Almost half the UK population has lost trust in energy companies, and many are struggling to pay their bills. Why are public acceptance and trust critical to meeting our Net Zero targets? With current discussions focusing on technology and finance solutions, how could we design an energy system that has people at its heart? Zoe Le Grand, Forum’s Managing Director – UK/Europe, explores what’s wrong with the current discourse in the energy system and how Forum’s Our Energy Transformed project could help. 

The next few years will be critical if the UK is to hit its Net Zero targets, and the energy system is facing an uphill struggle amid a challenging backdrop. Geopolitical pressures significantly influence the energy market, with conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine war driving up prices globally and locally. 41% of UK citizens are struggling to pay their energy bills while energy company profits are soaring, leading to public trust in energy companies being at rock bottom 

As the UK approaches a general election this July, the stakes for the energy sector are higher than ever. Political parties are presenting their visions for the future, with energy policy being high on their agendas. The Labour Party, for instance, proposes the establishment of Great British Energy, aiming to deliver jobs, lower energy bills, greater energy security, and reduced carbon emissions.  

This election represents a pivotal moment. The path we choose will either lock us into a high-carbon energy system with power centralised in some companies and government or open an opportunity for a new system which could pave the way for transformative policies that deliver step-change towards net zero 

But achieving these ambitious targets requires more than just innovative models, and I can’t help but feel like we’re missing a trick. To achieve a green energy transition, we need people to be on boardWe need a new social contract where people trust that energy companies are working in their best interests. 

Why does public trust matter for a thriving energy system? 

You may be thinking, Surely, if we can find a way to produce lower carbon energy at a price that people can afford, why should it matter if people don’t understand or trust the energy system? 

Public acceptance and trust are critical because we need people to be involved, to consent to their data being used to manage demand and supply, utilise the battery storage in their electric cars to store energy, insulate their homes to reduce energy demand, and embrace new renewable energy generation installations in their communities.  Without it, we will see communities resisting new wind farms, and the system won’t be able to adapt to supply and demand, and precious energy will be lost through leaky buildings. 

Transforming energy with citizen engagement 

We are seeing some exciting examples of companies innovating business models to give citizens more of a stake, and more of a sayThere are renewable energy schemes, such as Ripple, that are inviting people to buy shares in windfarms or solar installations, promising savings on their bills in return. But there is a risk that this creates a two-tier energy system, with those who can afford to invest benefitting from lower bills while those who don’t are left at the mercy of the energy market.   

At the same time, proposals for local power projects are being called for, but will they focus simply on installing technologies in localities? Or will they also encourage new governance and decision-making, new power structures and new forms of value distribution? For a net-zero energy system to succeed, it should be transparent, fair, and inclusive of communities, so that benefits are equitably distributed. 

There are some great examples of a fairer, people-led approach to energy out there. For instance, Repowering London is a community energy initiative which provides local, renewable energy, co-owned and operated by the local community offering direct benefits including cost savings and community investment 

What would it take to scale-up initiatives like this? What alternative models are there that put governance and decision-making in the hands of people? What would a net zero energy system with greater public benefit, which goes beyond finance, look like at a national level? 

Introducing Our Energy Transformed 

Building on these ideas, Our Energy Transformed is a project that aims to bring together all the different actors in the energy system from companies to citizens groups, policymakers, civil engineers and technology providers. This group will explore what a transformed energy system could look like when we have people at its heart, co-developing new ideas and solutions which speak to the needs and ambitions of different communities in the UK. We will discuss what needs to happen for these new ideas to mainstream, and what barriers need to be broken down 

This project represents a critical step towards a more just and regenerative energy system. No matter who wins the election, a resilient energy system is still needed. We must remember that prioritising community involvement will be crucial if we are to create an energy system that not only meets net-zero targets but also delivers tangible benefits to all members of society. 

We are currently seeking funding for Our Energy Transformed. If you are a foundation with an interest in putting people at the heart of a Net Zero energy system in the UK, we would love to hear from you. Get in touch with us by contacting Forum’s Project Officer, Annabel Johnstone.