22 June 2020
For the first of a series of interviews with the people delivering ESO, we talked to Sam Hampton, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) about his role, the human-side of energy, big-ticket batteries, beating gas, and life under lockdown!
What does the ECI do and what does your job involve?
The ECI was created in 1991, around the same time that we started taking sustainable development seriously. It’s grown rapidly and we now have something like 100 researchers plus 60 PhD students working across energy, climate, eco-systems, food and water, and infrastructure.
As a post-doctoral researcher I do a mixture of real-world and theoretical work related to the energy transition. As part of Energy Superhub Oxford (ESO), I am collecting data and interviewing people on the use of heating systems and electric vehicle charging. I am also thinking about different policies and concepts to accelerate the energy transition and how to evaluate progress and impacts.
What role is ECI playing in Energy Superhub Oxford?
ECI’s role is to look at the human side of the project. ESO is not just about technology; it’s about adoption and usage, and how it impacts on local communities, businesses and people.
For example, how do social housing tenants benefit from heat pumps with smart controls? Are they comfortable with these new technologies? How do they ‘domesticate’ them over time? Similarly with electric vehicles, I am researching who is using the Superhub and when. For instance, are they driving past Oxford and stopping over for a quick charge, are they coming here for a day trip, or are they local residents?
Why is this work important and what insight does ECI bring to the project?
We have to start by recognising that the energy transition is not just a technical one; but a socio-technical one. We need to bring society along and make sure people are involved. That is particularly important when you look at how ESO is trying to integrate power, heat, transport and storage to create a smart, local energy system. To achieve this ambition requires lots of collaboration, which means we need to understand diverse perspectives and be inclusive.
What are you working on right now for the project?
We were about to start engaging with some of the social housing tenants in Blackbird Leys who are due to receive ground source heat pumps and smart thermostats in their homes, but that work has been postponed due to COVID-19. Now we’re looking at how we can adapt our approach, for instance by asking householders to self-install devices such as temperature monitors and humidity sensors.
In the meantime, we’re doing some research on energy innovation evaluation more generally, drawing on experience from ESO. We’re currently writing a paper on the implications of the climate emergency for evaluation. We know we need to speed up innovation, but also increase our ambition. That means we’ll see more policies and programmes like ESO, which combine multiple initiatives from the technical to the social. Evaluators need to be able to work quickly to generate useful evidence for policy-makers and businesses, while also being accurate. We don’t want to get things wrong, because we don’t have time to get things wrong.
The University’s Department of Engineering Science is also involved in the project. What’s their role?
The engineering department are looking at the performance of the battery and modelling it to better understand how to optimise its life. Because it’s a hybrid battery system, this includes how the vanadium redox flow technology can be deployed in a complementary way alongside lithium-ion in order to preserve the life of the asset. They’re creating a digital twin, which is a complex, computational model of the battery, to run and test different scenarios.
What excites you most about Energy Super Oxford?
What I find most exciting about Energy Superhub Oxford is that it’s trying to do so many things all together and all at once. It’s integrating multiple energy vectors, including power, transport, heat and – increasingly important –storage. It’s very rare for a programme to do all of these things in parallel.
The project is bringing people together that would never normally come and talk to each other and think about the kind of synergies and unforeseen benefits that we can produce because of that collaboration. That’s really exciting for me.
What impact do you hope the project will have in Oxford and further afield?
Firstly, the big-ticket thing is that the battery enables us to better utilise the UK’s renewable electricity generation assets. Right now we curtail wind power production when demand is lower than supply, and we’re letting that power go to waste which is a real shame.
Secondly, we’re trying to demonstrate that heat pumps can be price competitive with other forms of heating, in particular, gas. That’s very difficult because gas is very cheap. We want to show that by combining intelligent technologies, like smart controls and a time-of-use tariff, heat pumps can be equal in cost to the householder compared with gas. With 80% of British homes on the gas grid, the challenge is a big one.
What changes do you expect to see in the energy sector over the next decade?
I think we’ll see more urgency but also more scrutiny. The stakes are so high, we can’t afford to go down too many blind alleys. That means there’ll be more pressure on evaluators like me to tell the Government what works, for whom and how much it costs.
I hope we see more projects like ESO that integrate energy vectors and deploy technology in a way that includes local people.. We really need to experiment with the difficult challenge of installing things and bringing direct benefits to local communities. For example legal questions like how to contract with different electric vehicle charging providers. How do you set up these new kind of organisational arrangements? How do you involve local government and how do you increase accountability? These are all really difficult questions that you can only properly test in the real world and that’s what we’re doing with ESO.
What do you think are the biggest challenges and what gives you the most cause for optimism right now?
The scale of the challenge can be quite overwhelming when you realise how much of our energy system still needs to change. We’ve barely started on things like heat and 98% of our transport system is still fuelled by fossil fuels. So while we’ve seen a real scaling up of interest from the public – helped by things like Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg – I’m concerned that the enormity and the scale of the challenge will turn people off. Another challenge is the COVID recovery. We’re going to be poorer and how we recover is a critical question.
But I am optimistic. Lots of people are talking about a green recovery and there are opportunities for climate change policy objectives to be made conditions of investment. For example, if the Government bails out an airline, it might put some conditions on the need to increase the use of biofuels. That’s what I’m hoping for. This is an opportunity to do things differently.
Do see any other positives coming out of this lockdown period for the low carbon transition?
I really do. It’s well documented that working from home reduces the demand for transport, but it has implications for electricity and heat as well. People who work from home typically don’t heat the house during the day in the way that they would in the evenings, and they’re much more flexible with their electricity use. For instance, it could be very useful if more people did their laundry when it’s windy, and home workers are easily able to do this. More people working from home is an opportunity to achieve some flexible energy system goals, as well as reduce transport congestion.
The lockdown has also forced many people to become familiar with teleconferencing, making sure they’ve got the right equipment and know how to use it. Going forward it should be much easier to hold remote meetings and even online conferences.
Finally, any tips for coping with lockdown?
I’ve been staying sane by being outside as much as I possibly can, cycling with my daughter and going for walks. Like everyone else I’ve learned how to make sour dough and I’ve just bought a lathe. I’m learning how to make bowls, but that happens after my daughter goes to bed!