Three reasons a weak pound is bad news for the environment


Dragon Claws / shutterstock

The day before new UK chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget plan for economic growth, a pound would buy you about $1.13. After financial markets rejected the plan, the pound suddenly sunk to around $1.07. Though it has since rallied thanks to major intervention from the Bank of England, the currency remains volatile and far below its value earlier this year.

A lot has been written about how this will affect people’s incomes, the housing market or overall political and economic conditions. But we want to look at why the weak pound is bad news for the UK’s natural environment and its ability to hit climate targets.

1. The low-carbon economy just became a lot more expensive

The fall in sterling’s value partly signals a loss in confidence in the value of UK assets following the unfunded tax commitments contained in the mini-budget. The government’s aim to achieve net zero by 2050 requires substantial public and private investment in energy technologies such as solar and wind as well as carbon storage, insulation and electric cars.

But the loss in investor confidence threatens to derail these investments, because firms may be unwilling to commit the substantial budgets required in an uncertain economic environment. The cost of these investments may also rise as a result of the falling pound because many of the materials and inputs needed for these technologies, such as batteries, are imported and a falling pound increases their prices.

Aerial view of wind farm with forest and fields in background
UK wind power relies on lots of imported parts.
Richard Whitcombe / shutterstock

2. High interest rates may rule out large investment

To support the pound and to control inflation, interest rates are expected to rise further. The UK is already experiencing record levels of inflation, fuelled by pandemic-related spending and Russia’s war on Ukraine. Rising consumer prices developed into a full-blown cost of living crisis, with fuel and food poverty, financial hardship and the collapse of businesses looming large on this winter’s horizon.

While the anticipated increase in interest rates might ease the cost of living crisis, it also increases the cost of government borrowing at a time when we rapidly need to increase low-carbon investment for net zero by 2050. The government’s official climate change advisory committee estimates that an additional £4 billion to £6 billion of annual public spending will be needed by 2030.

Some of this money should be raised through carbon taxes. But in reality, at least for as long as the cost of living crisis is ongoing, if the government is serious about green investment it will have to borrow.

Rising interest rates will push up the cost of borrowing relentlessly and present a tough political choice that seemingly pits the environment against economic recovery. As any future incoming government will inherit these same rates, a falling pound threatens to make it much harder to take large-scale, rapid environmental action.

3. Imports will become pricier

In addition to increased supply prices for firms and rising borrowing costs, it will lead to a significant rise in import prices for consumers. Given the UK’s reliance on imports, this is likely to affect prices for food, clothing and manufactured goods.

At the consumer level, this will immediately impact marginal spending as necessary expenditures (housing, energy, basic food and so on) lower the budget available for products such as eco-friendly cleaning products, organic foods or ethically made clothes. Buying “greener” products typically cost a family of four around £2,000 a year.

Instead, people may have to rely on cheaper goods that also come with larger greenhouse gas footprints and wider impacts on the environment through pollution and increased waste. See this calculator for direct comparisons.

Of course, some spending changes will be positive for the environment, for example if people use their cars less or take fewer holidays abroad. However, high-income individuals who will benefit the most from the mini-budget tax cuts will be less affected by the falling pound and they tend to fly more, buy more things, and have multiple cars and bigger homes to heat.

This raises profound questions about inequality and injustice in UK society. Alongside increased fuel poverty and foodbank use, we will see an uptick in the purchasing power of the wealthiest.

What’s next

Interest rate rises increase the cost of servicing government debt as well as the cost of new borrowing. One estimate says that the combined cost to government of the new tax cuts and higher cost of borrowing is around £250 billion. This substantial loss in government income reduces the budget available for climate change mitigation and improvements to infrastructure.

The government’s growth plan also seems to be based on an increased use of fossil fuels through technologies such as fracking. Given the scant evidence for absolutely decoupling economic growth from resource use, the opposition’s “green growth” proposal is also unlikely to decarbonise at the rate required to get to net zero by 2050 and avert catastrophic climate change.

Therefore, rather than increasing the energy and materials going into the economy for the sake of GDP growth, we would argue the UK needs an economic reorientation that questions the need of growth for its own sake and orients it instead towards social equality and ecological sustainability.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr Katharina Richter, Lecturer in Climate, Politics and Society, University of Bristol; Dr Alix Dietzel, Senior Lecturer in Climate Justice, University of Bristol, and Professor Alvin Birdi, Professor of Economics Education, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Electric ecology: we’re discovering how animals and plants use electricity in ingenious ways

Sam England, Author provided

When you hear the word “electricity”, thoughts of power lines or household appliances are probably conjured up in your mind. But electricity is not just a modern human phenomenon – it was around long before us and, in fact, long before planet Earth.

“Electricity” simply refers to the interactions between any electrically charged objects, not just human-made ones, and these interactions are commonly found in the natural world among many animals and plants.

At the small scale, these electrical interactions involve negatively charged electrons and/or positively charged protons – opposite charges attract and like charges repel. But each of these tiny particle interactions can add up, and contribute to creating effects which we can see at the much larger ecological scale in the interactions between animals, plants and their environment.

In a lot of cases, what we are seeing in the natural world is static electricity, which is what you experience when you rub a balloon on your hair and it becomes statically charged. The exact same thing can happen to animals.

As animals run, crawl or fly, their body parts rub on objects in their environment – or even just the air – and this charges them up, just like the balloon rubbing on your head. The amount of charge animals can build up this way is surprisingly high, with many different species accumulating charges that when measured as voltages can be in the region of many hundreds or thousands of volts. That’s more than the voltage that comes out of your plug sockets at home.

We wanted to review whether this static electricity helps animals live their lives. The answer is a resounding “yes”.

Because statically charged objects can attract and repel each other, many different kinds of ecological interactions are affected by them.

The static charges on the feet of geckos help them stick to surfaces, so they can wall-run with ease.

Spiders also love a bit of static electricity; not only are their webs electrostatically attracted towards charged flying insects, but they also use electricity to fly. Several species of spider exhibit a behaviour called “ballooning”, where they let out strands of silk that lift them up into the air like a balloon, and carry them away to disperse and find new homes. It turns out that static electricity in the atmosphere, the type that causes thunderstorms in extreme cases, actually helps spiders in their aviation efforts by statically attracting the charged silk strands upwards into the atmosphere.

It is not just animals that take advantage of these invisible electric forces either. Pollen has actually been shown to jump from flower to insect or bird pollinator without any contact between the two. The static charges of insects and hummingbirds are strong enough to pull pollen through the air, even over several centimetres in some cases.

Hummingbird feeding from red flower
Hummingbirds attract pollen thanks to static electric charges.
Jeffrey Eisen / Pexels, CC BY

Many animals can detect electricity too

Because naturally occurring electricity permeates the environment and lives of so many organisms – and has clear ecological value – it seemed likely that some animals may have evolved sensory systems to detect it.

Recent research has discovered that many animal species can indeed detect electricity when it is relevant to their natural ecology. We call this “aerial electroreception”.

Bumblebees and hoverflies can sense the electricity that exists around flowers, and use this information to learn which flowers might have the best nectar stocks. Similarly, part of the “waggle dance”, a series of movements performed by honeybees to communicate to each other where to forage, is also transmitted electrically by the detection of the statically charged bee body shaking around.

It has also now been shown that those flying spiders I mentioned earlier can detect how strong the local atmospheric electrical conditions are, and can then use this information to decide when to attempt take-off.

We are only just beginning to uncover the multiple strands of this newly discovered sense. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, more species capable of aerial electroreception, and in many more ecological contexts; perhaps a prey animal can detect its approaching predators by the static charge on the predator, or vice versa. There is so much more to be discovered.

Possibly even more important though, is to assess to impact of human activity on this electric ecology.

The magnitude of many human-made electricity sources are comparable, if not greater, than the natural sources of electricity. We might be swamping the electrical senses of key pollinators or interfering with the natural world in other, as yet unknown, ways. While the discovery of this electrical sense is incredibly exciting, it also highlights how little we really know about the ways in which we could be hurting and disturbing the natural world.


This blog is by Sam England, PhD researcher in Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sam England

Time for policymakers to make policies (and to learn from those who are)

From a social scientist’s point of view, the recent IPCC report and the reception it has received are a bit odd. The report certainly reflects a huge amount of work, its message is vital, and it’s great so many people are hearing it. But not much in the report updates how we think about climate change. We’ve known for a while that people are changing the climate, and that how much more the climate changes will depend on the decisions we make.

What decisions? The Summary for Policymakers— the scientists’ memo to the people who will make the really important choices—doesn’t say. The words “fossil fuel”, “oil”, and “coal” never even appear. Nor “regulation”, “ban”, “subsidy”, or “tax”. The last five pages of the 42-page Summary are entitled “Limiting Future Climate Change”; but while “policymakers” appear, “policies” do not.

This is not the fault of the authors; Working Group I’s remit does not include policy recommendations. Even Working Group III (focused on mitigation) is not allowed to advocate for specific choices. Yet every IPCC contributor knows the most important question is which emission pathway we take, and that will depend on what policies we choose.

Which is why it’s so odd that big policy issues and announcements get comparatively little airtime (and research funding). For example, in June, the European Union codified in law the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 55% by 2030 (relative to 1990), and last month the European Commission presented a set of ambitious proposals for hitting that target. As a continent, Europe is already leading the world in emission reductions (albeit starting from a high level, with large cumulative historical emissions), and showing the rest of the world how to organize high-income societies in low-carbon ways. But the Commission’s proposals—called “Fit for 55”—have gone largely under the radar, not only outside of the EU but even within it.

The proposals are worth examining. At least according to the Commission, they will make the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions consistent with its commitments under the Paris Agreement. (Independent assessments generally agree that while a 55% reduction by 2030 won’t hit the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚ target, it would be a proportionate contribution to the goal of limiting global heating to no more than 2˚.) And they will build on the EU’s prior reduction of its territorial emissions by 24% between 1990 and 2019.

A change of -24% over that period, and -18% for consumption emissions, is in one sense disappointing, given that climate scientists were warning about the need for action even before 1990. But this achievement, inadequate though it may be, far exceeds those of other high per-capita emitters, like the U.S. (+14%), Canada (+21%), or Australia (+54%).

The most notable reductions have been in the areas of electricity generation and heavy industry—sectors covered by the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS). Emissions from buildings have not declined as much, and those from transportation (land, air, and marine) have risen. Several of the Fit for 55 proposals therefore focus on these sectors. Maritime transport is to be incorporated into the ETS; free permits for aviation are to be eliminated; and a new, separate ETS for fuels used in buildings and land transport is to be established. Sales of new cars and trucks with internal combustion engines will end as of 2035, and increased taxes will apply to fuels for transport, heat, and electricity.

The Commission also proposes to cut emissions under the ETS by 4.2% each year (rather than 2.2% currently); expand the share of electricity sourced from renewables; and set a stricter (lower) target for the total amount of energy the EU will use by 2030—for the sake of greater energy efficiency.

All of this is going to be hugely contentious, and it will take a year or two at least for the Commission, the member-states, and the European Parliament to negotiate a final version. Corporate lobbying will shape the outcome, as will public opinion (paywall).

Two of the most interesting proposals are meant to head off opposition from industry and voters. A carbon border adjustment mechanism will put a price on greenhouse gases emitted by the production abroad of selected imports into the EU (provisionally cement, fertiliser, iron, steel, electricity, and aluminium). This will protect European producers from competitors subject to weaker rules. A social climate fund, paid for out of the new ETS, will compensate low-income consumers and small businesses for the increased costs of fossil fuels—thereby preventing any rise in fuel poverty.

No country is doing enough to mitigate emissions. But Fit for 55 represents the broadest, most detailed emissions reductions plan in the world—and, in some form, it will be implemented. Decision-makers everywhere should be studying, and making, policies like this.


This guest blog is by friend of Cabot Insitute for the Environment and PLOS Climate Academic Editor Malcolm Fairbrother. Malcolm is a Professor of Sociology at Umeå University (Sweden), the Institute for Futures Studies (Stockholm), and University of Graz (Austria). Twitter: @malcolmfair. This blog has been reposted with kind permission from Malcolm Fairbrother. View the original blog.

Top image credit: Cold Dawn, Warm World by Mark McNestry, CC BY 2.0


Uncomfortable home truths: Why Britain urgently needs a low carbon heat strategy

A new report backed by MPs and launched by Minister for Climate Change Lord Duncan on 15 October 2019, calls for an urgent Green Heat Roadmap by 2020 to scale low carbon heating technologies and help Britain’s homeowners access the advice they need to take smarter greener choices on heating their homes.  The year-long study by UK think-tank Policy Connect warns that the UK will miss its 2050 net-zero climate target “unless radical changes in housing policy, energy policy and climate policy are prioritised”. Dr Colin Nolden was at the launch on behalf of the Cabot Institute for the Environment and blogs here on the most interesting highlights of the report and questions raised.


Policy Connect had invited a range of industry, policy, academic and civil society representatives to the launch of their Uncomfortable Home Truths report. The keynote, no less than Lord Duncan of Springbank, Minister for Climate Change, and the high-level panel consisting of Maxine Frerk, Grid Edge Policy (Chair), Alan Brown MP, House of Commons (SNP), Dr Alan Whitehead MP, House of Commons (Labour), Dhara Vyas, Citizens Advice, Adam Turk, BAXI Heating (sponsor) and Mike Foster, EUA (Energy & Utilities Alliance), (sponsor), had been briefed to answer tough questions from the crowd given the UK’s poor track record in the area of heat and home decarbonisation.

The event started with an introduction by Jonathan Shaw, Chief Executive of Policy Connect, who introduced the panel and officially launched the report. Uncomfortable Home Truths is the third report of the Future Gas Series, the first two of which focused on low-carbon gas options. This last report of the series shifts the focus from particular technologies and vectors towards heating, households and consumers. Jonathan subsequently introduced the keynote speaker Lord Duncan of Springbank, Minister for Climate Change.

Lord Duncan supported the publication of this report as timely and relevant especially in relation to the heat policy roadmap that government intends to publish in 2020. He stressed the importance of a cultural shift which needs to take place to start addressing the issue of heat at household and consumer level. He was adamant that the government was aligning its policies and strategies with its zero-carbon target according to the Committee on Climate Change and guided by science and policy. In this context he bemoaned the drive by some country representatives to put into question the targets of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change which he had witnessed as the UK’s key representative at the run-up to COP25 in Chile. The 2020 roadmap will report on the decisions which will need to be taken in homes and in technology networks, ranging from heat pumps to hydrogen and low-carbon electricity to support their decarbonisation. It requires cross-party support while depending on more research and learning from successful examples in other European countries.

Although Lord Duncan suggested that ‘it’s easier to decarbonise a power plant than a terraced house’, he told the audience to take encouragement from the fuel shift from coal towards gas starting half a century ago. But in this context he once again stressed the cultural shift which needs to go hand-in-hand with government commitment and technological progression, using the example of TV-chefs shunning electric hobs as an indication of our cultural affinity for gas. As long as heating and cooking are framed around fossil fuels, there is little space in the cultural imagination to encourage a shift towards more sustainable energy sources.

“The example of TV-chefs shunning electric hobs is an indication of our cultural affinity for gas”. Image source.

Among the questions following the keynote, one quizzed Lord Duncan about the process and politics of outsourcing carbon emissions. Lord Duncan stressed his support of Border Carbon Adjustments compliant with EU and global carbon policy ‘in lock-step with our partners’ to ensure that carbon emissions are not simply exported, which appears to support the carbon club concept. Another question targeted the UK’s favourable regulatory environment that has been created around gas, which has resulted in the EU’s lowest gas prices, while electricity prices are highest in Europe, due, among other things, to Climate Change Levies, which do not apply to gas, increasing by 46% on 1 April 2019. Lord Duncan pointed towards the ongoing review of policies ahead of the publication of the 2020 heat roadmap which will hopefully take a more vector- and technology-neutral approach. A subsequent rebuttal by a Committee on Climate Change (CCC) representative stressed the CCCs recommendation to balance policy cost between gas and electricity as on average only 20,000 heat pumps are sold in the UK every year (compared to 7 times as many in Sweden) yet the Renewable Heat Incentive is about to be terminated without an adequate replacement to support the diffusion of low-carbon electric heating technologies.

Lord Duncan stressed the need to create a simple ‘road’ which does not fall with changes in policy and once again emphasized the need for a cross-party road to support the creation of a low-carbon heating pathway. A UKERC representative asked about the government approach to real-world data as opposed to modelling exercises and their support for collaborative research projects as both modelling and competitive approaches have failed, especially in relation to Carbon Capture and Storage. Lord Duncan responded that the UK is already collaborating with Denmark and Norway on CCS and that more money is being invested into scalable and replicable demonstrators.

Following an admission wrapped in metaphors that a change in government might be around the corner and that roadmaps need to outlast such changes, Lord Duncan departed to make way for Joanna Furtado, lead author of the Policy Connect report. She gave a very concise overview of the main findings and recommendations in the report:

  • The 80% 2050 carbon emission reduction target relative to 1990 already required over 20,000 households to switch to low-carbon heating every week between 2025 and 2050. The zero-carbon target requires even more rapid decarbonisation yet the most successful policy constellations to date have only succeeded in encouraging 2,000 households to switch to low-carbon heating every week.
  • This emphasizes the importance of households and citizens but many barriers to their engagement persist such as privacy issues, disruption associated with implementation, uncertainly, low priority, lack of awareness and confusion around best approaches, opportunities, regulations and support.
  • Despite the focus on households, large-scale rollout also requires the development of supply chains so at-scale demonstrations need to go hand-in-hand with protection and engagement of households by increasing the visibility of successful approaches. Community-led and local approaches have an important role to play but better monitoring is required to differentiate between more and less successful approaches.
  • Protection needs to be changed to facilitate the inclusion of innovative technologies which are rarely covered while installers need to be trained to build confidence in their installations.
  • Regional intermediaries, such as those in Scotland and Wales, need to be established to coordinate these efforts locally while at national level a central delivery body such as the one established for the 2020 Olympics in London needs to coordinate the actions of the regional intermediaries.
  • Ultimately, social aspects are critical to the delivery of low-carbon heat, ranging from the central delivery body through regional intermediaries down to households and citizens.


Image source.

Chaired by Maxine Frerk of Grid Edge Policy, the panel discussion kicked off with Alan Brown who stressed the urgency of the heating decarbonisation issue as encapsulated by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion and the need to operationalize the climate emergency into actions. He called for innovation in the gas grid in line with cautions Health and Safety Regulation alterations. Costs also need to be socialised to ensure that the low-carbon transition does not increase fuel poverty. His final point stressed the need reorganize government to make climate change and decarbonisation a number 1 priority.

Dr Alan Whitehead, who has been involved with the APPCCG from the beginning, emphasized how discussions around heat decarbonisation have progressed significantly in recent years and especially since the publication of the first report of this series. He suggested that the newest report writes the government roadmap for them. In relation to the wider context of decarbonising heat, Alan Whitehead encouraged a mainstreaming of heating literacy similar to the growing awareness of plastic. He also stressed how far the UK is lagging behind compared to other countries and this will be reflected in upcoming policies and roadmaps. As his final point Alan Whitehead cautioned that the low-intrusion option of gas-boiler upgrades from biomethane to hydrogen ignores the fact that greater change is necessary for the achievement of the zero-carbon target although he conceded that customer acceptance of gas engineer intervention appears to be high.

Dhara Vyas presented Citizens Advice perspective by stressing the importance of the citizen-consumer focus. Their research has revealed a lack of understanding among landlords and tenants of the rules and regulations that govern heat. She suggested that engagement with the public from the outset is essential to protect consumers as people are not sufficiently engaged with heating and energy in general. Even for experts it is very difficult to navigate all aspects of energy due to the high transaction costs associated with engagement to enable a transition on the scale required by government targets.

Finally, representatives of the two sponsors BAXI and the Energy & Utility Alliance made a rallying call for the transition of the gas grid towards hydrogen. Adam Turk emphasized the need to legislate and innovate appropriately to ensure that the 84% of households that are connected to the gas grid can receive upgrades to their boilers to make them hydrogen ready. Similarly, Mike Foster suggested that such an upgrade now takes less than 1 hour and that the gas industry already engages around 2 million consumers a year. Both suggested that the gas industry is well placed to put consumers at the heart of action. They were supported by several members of the audience who pointed towards the 150,000 trained gas service engineers and the ongoing distribution infrastructure upgrades towards plastic piping which facilitate a transition towards hydrogen. Other members of the audience, on the other hand, placed more emphasis on energy efficiency and the question of trust.

Sponsorship of the Institution of Gas Engineers & Managers, EUC (Energy & Utility Alliance) and BAXI Heating was evident in the title Future Gas Series and support for hydrogen and ‘minimal homeowner disruption’ boiler conversion to support this vector shift among members of the audience was evident. Nevertheless, several panel members, members of the audience and, above all, Lord Duncan of Springbank, stressed the need to consider a wider range of options to achieve the zero-carbon target. Electrification and heat pumps in particular were the most prominent among these options. Energy efficiency and reductions in energy demand, as is usual at such events, barely received a mention. I guess it’s difficult to cut a ribbon when there’s less of something as opposed to something new and shiny?

This blog is written by Dr Colin Nolden, Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Bristol Law School and Cabot Institute for the Environment.

Colin Nolden

The new carbon economy – transforming waste into a resource

As part of Green Great Britain Week, supported by BEIS, we are posting a series of blogs throughout the week highlighting what work is going on at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment to help provide up to date climate science, technology and solutions for government and industry.  We will also be highlighting some of the big sustainability actions happening across the University and local community in order to do our part to mitigate the negative effects of global warming. Today our blog will look at ‘Technologies of the future: clean growth and innovation’.

On Monday 8 October 2018, the IPCC released a special report which calls upon world governments to enact policies which will limit global warming to 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels, failure to do so will drastically increase the probability of ecosystem collapses, extreme weather events and complete melting of Arctic sea ice. Success will require “rapid and far-reaching” actions in the way we live, move, produce and consume.

So, what comes to mind when you hear carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas? A waste product? You’re not wrong to think that given the predicament that our planet faces, but this article is going to tell the other side of the story which you already know but is often forgotten.

For over a billion years, carbon dioxide has been trapped and transformed, almost miraculously, into an innumerable, rich and complex family of organic molecules and materials by photosynthetic organisms. Without this process, life as we know simply would not have evolved. Look around you, – I dare say that the story of carbon dioxide is weaved, one way or another into all the objects you see around you in this moment. Whether it’s the carbon atoms within the material itself – or that old fossilised sourced of carbon was used to smelt, melt or fabricate it.

The great growth and development of the last two centuries has been defined by humanity’s use of fossilised carbon which drove the first and second industrial revolutions. But now – the limitations of those very revolutions are staring us in the face and a new revolution is already underway, albeit it quietly.

An industrial revolution is said to occur when there is a step change in three forms of technology, Information, Transport and Energy. The step change that I will discuss here is the use of carbon dioxide coupled with renewable energy systems to deliver a circular carbon economy that aims to be sustainable, carbon neutral at worst and carbon negative at best. This burgeoning field comes under the name carbon capture and utilisation (CCU). CCU, represents a broad range of chemical processes that will most directly impact energy storage and generation and the production of chemical commodities including plastics and building aggregates such as limestone.

In our research we are developing catalysts made of metal nanoparticles to activate and react CO2 to form chemicals such as carbon monoxide (CO), formic acid, methanol and acetate. They be simple molecules – but they have significant industrial relevance, are made on vast scales, are energy intensive to produce, and all originate in some way from coal. The methods that we are investigating while being more technically challenging, consume just three inputs – CO2, water and an electrical current. We use a device called an electrolyser, it uses electricity to break chemical bonds and form new ones. The catalyst sits on the electrodes. At the anode, water is broken into positively charged hydrogen ions called protons and oxygen, while at the opposite electrode, the cathode, CO2 reacts with the protons, H+, to form new molecules. It sounds simple but encouraging CO2 to react is not easy, compared to most molecules, CO2 is a stubborn reactant. It needs the right environment and some energy such as heat, electricity or light to activate it to form products of higher energy content. The chemicals that can be produced by this process are industrially significant, they are used in chemical synthesis, as solvents, reactants and many other things. CO for example can be built up to form cleaner burning petroleum/diesel-like fuels, oils, lubricants and other products derived by the petrochemical industry.

Formic acid and methanol may be used to generate energy, they can be oxidised back to CO2 and H2O using a device called a fuel cell to deliver electricity efficiently without combustion. One day we could see electrically driven cars not powered by batteries or compressed hydrogen but by methanol which has a higher volumetric energy density than both batteries and hydrogen. Batteries are heavy, too short-lived and use high quantities of low abundance metals such as lithium and cobalt – meaning their supply chains could suffer critical issues in the future. While the compression of hydrogen is an energy intensive process which poses greater safety challenges.

However, there are still many hurdles to overcome. I recently went to the Joint European Summer School on Fuel Cell, Electrolyser and Battery Technologies. There I learned about the technical and economic challenges from an academic and industrial perspective. In an introductory lecture, Jens Oluf Jensen was asked “When will we run out of fossil fuels?”, his answer “Not soon enough!”. An obvious answer but there is something I wish to unpick. The task for scientists is not just to make technologies like CO2 capture, CO2 conversion and fuel cells practical – which I would argue is already the case for some renewable technological processes. The greatest challenge is to make them cost competitive with their oil-based equivalents. A gamechanger in this field will be the day that politicians enact policies which incorporate the cost to the environment in the price of energy and materials derived from fossil fuels, and even go so far as to subsidise the cost of energy and materials-based on their ability to avoid or trap carbon dioxide.

Even without such political input there is still hope as we’ve seen the cost of solar and wind drop dramatically, lower than some fossil fuel-based power sources and only with limited government support. Already there are companies springing up in the CCU sector. Companies like Climeworks and Carbon Engineering are demonstrating technology that can trap CO2 using a process known as Direct Air Capture (DAC). Carbon Engineering is going even further and developing a technology they call Air to Fuels™. They use CO2 from the air, hydrogen split from water and clean electricity to generate synthetic transportation fuels such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel. You may question why we should need these fuels given the rise of battery powered vehicles but a better solution for fuelling heavy goods vehicles, cargo ships and long-haul flights is at the very least a decade way.

In 1975, Primo Levi wrote a story about a carbon dioxide molecule and he said in relation to photosynthesis “dear colleagues, when we learn to do likewise we will be sicut Deus [like God], and we will have also solved the problem of hunger in the world.”. The circular carbon economy may still be in its infancy, but the seeds have sprouted. Unlike the first and second industrial revolution, the 3rd industrial revolution will not be dependent on one single energy source but will be a highly interdependent network of technologies that support and complement each other in the aim of sustainability, just like nature itself.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Gaël Gobaille-Shaw, University of Bristol School of Chemistry. He is currently designing new electrocatalysts for the conversion of CO2 to liquid fuels.
For updates on this work, follow @CatalysisCDT @Gael_Gobaille and @UoB_Electrochem on Twitter.  Follow #GreenGB for updates on the Green Great Britain Week.

Gael Gobaille-Shaw

Read other blogs in this Green Great Britain Week series:
1. Just the tip of the iceberg: Climate research at the Bristol Glaciology Centre
2. Monitoring greenhouse gas emissions: Now more important than ever?
3. Digital future of renewable energy
4. The new carbon economy – transforming waste into a resource
5. Systems thinking: 5 ways to be a more sustainable university
6. Local students + local communities = action on the local environment


Regulatory defection in electricity markets

Graphic by Sarah Harman. Taken from

Electricity systems are undergoing rapid transformation. An increasing share of previously passive consumers is defecting energy demand and supply from the public electricity network (grid) as active ‘prosumers’ while technological and business model innovation is enabling demand-side resources to provide reliable and cost competitive alternatives to supply capacity.

Yet, centralised supply-focused market structures dominated by legacy infrastructures, technologies and supply chains associated with path-dependencies and technological lock-ins continue to dominate. Regulation has been designed around these existing supply-focused markets and structures rather than networks of the future capable of integrating and facilitating smart, flexible systems. Current systems and their regulatory frameworks are struggling to engage and integrate a range of technological, economic and social innovations promising consumer-oriented solutions to environmental problems.

In the UK, the Office for Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem) regulates the electricity and gas markets to protect the interest of existing and future consumers. Ofgem acknowledges that ‘moving from a largely centralised, carbon-intensive model to one which will be increasingly carbon-constrained, smart, flexible and decentralised is creating challenges which can only be addressed by innovation’.

In practice, the rapid diffusion of emerging digital technologies such as smart grids, smart meters and the internet of things is disrupting market structures and business models. Progress in automated and machine learning is producing exponentially growing amounts of data which facilitates the deep learning required for more accurate time series predictions. At the same time, distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain provide combined digital accounting and measuring, reporting and verification infrastructures as well as a means of developing and executing smart contracts.

Regulators such as Ofgem are confronted with the need to ‘keep the lights on’ while balancing their primary focus of regulating centralised electricity supply and trading markets with engaging with disruptive innovations. This is reflected in Ofgem’s monolithic, centralised structure, despite its commitment to facilitating smart systems, flexibility and non-traditional business models.

The question is, how can the regulator square grid code written for large-scale generators and wholesale traders with an increasing understanding of and desire to facilitate smart, flexible systems?

Disruptive technologies and business model innovation

In practice, smart, flexible systems imply the bidirectional flow of information which relies on a combination of on storage, demand-side responses, interconnection and energy efficiency increasingly facilitated by emerging digital and distributed ledger technologies. It is evident that existing legal frameworks will need to change to accommodate emerging digital and distributed ledger technologies, but regulators need to proceed with caution and change is inevitably a slow process that needs to take a very wide range of statutory and non-statutory requirements into account. Up to that point, however, the regulators’ discretionary and exempting power can and should be applied (with caution).

In Europe, Ofgem is at the forefront alongside the Dutch regulator (Authority for Consumers and Markets – ACM) in providing ‘regulatory sandboxes’ for microgrids and peer-to-peer trading which facilitates buying and selling electricity locally. These sandboxes facilitate experimentation and innovation without companies incurring or being subject to established regulatory requirements.

Despite Ofgem’s commitment to providing space for experimentation and innovation, missing market rules and high entry barriers encourage innovators to seek alternatives through regulatory defection. Two reports by the Rocky Mountain Institute, one on load defection and one on grid defection sensitised research and policy communities to economic aspects of electricity market defection. Regulatory defection is another aspect of the same issue but it deals with the broader opportunity (and concern) of economic activity shifting beyond particular regulatory spaces and boundaries. Arguments have been put forward that the trend of government withdrawing from energy policy rewards regulatory defection in electricity markets.

Concrete examples of regulatory defection in the electricity market include engaging in behind the meter generation, private wire supply and microgrids. Behind the meter generation is facilitated by a rapid fall in electricity storage costs. Batteries are now available for home installation with promises of 60% savings on electricity bills if appropriately scaled to match on-roof solar PV generation. Behind the meter generation also includes anything else that can be done to limit engagement with the grid, including energy efficiency improvements and reducing demand.

Private wire supply and microgrids require the installation of dedicated physical electricity transmission infrastructure. Private wire enables generators to sell electricity to neighbouring premises without transmitting electricity through the grid. Microgrids take private wires a step further to include a private network across multiple sites and end consumers. These arrangements are complex and require considerable skills and capacity to engage with appropriate network design, infrastructure, installation costs, land and planning requirements and operation and maintenance.

Despite this complexity, regulatory defection is underway through behind the meter generation, private wire supply and microgrid development. For example, Easton Energy Group in Bristol is at the forefront of developing a community microgrid combining solar PV generation with battery storage and dedicated transmission infrastructure as part of their TWOs project.

Energy Service Company (ESCO) business models facilitate defection by shifting the emphasis on the delivery of energy services. Rather than delivering energy in the form of grid electricity or fuel, ESCOs deliver final energy services such as lighting, ventilation or refrigeration. By shifting profitability towards the efficient provision of these services at low energy and environmental costs, ESCOs shift economic activity beyond the scope of electricity market regulation.

Combined, behind the meter generation, private wire supply and microgrids on the one hand, and ESCO business models on the other, require a rethink of how electricity is regulated. Fairness and equity need to be prioritised to ensure that the costs of running the existing infrastructure (which will still be necessary no matter how rapidly distributed systems evolve) will not be borne by fewer and less fortunate consumers that lack the capacity to defect. Therefore, new regulatory approaches are required to ensure that clean energy will be available to all at affordable costs.

Embracing disruption

One way of engaging with change is by embracing the innovations that threaten to usurp the current system. The Chilean regulator, Commisión Nacional de Energía (CNE), considers Blockchain an essential element of fair and sustainable energy markets. Its web portal Energía Abierta, the 1st open data website in South America, uses Blockchain as a digital notary. It allows CNE to certify that information provided on the web portal has not been altered and modified while also leaving an immutable record of its existence.

To this end, CNE issues ‘certificates of trust’ to give greater credibility to the portal. The aim of the portal is to increase levels of trust among stakeholders and the general public that have access to and consume the portal’s data. Another aim is that by using blockchain, greater trust in the citizen-government relationship can be created through more open and transparent governance. Ultimately, CNE expects blockchain to increase traceability, accountability, transparency and trust.

Chile has taken the lead in using blockchain as part of its regulatory framework and other countries should learn from this experience, especially if blockchain is to fulfil its potential in reducing transaction costs and managing complexity. Combining distributed ledger technologies such as blockchain with emerging digital technologies such as smart grids, smart meters and the internet of things can provide a new platform for electricity market regulation with data embodied in electricity at its core rather than electricity by itself.

The problem with regulation, however, is that it is based on experience from the past. Regulating emerging technologies and facilitating beneficial outcomes while limiting potential negative ones requires a fine balance and technological agnosticism. In this context it is necessary to bear in mind that it is not Ofgem’s sole responsibility to alter regulation. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), District Network Operators, the National Grid and combined industry code panels governed by the Competition and Markets Authority and determined by the Secretary of State also have a role to play.

Regulatory defection in electricity markets will continue progressing in the absence of new market structures. Maybe it is time to rethink electricity market regulation in this space along the lines of platform regulation?

This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Dr Colin Nolden, Vice Chancellor’s Fellow researching in Sustainable City Business Models (University of Bristol Law School).

Colin Nolden

Rural energy access: A global challenge

Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy


Energy affects all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

A statement made at the beginning of a rural energy access session at the Global Challenges Symposium on 12 April 2018.  To give some context for those who aren’t aware, the SDGs are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity (see UNDP). As the goals are interconnected – tackling affordable and clean energy will mean also tackling the issues associated with the other goals.

During the session led by Dr Sam Williamson, held in Bristol and co-organised by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, four issues were discussed with Nepal as a case study:

  1. How does a lack of energy access impact rural lives?
  2. How can technology enable access to modern sustainable energy?
  3. What are the key economic and policy interventions to ensure successful rural energy access projects?
  4. What is the social impact of having access to energy in rural communities?

I felt incredibly lucky to be in the same room as the invited guests from Nepal: Biraj Gautum (Chief Executive Officer at PEEDA); Giri Raj Lamichhane (Head Teacher of Dhawa School, Central Nepal); Sushila Lamichhane Adhikari (Regional Director, Learning Planet, Central Nepal); Muhan Maskey (Policy and Institutional Strengthening Expert, Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihoods Programme, Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, Government of Nepal); and Ramesh Maskey (Associate Dean, School of Engineering, Kathmandu University).  Listening to them speak, it was clear that the Nepalese have come through such adversity (including the 2015 earthquakes – more on this below) and have survived without access to energy like we know it in the Western world.  They are incredibly resilient and wonderful people. I was certainly in awe of them. Here I summarise their thoughts and hopefully provide you with a new knowledge of real rural lives affected by a lack of access to energy.

1. How does a lack of energy access impact rural lives?

Hearing from Sushila it was clear that a lack of energy access affects rural lives in ways I could not have imagined – cooking is not possible unless using indoor stoves which cause lots of pollution and health issues especially in women and children.  The burning of firewood, cow dung and kerosene on these stoves is used for lighting and cooking.  Can you imagine breathing in the fumes from kerosene whilst sat cooking indoors?  What is also true is that it is mainly women and children who are affected by indoor air pollution and as a result suffer many negative health effects.  It is clear that more research needs to be done to customise the cooking technology for Nepal and other areas so that it moves away from indoor stoves.  Interestingly, a member of the audience from Ghana mentioned that the electricity there can be so unreliable that people don’t always want to invest in electric cookers, they’d rather go out and collect firewood for their stoves.  Unfortunately rural Nepalese villages cannot get electricity when they need it for cooking or lighting so many are in a similar situation.
Things we take for granted in the UK – like using our mobile phones, using social media and getting search engines to answer our burning questions in life (#firstworldproblems!) – are limited in Nepal.  Access to communications like the internet and to the news is one of the most valuable things to come out of having access to energy.
Apparently the government of Nepal say giving access is one part of the energy problem, the other part of the problem is transformational access.  I.e. not just providing access to power but making sure it is provided everywhere, that it is clean and sustainable and that there is a support network in place to maintain it.  There is a lot of work to be done globally to address this issue.

I didn’t get chance to interact much with my mum when I was growing up as she was out early in the morning collecting firewood so wasn’t there when I woke up and was busy cooking in the evening.

One of the things you forget about lack of energy access is how it affects the social side of people’s lives.  The quote above was given by Biraj (as seen in the picture above, stood up).  It is common for women to spend four hours collecting firewood for their stoves so they are on when the children wake. I can’t even imagine getting up four hours early every single day to do this, let alone spend an hour collecting 20 litres of water and hiking it up a steep mountain every time I need water for cooking, washing and drinking.  After hearing this I am in awe of rural Nepalese women.  They are superhuman to me, pushing the boundaries of what a woman does for her family.  I am embarrassed that I have so many luxuries in my life resulting from having access to energy, whenever I require it.  I just need a plug and a socket.  It is time for us in the Western world to help support areas without access to energy, we have a duty to families the world over.

2. How can technology enable access to modern sustainable energy?

The market is very small in Nepal for research and development in new energy technology. It is cheaper to get technology from China. There is a real lack of finance, knowledge and government support which means that rural Nepalese have not been able to fully exploit the natural resources available to them for sustainable energy e.g. through installing hydro-power. There is also the problem that to the average rural person in Nepal, lifting water which can be used for drinking, cooking, washing and chores, is a more important focus for development than energy access.  It seems a catch-22, having energy access would actually improve water lifting from source up to areas of need in the Nepalese mountains, since a lot of water pumps require energy to run.

Another great challenge is to make Nepalese energy technology for rural areas easy to maintain and robust.  Remote areas are often hard to get to and it could be a long time before anyone could come and fix any issues and obviously the cost of doing so may be prohibitive.  Therefore technology needs to be simple and locals need to be trained in maintenance.  It was also suggested in the room that tech should be developed so that it can be fixed remotely if needed. It is also important for researchers to check new energy technology is actually working after they have developed and installed it in rural areas.

3. What are the key economic and policy interventions to ensure successful rural energy access projects?

It was good to hear during this session that the energy grid in Nepal is starting to approach the rural areas of Nepal which means that it is possible for the micro-hydro-power that currently exists in rural areas to be injected into the grid and payouts can be made to rural people who own them. However a lack of available funds means the rural Nepalese cannot build micro-hydro-power plants. Most micro-hydro-power plants are instead run by the government, whole communities or private individuals and there is a policy imbalance between government-owned power and community-owned power in Nepal.

These energy inequalities seemed to be echoed by a delegate from Ghana who said that some wealthy people in Ghana are able to get enough power from solar power to not have to rely on the governments unreliable electricity. They can sell their energy back to the grid and get richer in the process, causing further inequality in energy access.

4. What is the social impact of having access to energy in rural communities?

As mentioned earlier, there is a big social impact of not having access to energy in rural areas of Nepal. By having access it means that cooking is easier and not having to collect fire wood means time is freed for maintaining gardens to produce your own food. Three to four hours a day can be saved from not having to collect firewood which can improve women’s social lives and involvement in their communities.

As is the case in most societies, you will always get people who are resistent to change. In Nepal it was said that there may be some Nepali men who may not want women to have extra time available to them (from not collecting firewood) and may want them to stick to traditional roles instead.

Having access to energy can revolutionise rural lives without destroying traditional roles.  A Somali delegate said that energy is expensive but available in rural Somalia. Mobile phone access means nomads can find for e.g. the price of a goat and where the nearest one is so they don’t waste time and physical energy trekking to find one. Phones can be charged in the cities. There is also micro-insurance available in Somalia (I had not heard of it either!) being used by nomads with mobile phones to protect for example, against the impact of drought on food availability. A novel idea, being used currently and shown to work.  It is a system which could be copied and replicated in other rural areas lacking energy access.  It was clear that there is a lot of scope for African nations and Nepal to learn best practice from each other in regards to rural access to energy.

The 2015 earthquakes – and energy

It was asked of the Nepalese visitors, what role did energy play in the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal?  Their answers were grim…villages were flattened, there was no power supply, no place to cook, and it was difficult to contact relatives who were far away and may have also been affected by the quakes. Micro-hydro-power plants were destroyed and the national grid was down. There was a governmental dilemma as to what to do – whether to revive micro-hydro-power plants or extend the national grid? As it happened the national grid was a first priority and it is being rebuilt with a view to extend it.

Throughout all of this adversity, the resilience and positivity of the Nepalese visitors really shone through when they said that all the families, communities and pets came together in one space (shelter) regardless of wealth or who they were and that this was a great experience to come out of the earthquake. The earthquake also forced Nepal to become more self-sufficient in energy post-recovery and they are installing more renewables as a result.

Damaged house in Chaurikharka – by Sumita Roy Dutta – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Academics can research and write about rural energy access issues, but attending this Symposium showed that there is much we can learn from people who are actually living day in day out with these issues.  We need to collaborate and bring minds and experiences together to solve the issues around the Sustainable Development Goals.  I am happy to say that the Symposium was a great step in doing this and we hope that there will be many relationships and research interests developed from this Symposium that can apply for funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund to further research, and to improve and save lives globally.  Watch this space!

This blog was written by Cabot Institute Coordinator Amanda Woodman-Hardy @Enviro_Mand.  You can find out more about the Global Challenges Symposium on the official website.  You can read more about reliable and sustainable micro-hydro-power in Nepal in a blog by Caboteer Joe Butchers.

New models of community energy

Credit: Bristol Energy Cooperative
North Yorkshire County Council’s recent decision to approve Third Energy Ltd’s application to begin exploratory fracking in Kirby Misperton (by a majority vote of seven councillors to four) was seen by some as riding roughshod over the democratic process – 36 individual representations were made in support of the application, while 4420 were made against.  
On the same day, closer to home, there was news that Bristol Energy Cooperative would soon become the largest generator of community energy in the UK with the development of a 4.2 MW solar farm in Lawrence Weston.
The two organisations could not be further apart. While Third Energy Ltd is a recently registered private equity company with all shares held in house and likely backed by a parent oil and gas company (Third Energy UK Gas Ltd), Bristol Energy Cooperative is a community owned cooperative that has financed solar developments through community share offers, funding from the local council and ethical banks. Although at this stage we don’t know how Third Energy would finance any fracking activities – there is no reason why it couldn’t make a community share offer – Bristol Energy Cooperative has demonstrated with its existing solar developments a way to generate new electricity generation that is participative and engaging rather than exclusionary and remote.
That is not to say that the cooperative model provides all the answers; questions over who has money and time to invest/participate remain. Given the explosion of energy cooperatives and community benefit societies over the last few years, such models are clearly striking a cord with communities around the UK. Nevertheless, as a result of recent cuts in subsidies, we are now entering a period of uncertainty. Many community energy groups are waiting for prices of technology to fall and/or major planning decisions to be made. However, it is unlikely that that is the last we see of community energy organisations, many are working hard to function in the new harsher environment; devising novel models to develop renewable energy in ways that give communities more say.
What these new models might look like is still very much up in the air. With the introduction of Bristol Energy Company and Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, it might be that we see more collaboration between community energy groups and local councils (or their energy companies) drawing on both their relative strengths to leverage the necessary finance and public support, or we might see larger community energy organisations refocus their efforts by offering direct energy connections (private wire developments) to high energy consumers. There may also be a trend towards scaling-up and turning themselves into energy supply companies or cooperative services providers, and then there are partnerships taking place with traditional energy supply companies.
Whichever models come to thrive in the coming years, there is a growing acceptance that communities should have more, not less, say over how energy is generated at the local level. And with the introduction of Neighbourhood Plans (through the Localism Act 2011) there is a potential regulatory channel that local communities can employ to continue to pursue transparent and open decision-making. If such devolution continues, it seems likely that we will see more active, not less active, communities in all things energy in the years to come.

This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Jack Nicholls, a PhD student in Law and Sociology, Policy and International Studies (SPAIS), who researches renewable energy development at the local scale. He has no financial interests in either Bristol Energy Cooperative or Third Energy Ltd.  

Jack Nicholls

This blog has also been featured on the Big Green Week blog.   Big Green Week runs from 11 June in Bristol and there are lots of exciting events to attend.  Check out the official website

The Cabot Institute is hosting a special Big Green Week event on 15 June on Nicaragua’s progress towards 90% renewable energy. Full details and tickets can be found online.

Hydrogen and fuel cells: Innovative solutions for low carbon heat

On 29 February 2016, I attended a meeting in Westminster that was jointly organised by the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (UKFCA) and Carbon Connect with the aim of discussing current challenges in the decarbonisation of heat generation in the UK. The panel included David Joffe (Committee on Climate Change), Dr. Marcus Newborough (ITM Power), Ian Chisholm (Doosan Babcock), Klaus Ullrich (Fuel Cell Energy Solutions), Phil Caldwell (Ceres Power) and was chaired by Dr Alan Whitehead MP and Shadow Energy Minister. The attendees included a number of key players in the field of hydrogen production, fuel cell and renewable energy industries, as well as organisations such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

To set the scene, I would like to quote some facts and figures from the 2015 Carbon Connect report on the Future of Heat (part II).

  1. The 2025 carbon reduction target is 404.4 MtCO2e (million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent), but the reduction levels as of 2014 have only been 288.9 MtCO2e. The current Government’s low carbon policy framework is woefully inadequate to bridge this gap.
  2. The government introduced the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2011, with the ambition of increasing the contribution of renewable energy source to 12% of the heat demand by 2020. Some of the initiatives include biomass, “energy from waste” and geothermal. However, clear policies and financial incentives are nowhere to be seen.
  3. What is the current situation of renewable heat and how good is the 12% target? The good news is that there is a slight increase in the renewable share from 2004. The really bad news is that the contribution as of 2013 is just 2.6%. The UK is further behind any other EU state with regards to its renewable heat target. Sweden has a whopping 67.2% contribution and Finland 50.9%.

Towards a decarbonised energy sector, two important networks should be considered, electrical and gas. Electrification of heat is very well suited for low carbon heat generation, however, the electricity demands at peak time could be extremely costly. The UK’s gas network is a major infrastructure which is vital for providing gas during peak heat demand. However, it needs to be re-purposed in order to carry low carbon gas such as bio-methane, hydrogen or synthetic natural gas.

It was clear from the debate that hydrogen can play an important role in decreasing carbon emissions even within the current gas network. The introduction of up to 10% of hydrogen into gas feed can still be compatible with current gas networks and modern appliances, while generating a significant carbon emission reduction. However, where is the hydrogen coming from? For heat production at the national scale, steam reforming is the only player. However, with the government pulling away from carbon capture and storage (CCS), this option cannot provide a significant reduction in carbon emissions.  Capital costs associated with electrolysers would not be able to deliver the amount of hydrogen required at peak demands. The frustration in this community with regards to the future of CCS was palpable during the networking session.

We need hydrogen, generated from renewable energy sources… but the question is how?

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member David J. Fermin, Professor of Electrochemistry in the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry.  His research group are currently looking at the direct conversion of solar energy to chemical fuels, in particular hydrogen; the conversion of CO2 to fuels; and electrocatalysts for energy vectors (e.g. what you put in fuel cells and electrolysers).

David Fermin

David will be giving a free talk on the challenges of solar energy conversion and storage on Tuesday 12 April 2016 at 6.15 pm at the University of Bristol.  To find out more and to book your ticket, visit the University of Bristol’s Public and Ceremonial Events web page.

Materials and energy… over a pint?

Bristol, along with 20 other cities, in 6 different countries, was host to an interesting approach to science communication – over three nights, 19 – 21 May 2014, science took place at the pub!

Although varied, relevant and interesting research takes place every day at Universities, in many cases the general public is completely unaware of what goes on inside them – other than lectures and exams! Pint of Science is a volunteer-based, not-for-profit festival, which takes academic research into the everyday world, by having scientists at the pub sharing their work and answering questions.

Premièring this year in Bristol, the festival was well received, with many of the events sold-out before the doors were even opened. Across the city, four pubs opened their doors to a curious audience looking to learn about a range of topics from nanotechnology, to energy, to the brain and oceans or volcanoes.

Engaging society being at the heart of the Cabot Institute’s aims, it was quick to become involved when approached. As well as sponsoring the event, the Institute was well represented by two of its members, Professors David Fermín and Paul Weaver, who shared their research during the festival.

Energy, Materials and the Electrochemist Dream


L-R David Parker and David Fermin

Prof David Fermín and one of his PhD students, Mr David Parker, took on the second evening of the festival, talking about “Energy, Materials and the Electrochemist Dream”. During this event renewable energy sources, in particular solar, were championed. Of interest was the many ways in which solar energy can be harvested and used, whether to be directly converted into electricity or used to produce “solar fuels” from water or carbon dioxide. The need for developing new photovoltaic materials, which are cheap, efficient and made from abundant elements, was stressed. Questions from the public revolved about “how green” these technologies really are and the need to develop a “complete, systematic” approach to energy, which can incorporate various forms and sources of energy. This last is another key interest of the Institute, with groups in Bristol doing interesting work in this area.

Morphing cars, planes and wind turbines: the shape of things to come


Paul Weaver talks to the pub-goers

On the festival’s last evening, Prof Paul Weaver and one of his PhD students, Eric Eckstein, talked about “Morphing cars, planes and wind turbines: the shape of things to come”. They discussed the development of new composite materials with the ability to tailor structural properties and the difficulties involved in predicting responses. Also highlighted was the very important interaction and synergy between University and Industry in this field. In a particularly interactive approach they brought along many of the composite materials they work with, alongside demonstrating the strength and failure of various materials, allowing the public to see and feel how different properties can be altered. The use of composite materials in wind turbines and helicopter blades was of particular interest and generated an animated discussion on the subject.

This blog was written by Cabot Institute members Daniela Plana (Chemistry) and Matt Such (ACCIS) at the University of Bristol.