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A just transition should focus on those who usually go last

The transition to net zero should focus on ensuring the most vulnerable consumers “go first” in line when it comes to new technologies, a leading academic has suggested.

Jeff Hardy, an academic consultant at Imperial College London, was speaking to Utility Week about the key challenges he believes need to be overcome in order to ensure a just energy transition.

He said how just the transition will be perceived will depend on the types of businesses people are involved with.

By way of example, Hardy highlighted how previous transitions such as the end of coal mining the UK had been “terribly unfair” to the UK’s coal mining communities.

One of the key challenges Hardy sees in achieving a just transition is the historic issue of those with money being able to take advantage of the latest technologies, while poorer consumers go without.

He continued: “Of course the other side of a just transition, which is quite manifest at the moment, is this idea that if you can afford it, you get to go first, and you get to reap the first mover advantage benefits.

“I’m guilty of this, I got solar panels on my home in 2015 taking the last of the Feed In Tariff. I’ve got a battery, which means I can access all of essentially the cheapest tariffs. I get access to stuff, because I can be flexible, that others do not and which means that my bills have been less affected by price rises, still affected, it’s expensive for everyone, but I’ve been protected because I could afford it.”

Hardy said a solution to this for a just transition would be to put those poorest first.

He added: “So if I was in charge of the energy transition, what I would put all of my energy into is a transition that basically benefits those who usually benefit last, but would benefit most, I would make sure they go first.

“That’s where you want to put subsidy, that’s where you will maximise all sorts of benefits because there’ll be huge implications for health, positive implications, and huge implications for wealth.

“Adding any additional budgets to households in poverty will have an impact. If you can reduce their energy bills, improve their comfort, and allow them to start to access some of the things that only those who are able to can afford, like the best tariffs, that will have an impact.”

Utility Week also spoke to Peter McClenaghan, director of infrastructure & sustainability at Consumer Council, who will be speaking on the subject at Utility Week Forum in October.

Like Hardy, McClenaghan too stressed the importance of affordability when it comes to the transition.

He said: “Affordability is a really big concern for people and I think in that regard we need to be truthful with consumers that it might be the case that the energy transition might cost us more…a lot of consumers still think solar panels or wind power will mean that their electricity is cheaper over time.

“But if that’s not necessarily the case we need to at least be able to provide affordability solutions for the most vulnerable consumers such as options for grant funding and for the rest of us, options for cheaper finance or options to access finance.”

McClenaghan further spoke about the need for protections around finance options “so that people aren’t taking out finance that ends up biting them in the future”.

Additionally, he said: “People are very clear that they want leadership and trust and honesty.

He used the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in London and the Whitby hydrogen village trials as examples of projects which have divided opinion. Earlier this month the government rejected Cadent’s bid for a hydrogen village trial because of a lack of local support.

McClenaghan continued: “If you look at the last few weeks or months and stories around the ULEZ scheme in London, or the Whitby trials for example, where consumers maybe don’t feel they have enough information or people aren’t being as straight and transparent with them as they would like.

“That’s creating concern, people are voicing that concern and if that type of concern manifests itself in a significant way and people’s concerns aren’t adequately addressed then actually I think we’ll find that consumer behavior is going to be even more difficult to shift.

“Partly that’s a political challenge in the fact that politicians work in five-year cycles and this is a 30-year challenge.”

The issue of a just transition will be spoken about in more depth at Utility Week Forum, taking place in London this October. For more information and to book your place, click here.