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Power and equality: What can the energy sector learn on International Women’s Day?
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Power and equality: What can the energy sector learn on International Women's Day?

Unless the mass demonstrations and examples of global activism passed you by, yesterday marked 2018’s International Women’s Day (IWD). Around the world women, and the men that support them, made themselves heard celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, and drawing attention to the progress that still needs to be made.

After a year that has seen the disadvantages faced by women laid bare – from Hollywood harassment to pay gap parables – it feels as though the world could be in the midst of actual change, and undoubtedly for the better.

Of course, we won’t know until this filters down to every corner of society but in our own field of energy, yesterday also saw a sadly unusual spectacle in London thanks to the IGov team from the University of Exeter and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

To mark IWD 2018, a female-only list of speakers was assembled to share their expertise at an event discussing innovation and governance for future energy systems. Almost 30 speakers and chairs led a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the UK energy system; from regulation to consumer behaviours, technology to business models, the event covered more ground than most.

As someone who attends a lot of energy sector events, it was surreal to be at an conference where not only were women the driving force in discussions, but also to be in the minority within a room where three quarters of the attendees were not the men often filling the seats of other industry events, including those of our publisher Solar Media.

“We were keen to run it because all of us within the iGov project were frustrated by all the events we go to that have a really poor gender balance. Working in this sector, we are all very aware that there is no problem in finding very capable and inspirational women to talk on any topic,” said Jess Britton, research fellow of the iGov2 project, who kicked off the day.

“We’ve had no problem finding a brilliant line-up of speakers and actually the problem was trying to squeeze everyone that we wanted to speak onto the agenda and it just shows how ridiculous it is that you still hear ‘we couldn’t find any women speakers’.”

What will the future look like?

The discussions began with the governance required to ensure innovation in the future energy system, and what is needed from government and regulators to ensure this is established.

Electron’s Vidia Pallaram heralded “the second era of the internet” thanks to the blockchain platforms developed by the company for demand side response and infrastructure assets, which can help everyone balance and share the value inherent in the energy system.

Similarly, Open Utility co-founder and COO Alice Tyler discussed the need for government to embrace the more agile systems and processes offered by the company’s Piclo and Piclo Flex systems, which match renewable generation and flexibility sources with those that want such services.

Discussions moved on to how the future networks will be paid for, with the National Infrastructure Commission’s energy lead Katy Black; Charlotte Ramsey who is program director for the future role of the system operator at National Grid; and the outspoken professor of energy at the University of Exeter, Catherine Mitchell.

With a certain element of forward gazing inherent to the event’s subject matter, the conversations were wide ranging. Black pointed to the lack of tools in place to take account of the breadth of decentralised energy on the grid, and posed the question if too much (predominantly renewable) was still a good thing considering the costs that come with it.

Tip-toing into a more vocal role outside of the traditional TSO as National Grid prepares to legally separate its operator and owner roles, Ramsey was keen to discuss how the networks we currently have and those to come could be paid for, as they are “quite different”.

For the current system, she expressed concern that while this “national asset” still needs to be paid for, more and more energy sector participants move behind the meter to avoid some of the costs, prompting questions around “social equity”.

“There is an increasingly small number of people that are paying for it. In some instances it’s more likely to be those that can’t afford to do some of the more innovative things and move behind the meter and avoid these costs,” she said.

“We need to make sure that it continues to be equitable [even] if that requires charging reform to make sure that despite all the change going on we still have [enough] to pay for the networks we have.”

Image description required
Charlotte Ramsey asked questions over how the current and future energy systems will be paid for. Image: Twitter/@PollyBillington

As for the future, the increasingly blurred lines between the transmission and distribution networks means smart operation will dominate the future to move the focus to whole, rather than network, solutions. This, Ramsey argues, “starts to put network on a completely different footing” leading her to the question – just a day after Ofgem’s mammoth price controls consultation - if regulation of the networks can still be justified when optimisation of the system could move faster.

This was echoed by Mitchell, who asserted that governance was no longer fit for purpose within the energy system and needs to be shaken up. Costing methodologies refocused to both central and decentralised resources, greater visibility over distributed energy resources, and a greater focus on an area based system; the energy system of the future would look quite different under her vision.

This views prompted significant discussion, showing the antithesis of what many consider to be the current state of affairs whereby different areas of the sector converse and act in silos.

This continued though the afternoon as female speakers from the likes of Centrica, Open Energi, UK Power Networks and more continued to discuss how to access value in future energy system.

Hopefully more to come

Such lively and informed debate from both speakers and delegates added renewed poignancy to Jess Britton’s opening statements as to why these women are not more widely represented at industry events.

The frustration may continue, as change is often slow but every now and then it can jump forward and hopefully it won’t take too long for events populated with a more equal, or inverse in this case, gender balance to occur – some are already on their way.

David Pratt's photo
Editorial

David Pratt Deputy UK Editor, Current±

David Pratt joined Solar Media in November 2015 after spending two years writing for the construction sector. He had a particular focus on energy efficiency and government policy, before moving into the renewables and clean energy sector.

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