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Our future energy: three emerging challenges for policy makers

Nathan Richardson | 13 Apr 2015 | Comments

The energy system of 2030 is being shaped by policy decisions made today. These decisions are being made in a rapidly changing world where we’re seeing major advancements in our engineering skills, technology and communications capabilities. At the same time public expectations are changing and our understanding of our relationship with the environment is increasing. As we head towards a May 2015 General Election in the UK, I’ve identified three big challenges for policy makers around future energy.

Challenge one is the question of balance. In the UK energy policy has three main goals. Improving energy security and ensuring energy is affordable are two key areas that have been consistently driving policy decisions and investment for generations. However, over the last two decades the third goal of needing to reduce carbon emissions to lessen the scale and impact of climate change has also been recognised. The challenge we now face, as we set the path for the next generation, is to ensure that we maintain the appropriate balance across all three energy policy goals. For example, access to new fossil fuel resources has become possible through advances in engineering and scientific understanding housed in organisations like Atkins. These developments can improve energy security and reduce costs to consumers. However, we need to guarantee the right checks and balances are in place to safeguard progress on achieving the third policy goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Challenge two is the question of scale. In the UK we’ve inherited a national energy generating and transmission infrastructure with the “big six” energy suppliers responsible for operating much of our energy system. Whilst there are undoubted economies of scale, many observers believe in the future our cities should be playing a greater role in how energy is generated and used in their communities. This includes integrating decisions around energy more efficiently and effectively with their local economic, social and environmental needs and policies. The result would be a more decentralised, distributed energy system. How can policy makers encourage the emergence of new business models and partnerships in energy provision, whilst not undermining the long term commitments we have made to national energy infrastructure?

Challenge three is the connectivity conundrum. The explosion in data availability and the systems that can utilise the information to inform decision makers has been dramatic in recent years. It enables us to exert far greater and finer control over how we generate, supply and use resources such as energy, for example through smart grids. We can make better connections between energy management and how we manage our water resources and transport infrastructure. We have new ways to access, understand and influence customer needs, behaviours and preferences. Can policy makers and industry keep pace with the rate of change in this area to ensure that our policies and actions are connected and achieve the best outcomes?

The challenges and opportunities we face around the future of energy are significant and the decisions we make today will have a significant bearing on how that future turns out. As a practice director here at Atkins, I know how committed we are at making sure we play our part. We have recently launched a thought leadership programme, Future Proofing Energy: Environment which will explore the interactions between our future environment and our future energy. Watch this space for more on the programme throughout 2015 or email me to find out more: nathan.richardson@atkinsglobal.com.