Monthly Archives: December 2015

Looking over the horizon – together

Sustainability First’s New Energy and Water Public Interest Network (New-Pin) has been set up to explore the long-term public interest in the energy and water sectors.   This rather begs the question: what is the public interest and how can such an amorphous concept be of any use when making real decisions?

Discussions about energy and water services in GB have frequently focused on consumer interests.  In the early days following privatisation, these tended to be interpreted as the interests of current consumers and were often viewed as short term and transactional.

Things have changed in more recent years with regulatory duties being extended to include the interests of future consumers, sustainability and most recently in water, resilience.   Unlike in Ofcom, however, the remits of Ofgem and Ofwat have not been extended to include the interests of citizens.

Several trends are now starting to blur the differences between these different groups.  As policy costs are increasingly met through bills rather than taxation, what is a consumer versus citizen issue may become less clear-cut.  Digital technologies are also changing boundaries.  With social media, you no longer need to be a customer of a company to express your views and have a direct impact.  An increasing interest in localism, regionalism and nationalism is raising questions about identity and what sort of services different communities want.  This is coinciding, particularly in the energy sector, with the emergence of new technologies that enable people to join together to generate their own supplies or to become individual ‘pro-sumers’.

Given these changes, thinking of the public interest as an amalgam of consumer, citizen, environment and investor interests may be sensible.  The timescale over which the public interest is viewed would also seem important.

The energy and water sectors provide essential services that are key to public, environmental and eco-system health.  Victorian infrastructure shows us that these are sectors that can have very long asset lives.  They are services of national strategic significance that are fundamental to security of supply and economic development.   As such, it is vital that a long-term perspective is taken when thinking about the public interest in these areas.

 Taking a long-run view can, of course, be difficult.   Future generations by their very definition frequently lack a voice.  We innately prefer jam today to the promise of jam tomorrow, which makes thinking about, and addressing, long term issues particularly difficult. Short term political cycles and an over-load of existing data and quarterly statistics can accentuate the pressure to think more about the very real challenges of today rather than those of tomorrow.

But as energy and water are essential services, the public interest in the sectors will be continuing.  Seeing it through a ‘rolling window’ where the interests of today and tomorrow can start to merge may be helpful.

There are clearly some real and knotty differences between the views of some consumers, citizens, environmental groups and investors.  Whilst there is real value in building greater alignment between different groups, we shouldn’t shy away from the differences.

Exploring other perspectives and increasing the understanding of the values and incentives of different groups is essential if we are going to get to grips with questions of inter-generational equity.  A transparent, inclusive and iterative process is also important.  Such a herculean task will no doubt involve some trial and error.

Sharon Darcy
Associate

Sustainability First is fifteen

Sustainability First celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in 2015 with a reception at the House of Lords, kindly hosted by Lord Teverson.   We were delighted to see so many partners and colleagues join us for this event.  As part of the proceedings, we asked five key players in the sustainability arena (Simon Roberts, Cathryn Ross, David Baldock, Simon Anderson and Pip Roddis) to give us one big or new idea on what is needed to tackle sustainability over the next fifteen years, which those attending voted on.  We have now published a pamphlet (also available at http://www.sustainabilityfirst.org.uk/index.php/other-publications) containing their contributions as a way of sharing these thoughts with colleagues who were not able to be present.

To whet your appetite, here is a shortened version of the introduction to the pamphlet by the Chair of our trustees, Ted Cantle:

“At Sustainability First we like to think of ourselves as a ‘think-tank’s think-tank’. Whilst we don’t shout from the roof tops, we continue to have credibility and influence, driven by our expertise and the substantive contribution we make. We provide authoritative, in-depth research that helps shape ideas early on, often choosing areas that are overlooked by mainstream policy circles or that require substantial thought to progress. We have been at the forefront of thinking in some key areas, most notably on the energy demand side; sustainability and regulation, customer engagement, and smart meters, smart grid and energy savings.

“We have also developed new thinking on long term issues for the water sector.

“Fifteen years is a long time in sustainability.

“We were established in the year 2000, which is just a blink of an eye in environmental terms, yet since this time we have seen some amazing changes, not least in the use of technology. The next fifteen years will witness huge changes again and will herald some important national and global decisions on how we deal with energy demand, climate change and environmental degradation. This year itself is a crucial one for the environment, with the UN climate summit in Paris and new Sustainable Development Goals.

“We hope that Sustainability First will continue to weave its magic behind the scenes during the next fifteen years. We still maintain a very active interest in the energy demand-side and how that will play out in terms of practical implementation.  Much of our work over the next fifteen years will focus on the long-term public interest, both in energy and water, with a current focus on the New Energy and Water Public Interest Network (New-Pin), which brings public interest groups together with regulators and companies to develop a more clearly-articulated ‘public interest voice’ to underpin both the short-run operation and the long-run investment programmes of the water and energy sectors.

“We sincerely hope to be able to celebrate Sustainability First’s next fifteen years with you all in 2030. Or, if not, that by then sustainability issues are so mainstream that the organisation is no longer needed.”