details of a workshop we are now planning to discuss this aspect of the nitty-gritty of energy transition as we gear up to respond to the high-level decisions on zero carbon Britain.

Barriers and blockers.

Solar PV on industrial buildings

It’s very difficult to persuade users of large industrial warehouses to install rooftop solar. The buildings often belong to property portfolios owned by institutional investors. The portfolios change hands frequently, and the owners don’t see enough value in a solar installation to invest time in working through a roof-top lease negotiation with their tenants.

Solar on new build housing

Very little rooftop solar is installed on new build housing, because housing developers are currently allowed to get away with it under current planning law.

Grid connections

Distribution network operators have to give as much weight to grid applications from fossil fuels developers as those from renewable developers.

Planning fees

The size of the administration fee levied by councils for planning applications is directly proportional to the size of the land area being developed. This means that the fee for a planning application for a large solar farm can be as much as the fee for developing a shopping centre. This is a huge disincentive for renewable energy developers, and the policy needs to be amended.

Demand Side Response (DSR)

DSR is an arrangement where large commercial users of electricity are rewarded financially for lowering or shift their electricity use at peak times. This helps manage load and voltage profiles on the electricity network. It also reduces the need for the network operator to make costly grid upgrades to meet new demand. DSR technology is already well-advanced and in use at individual sites:

But for true network benefits to be achieved, a significant number of energy users in a geographical cluster must all to commit to adopting it. This isn’t yet happening, so we need to engage with businesses about both the financial benefits DSR will bring them and their environmental responsibility to their staff, their local community, and future generations.

Car ownership requirements for jobs

Many employment contracts e.g. for social work require people to own a car – this drives car ownership, in a time when we need to shift away from cars.

Bus operator subsidies
Under the government’s Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) scheme, a grant is paid to bus service operators to help them recover some of their fuel costs. The rate received varies according to the fuel type. The current rate for diesel is 34p per litre. Nothing is available for electric buses. This needs to be reversed to encourage the switch to low-carbon transport. 

The Gas act (and the Electricity Act and Ofgem’s remit). 

The Gas Act could limiting to the ability of utility companies to address climate emergency, by hampering development of infrastructure ahead of demand. Responsive development can create lock-in to existing ways, making transition to a different system difficult.  There are similar considerations with electricity networks.  Also Ofgem, the regulator, is focused on consumer protection through competition, and not addressing climate change. This is arguably a question of interpretation rather than one of law.  


We’ll be adding to this, using existing analyses of the electricity market and how it needs to adapt such as this recent one from the University of Exeter – based on studies on the development of local energy markets in Cornwall.

But that’s our list for now. Tell us which ones we should work on, and how – and, most important, what we’ve missed.

Author: Zero West