Hack Lab: How to Make the Energy System More Equitable?

by Blog

By Hannah Knox and Thea Nguyen

In November 2018, the Carbon Co-op held its first hack lab. Organised in collaboration with UCL anthropologist Hannah Knox and community business practitioner Britt Jurgensen, the hack lab was designed to bring together people with diverse perspectives on a changing energy system to explore how to make the energy system more equitable. We invited innovators to propose new technology, ideas and business models. The call for proposals was sent to energy systems engineers, community energy practitioners, specialists in housing retrofit, and social science academics interested in the social implications of infrastructure.

The UK energy system is hugely complex. The production, distribution and supply of electricity are divided into separate domains, each regulated by a long list of industry codes. Competition between companies is seen by regulators and politicians as key to a properly functioning energy system, but this competition is complicated by obligations that aim to ensure prices are fair, energy efficiency is taken into account, and the security of supply is ensured. Moreover, markets and regulation sit alongside pragmatic engineering questions about how to keep electricity flowing through wires, how to deal with fuel poverty, and how to meet climate change targets.

Until recently, these challenges have remained mostly obscured by the monopolisation of the energy infrastructure by a few large companies, and a centralised supply of electricity from large power producers. However as micro-renewables, smart grids, smart monitors, community energy projects, and new energy suppliers have emerged, questions about social justice and equity in the energy system have been reignited. For a quick introduction to the changing energy system watch our video below.

It is within the context of this emerging conversation about what the future of energy might look like that the call for ideas was made. Five teams submitted ideas to the hack lab. These ranged from a way of making data centres more energy efficient, to changes to energy tariffs to incentivise home insulation, a website to share global experiences of community energy projects, a project to open up community energy funds to new groups, particularly those in fuel poverty, and an open source peer-to-peer energy trading platform.

Each team pitched their idea at the beginning of the hack and people then formed groups to work on each project.

Two intense days later, after many cups of coffee, some games, some walks along the canal, and chats over food and music, three proposals emerged. The first elaborated a means of redesigning energy tariffs to tackle fuel poverty by making energy pricing fairer to people on low incomes. It also aimed to encourage people on higher incomes to invest in energy efficiency measures. In contrast to the current tariff structure, where everyone pays the fixed costs of energy provision before paying for the actual energy they are using, this proposal suggested having a zero-cost element for the initial energy used, rising gradually depending on energy use. Part of the idea behind the proposal was to create a social differentiation between acceptable levels of energy use and excessive or luxury levels of energy use.

The second proposal was a way of using funds from community renewables to tackle fuel poverty. Starting from the observation that community renewable funds are often used to support energy efficiency projects in relatively well-off communities, the project suggested reorienting those funds to tackle broader issues of fuel poverty, with a particular focus on using these funds to benefit those living in private rented accommodation.

The third pitch took the form of a sketch by which the team performed an energy exchange between a producer and consumer of electricity to illustrate the principle of peer-to-peer energy training.

Their specific proposal, ‘P2P Power’ was a prototype of an open source peer-to-peer energy trading platform that would aim to democratise and open up the energy system to a much wider range of people.

After much deliberation our judges returned to announce the winner – the P2P energy trading proposal!

Peer-to-peer energy trading offers a way of circumventing existing supply structures and opening up the energy market to individuals. As Emilia Melville explains in another blog post, becoming a supplier is extremely difficult and in spite of attempts to create competition in electricity supply, the systems is still dominated by a few large established companies. With peer-to-peer energy trading, supply is managed not by a supply company, but rather through a platform that offers an instantaneous trade between people who produce and people who consume electricity. One hope is that this will make micro-energy generation more viable, with people gaining regular payments for their electricity production in a way that brings more people in as active participants in the UK energy system. Energy trading in this model would become open to anyone, redistributing power in the political as well as the electrical sense. But in spite of the aim of peer-to-peer systems to democratise the generation and supply of electricity, no peer-to-peer systems yet exist that extend principles of democratic participation into the ownership-structure of the platform itself. Building a peer-to-peer energy trading prototype on an open source platform offers a participatory model of technology development, keeping the future of energy open to more participants, as well as keeping it open to scrutiny by those who have the knowledge to analyse the systems that emerge.

One thing that become very clear from the hack lab is that creating any intervention into the energy system involves an in-depth understanding of how energy infrastructures are organised and governed and an appreciation of where interventions can and cannot happen. Changing an energy tariff may be a good idea in principle, but the question of how to effect the change, requires an understanding of policymaking, lobbying and the interests already vested in the current tariff structure. Without this identifying how to intervene is impossible. Similarly with p2p energy trading the team realised they had to start small. Their specific proposal was to create a proof-of-concept, in the form of a single p2p energy trade, that could be demonstrated to the innovation teams of ecologically focused energy suppliers like Good Energy, creating a open-source step towards a possible energy future. Starting with the question of energy equity rather than technical feasibility brought these social and political relationships to the fore. Much of the discussion ended up being about how to identify not only the technical systems that need to be developed, but also to identify the social and institutional spaces where ideas might have a chance of being turned into enduring infrastructures.

Now, with £2000 to develop the idea into a working model, we will follow with interest how P2P Power moves from idea to prototype, and from prototype to possible solution, how they navigate the energy sector, and how questions about energy equity remain part of the development process.

The hack-lab was supported by the British Academy, UCL Grand Challenges and the ESRC Festival of Social Science.