Public gets behind net zero targets, but views utilities as part of the climate change problem - Utility Week Public gets behind net zero targets, but views utilities as part of the climate change problem - Utility Week

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Public gets behind net zero targets, but views utilities as part of the climate change problem

Part of Utility Week‘s Utility of the Future campaign, our exclusive survey sought to pin down public attitudes towards government policy, bill increases, and more.


Extended Report

Utility companies have a way to go to convince the public of their efforts to tackle climate change, according to a new poll carried out for Utility Week which showcases public attitudes towards climate change measures and perceptions of the role utilities play in reaching the 2050 net zero emissions target.

The survey, carried out by Harris Interactive, was commissioned to gauge levels of public support for the net zero emissions target. It found a public sceptical that net zero emissions could be achieved, but with widespread support for onshore wind farms and encouraging signs for the transition to hydrogen gas for heating.

In total 1022 people from across the UK participated, of which 45 per cent were men and 55 per cent women. Those questioned were split into three age brackets; 39 per cent between 18 and 34; 27 per cent between 35 and 54 and finally 33 per cent aged 55 and over.

Net zero

The questions, asked in the middle of June, revealed that climate change and other environmental matters are currently topics of major interest for the public, with over four-fifths (82 per cent) citing they were interested in environmental issues.

This comes as no surprise given the high-profile green issues have been given in recent months. From public spectacles such as the Extinction Rebellion march as well as Sir David Attenborough’s appearance on Glastonbury’s pyramid stage, and his testimony to the BEIS committee on how to approach the climate emergency.

As it stands, the prevailing view, 47 per cent, within the public is that utilities are part of the problem of climate change rather than, as 32 per cent believed, the solution.  A further fifth (21 per cent) of the people surveyed were undecided.

Amongst people who said that they were uninterested in environmental issues, nearly half (47  per cent) said they were not sure if utilities were part of the problem or the solution, 39 per cent believed that utilities were part of the problem, while only 14 per cent felt they were integral to solving climate change.

On the other hand, people who claimed to be interested in environmental issues were more split. Just below half said that utility companies were part of the problem, while a significant chunk (35 per cent) saw potential for utilities to help solve the issue. Far fewer of the interested group (16 per cent) were unsure either way.

Support for the UK’s 2050 zero emissions target was high, with over three-quarters (78 per cent) of respondents stating they backed the policy.

The target saw more support among people aged 18 – 34 (86 per cent) and those interested in environmental issues (86 per cent).  Men proved twice as sceptical than woman, with 12 per cent saying that they did not agree with the policy compared to 6 per cent. Conversely, women (16 per cent) were more likely to say they were not sure, compared to 10 per cent of men who said the same.

The oldest age group were nearly three times more likely to say they do not support the plan, compared to both 18 – 34 and 35 – 54-year olds.

Consumer habits

The majority of respondents (89 per cent) said they were happy to change their energy and water consumption in order to support the zero emissions policy, yet only 38 per cent of these would consider significant changes.

Those who reported to be in the top five income brackets (greater than £80,000) were more likely to say they would be willing to make significant lifestyle changes. On average, 75 per cent of these people said this, compared to 38 per cent of the other nine income brackets.

Just over half of the total felt they could make smaller changes in order to support the UK’s policy. Among these, the lower nine income brackets had an average of 52 per cent of members say they would make small changes, while the upper five, with most members saying they would make significant changes, only averaged 21 per cent. This seems to indicate that there is a willingness from the public to adopt efficient and conscious behaviours. However, much of the majority of the population not in the top income brackets appear to feel less able to reduce usage as they already have greater financial incentives to be as efficient as possible.

A majority of the youngest responders (54 per cent) said they would be happy to make significant changes to their habits, with a further 39 per cent willing to make some changes. Only 20 per cent of the oldest group would commit to a large lifestyle alteration, whereas 65 per cent could agree to more minor changes. 10 per cent of those in this group admitted that they would not change their ways to help achieve the net zero goal, compared to just 3 per cent of the youngest group, and 6 per cent of those aged 35 – 54.

Price rises

The road to net zero is as of yet still riddled with uncertainty. All can agree that moving to different technologies, renewable generation, and a more flexible, efficient system will require significant investment, but there is debate over where this money should come from.

Unsurprisingly, only just over one quarter (28 per cent) would be happy to pay more on top of their current energy bills if it meant the UK could meet the 2050 zero emissions target.  This corresponds with a survey carried out recently by trade union GMB, where 78% believed that the government should fund the development of the nascent renewables industry, rather than costs being met by bill increases.

Again, willingness was higher amongst younger respondents (40 per cent) and those interested in environmental issues (33 per cent). Another 27 per cent of the total said they were not sure. Chief amongst the 45 per cent who said they would not want to pay more were the oldest surveyed, with just over half saying they were unwilling, followed closely by 47 per cent of 35 – 54-year olds.

The results potentially support the view of the regulators, who want to keep bills for consumers down even though some water and energy firms arguing that further investment is needed to tackle climate change, costs of which may be passed on to bills.

Low carbon generation

Almost eight in ten (78 per cent) were happy for new onshore wind farms – the lowest cost form of renewable energy –  in order to help the UK meet its zero emissions target, which should add weight to those in the industry who seek to change current policy holding back onshore developments.

Despite the growing appetite for further onshore wind farms, even amongst their own supporters, the Conservative government stands by their current policy. After the 2015 general election, they ruled that onshore wind projects would not be able to bid for support through CfD (Contract for Difference) auctions. Furthermore, they gave local councils greater scope to reject schemes seeking planning permission.

Responding to questions in the House of Lords on the 8th July, Lord Henley, junior business minister, confirmed that there was “no plans to review that policy,” and that “The opportunities for offshore wind to come down are far greater than for onshore because of the scale of the windmills one can build at sea compared to on land.”

There was not the same support for nuclear power stations, where only 43 per cent were happy for new ones to be built. This figure was higher for men than women, at 55 per cent and 33 per cent respectively.

On the other hand, despite some public hesitance, the government has looked keen to boost nuclear generation capacity going forward.

Success has been hard to come by. Earlier this year, after failure to reach an agreement with the government, Hitachi announced that it had suspended work on two plants, Wylfa on Anglesey and Oldbury in South Gloucestershire. A few months prior, Toshiba scrapped plans for a 3GW nuclear power station at Moorside after they failed to find a buyer for NuGen, their nuclear new build arm.

Tim YEO, chairman of the New Nuclear Watch Europe, had previously warned that “If Hitachi walk away from Wylfa that probably spells the end of new nuclear in the UK.”

The deal between the government and EDF for financing and constructing Hinkley Point C, the only planned build currently under construction, has been widely criticised, mostly surrounding the cost and the prices set for energy once generation begins.

The deal with EDF priced Hinkley Point C’s energy at £92.50/MWh, set to rise with consumer price inflation. In comparison, auctions in January saw offshore wind projects have strike prices as low as £57.50.  The latest estimations from BEIS judged that large scale solar generation built in the next decade should offer prices of £67MWh.

Alternative heating

Moving away from natural gas heating, the results suggested that young people were more willing to accept alternative heating technology. Three quarters (73 per cent) of the youngest respondents would change, compared to 65 per cent of 35 – 54-year olds and only half of people 55 or older. An equal proportion of each age group said they were not willing to change their gas boiler, while the oldest group, at 27 per cent, were far more likely to say they were unsure than either of the other two.

When given hydrogen as a specific example of an alternative for heating, those surveyed were more reticent to outright commit to a change. Only 25 per cent said they would have hydrogen-powered central heating in their homes. Once again, at 37 per cent, the youngest age group was the most open to accepting change in their homes, followed by 27 per cent of the middle bracket, and 15 per cent of the oldest surveyed.

The majority of the respondents were not against the change however, with nearly one in six (57 per cent) of the total saying that they would be open to the new technology but would like to know more about it first. Those 55 and older were twice as likely to outright decline compared to the younger two age ranges. This group was also significantly more likely to say that they were not sure where they stood on the issue.

The industry defends itself

Responding the results of the survey, Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK, said: “Reaching the net-zero target will mean a transformation right across the economy that will impact on all our daily lives so it’s encouraging to see overwhelming public support for net zero and many of the measures that will be necessary to achieving it.

“Central to maintaining this support will be funding the transformation fairly and at the least cost to consumers. We shouldn’t forget that we have reached a point where nearly half of our electricity comes from low carbon sources far more cheaply than was ever anticipated – and essential measures like making our homes and businesses energy efficient could bring really significant savings to customers.

“As the Committee on Climate Change has highlighted again this week, the power sector has already been part of the solution – with progress in reducing emissions over the last five years having been almost entirely driven by reductions in the power sector. We have much, much further to go of course and the energy industry will continue to play a pivotal role in decarbonising our economy – not just in power generation but in other areas like heating and transport.”

A spokesperson from BEIS commented “We share the public’s passion for tackling climate change which is why we were the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions. We also want to host crucial international climate talks next year to enhance global efforts to protect our precious planet.” Furthermore, they said that they do not believe that more large-scale onshore wind is right for England.

Utility of the Future is a campaign exploring the changing landscape of utilities and how companies can adapt to the challenges and opportunities thrown at them.

Taking place over the months to come, the series will examine five themes: climate change; customers; business models and workforce; regulation; and technology, through articles, research, podcasts, and events. 


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