Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy

Project: Research


This Consortium aims to carry out the Mission agreed at the Sandpit, i.e. To undertake socially and scientifically engaged research into innovative technologies, policies and practices leading towards a low carbon energy system , by addressing three Research Challenges: (a) to learn from past transitions to help explore future transitions and what might enable or avoid them; (b) to design and evaluate transition pathways towards alternative socio-technical energy systems and infrastructures for a low carbon future; and (c) to understand and where appropriate model the changing roles, influences and opportunities of large and small 'actors' in the dynamics of transitions. Whilst the consortium will develop widely applicable analysis frameworks, the project will focus on electricity-related futures and on the roles of actors, both large, e.g. multinational energy supply and distribution companies, national governments, major investors, and small, e.g. households, innovators and entrepreneurs. The research will contribute to the evolution of the necessary physical and institutional infrastructure changes that directly involve and affect the public, through engagement with new and incumbent stakeholders, and will promote innovation towards a future more sustainable energy system.The overall aim is to develop a set of potential transition pathways for the UK energy system to a low carbon future, and undertake whole systems assessments of the technical, economic, social and environmental feasibility, potential and acceptability of these pathways. These assessments will draw on a range of analytic and deliberative 'tools' and approaches, combining the 'story-telling' approach used in exploratory scenarios (e.g. by Shell) with critical technical and social assessments of what would be required to bring them about. We propose to interrogate the dynamics of transition pathways to a low carbon economy by:* Developing a conceptual and analytical framework for exploring transition pathways, based on quantitative and qualitative methods, and encompassing engineering, economic, environmental, policy and behavioural sciences.* Identifying and exploring a limited set of transition pathways to a UK low carbon energy system focussing on the role of electricity supply and demand;* Undertaking detailed technical and social analysis of the feasibility and acceptability of these pathways, applying quantitative modelling and analysis of electricity systems and infrastructures, and qualitative assessment of the roles of industrial and consumer actors.* Bringing these together in a whole systems analysis, employing a 'toolkit' of techniques to explore and evaluate specific implications of these pathways to a highly electric, low carbon economy. Within an overall framework of electricity as the principal final energy vector within a low-carbon energy system, we will examine different potential transition pathways, involving different mixes of supply-side and demand-side technological and behavioural options. The project will identify and explore a limited set of potential transition pathways covering these options. The pathways will focus on three 15-year periods, which correspond to the 5 year carbon budgeting periods, proposed in the draft Climate Change Bill. These periods will be 2008-2022, 2023-2037 and 2038-2052. These pathways will be further developed and explored through discussions within the Consortium and with a range of stakeholders at invited workshops. There are three core research themes: (1) Transitions: from scenarios and history to pathways; (2) Technical and social analysis of supply-side, demand-side and infrastructure networks; and (3) Whole Systems Appraisal and Joint Working, Integration and Learning. They will be pursued in three stages: (1) Development of Frameworks and Outline Pathways; (2): Explore and Interrogate Pathways; (3): Complete Pathway Exploration; Produce, Test and Deliver Findings.

Key findings

"This project explored three 'transition pathways' towards a UK low carbon electricity system, including the changing roles of large and small 'actors'. It sought to be both multi- and interdisciplinary, and to develop a 'whole systems' approach. It addressed the energy policy 'trilemma': delivering and using energy that is not only low carbon, but also secure and affordable. The core transition pathways - Market Rules, Central Co-ordination, and Thousand Flowers - each involve significant challenges. They have branching points at which decisions may be taken to diverge from the core trajectories. Historical analyses have also informed understanding of the governance, social and technical requirements of past transitions. They suggest that while multi-actor, market-led transitions offer valuable chances for experimentation and novelty, government-led transitions with fewer actors and more centralised decisions may be easier to achieve.
The demand for energy at the building scale arises from multiplicity of lifestyles, service needs, end-use devices, the building fabric, and local energy conversion/storage. There is potential for emissions mitigation in all of these areas. The electrification of transport is evident in all pathways, as is growth in the use of electricity for heating, via heat pumps. Load shifting will require widespread acceptance of automatic control of appliances and/or deep behavioural changes. However, the response of end users needs to be taken into account. Analysis of real-time energy use in response to visual energy display information showed how rapidly households returned to pre-existing energy use levels. Most 'early adopters' tended to resist angrily exhortations from external agencies for change.
The intermittency and inflexibility of low-carbon generation mean that fossil-fuelled generation must be replaced to a greater extent than suggested by annual average figures. Hourly modelling indicated massive requirements for peaking plant or energy storage. The pathways postulate increased electrification of transport and heating. Rapid growth in the electric vehicle market could bring significant changes to power system operation. Significant generation, transmission and distribution network reinforcements will be needed, requiring major network investments. However, co-ordinated application of smart demand technologies can significantly reduce these reinforcement costs. Power network models have been used to analyse the extra peak demand requirements in Market Rules and the significant expansion of distributed generation in Thousand Flowers.
The sustainability appraisal of the transition pathways was undertaken using energy analysis and environmental life-cycle assessment on a 'whole systems' basis: from 'cradle-to-gate'. This highlights the significance of 'upstream emissions' and their (technological and policy) implications. They arise from the need to expend energy resources in order to deliver, for example, fuel to a power station. The impact of upstream emissions suggests that it is not possible to decarbonise the UK electricity supply industry by 2030 [as advocated by the Committee on Climate Change], unless the whole economy adopts low carbon energy sources. Taking account of upstream emissions also suggests the striking result that 'carbon capture and storage' plants are likely to deliver a 70% reduction in carbon emissions on a whole systems basis, in contrast to the normal presumption of 90% reduction."
Effective start/end date1/05/0830/04/12


  • EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council): £373,698.00


energy use
technology policy
electric vehicle
electricity supply
climate change
analytical framework
energy policy
carbon emission