Welcome to a new series of articles from RenEnergy: Future Voices. Every month, we’ll be talking to a different individual with a clear vision on how we can safeguard the future of the planet. Our Future Voice this month is Dr. Nigel Hargreaves: chair of local renewables cooperative, Norwich Community Solar, and consultant systems architect.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a Norwich-based chartered engineer, and I currently work across several different roles, each one related to improving our environment and tackling climate change.
I am a systems architect and operate my own consultancy, Synfo Ltd. I work alongside businesses and organisations, helping them play their part in meeting carbon reduction and sustainability targets.
Much of my consultancy thinking is based on the idea of the Doughnut Economy. This is a circular economic system that strives to fulfil human needs including social, environmental and economic justice, without overshooting available natural resources and regenerative capacities. An overshoot results in scenarios such as climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss. Undershoots are also evident in areas such as social and economic justice.
I use my understanding of complex systems to promote change ‘on the ground’ and am particularly interested in local solutions. Synfo’s work has covered a wide range of applications from smart grids and smart cities to community energy. It has also contributed to publications by the UEA on visions for sustainable futures and the Green Party’s plans for decarbonising the East of England. With abundant offshore and onshore wind and solar in East Anglia, I believe there is much to be done in bringing the right stakeholders together to develop a clean energy industry here. This could involve renewable electricity, hydrogen and a coastal waters seagrass industry to contribute to carbon drawdown. After all, we have a county-wide carbon budget of only 27.9Mtonnes CO2 (not including aviation, shipping and land-use emissions) to last us until 2100. This figure comes from the SCATTER model developed to help local authorities understand what their budget would be under our national commitment to the Paris Agreement.
Other parts of my work include Norwich Community Solar, whose mission is to provide community facilities with cost-effective, renewable energy. As the Chair, I have had the pleasure of seeing membership grow considerably, despite challenges posed by unsupportive government policies. I’m also part of two new start-ups. I am helping Goodery to set up the best system for fulfilling customer demand for good food through a zero-carbon, local economy. I also support XLwerks, a group of architects, sustainability consultants and system thinkers, collaborating to offer designs on sustainable built environments.
How did you end up where you are now?
My career path is a long and varied one! As an engineering graduate in the 1980s, I became an apprentice aircraft mechanic for British Airways and developed software for the Boeing 757. I wanted to give something back, so after seven years I left for Bangladesh with the Voluntary Service Overseas. Here I worked on renewable energy projects and designed an engine powered by waste rice husks. This experience taught me a lot about resilience; I saw some of the world’s poorest people survive by sharing and collaborating in creative ways. This sparked my interest in the interconnection between social, environmental, economic and technical systems.
From there, I went to Sudan, where I had my first experience of solar PV. Based in a remote part of the country with no infrastructure, I installed solar arrays to power electric water pumps.
On returning to England, I joined a workers cooperative, manufacturing equipment for environmental science. Delta-T Devices help develop better systems around growing food. I founded the international technical support and training part of the business.
Following a lot of overseas travel, work and health issues, I wanted to try something different. Interested in alternatives to pharmaceutical dependency, I trained as a homeopath and worked in an alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre in Norwich in the early ’00s as well as seeing private clients.
Following this, I used my dual nationality to move to Australia. I worked as a site engineer at a permaculture farm growing organic produce. I then revisited my previous experience of renewables, becoming a project manager for a firm installing domestic solar thermal systems. While in Australia, I suffered a serious accident: I broke my back and nearly died. I felt I was given a second chance; from here I decided to use my skills to help others live healthier and more sustainable lives.
I returned to the UK and enrolled on a Masters degree at Brunel University studying climate change impacts and sustainability. This was around 2008, and climate change was becoming a big topic. My global travel had shown me the environmental and social impacts of global warming, and I knew I wanted to help. Getting a distinction, I was fortunate enough to receive PhD funding from the National Grid and the EPSRC to research how smart electricity grids can be developed. This eventually led me back to Norwich where I did research at UEA into the sociotechnical aspects of smart grid adoption, culminating in a report revealing how different understandings of the meaning of smart are presented by different smart grid users.
Since completing my research, I have worked as a consultant within several organisations, including the Energy Systems Catapult, exploring the integration of heat into electricity decarbonisation. I also worked with Pixie Energy in Norwich: a renewable energy consultancy born from energy analyst, Cornwall Insight. Here I worked on local energy markets and advised the Scottish Government on how to support community energy initiatives.
Following these consultancy projects, I launched Synfo Ltd and joined Norwich Community Solar.
Can you tell us more about the Doughnut Economy?
In my opinion, one must take the view that achieving change requires intervention in complex systems. The notion of net-zero, for example, opens a box of interconnecting systems: food and its supply chain, energy, transport, infrastructure, etc. They must all align or trying to reach the target will be like a game of ‘whack-a-mole’. As soon as one problem is resolved, another will pop up elsewhere working against it. Sustainability on the other hand, is about striking a regenerative balance.
The challenge is not complicated, but it is complex. Our current methods of tackling climate change aren’t working, so we need to use more systems-based approaches. For example, our current economic model is linear: we make items, use them, and throw them away. Waste happens all along the lifecycle and is polluting our air, water and food chains, creating issues for biodiversity and toxicity, as well as global warming. A more circular economy (like the Doughnut model) closes this loop and prevents wasted resources. A climate change solution that adheres to a linear economic narrative, or siloed thinking, simply cannot be effective. This means opening to the emergence of distributed clean energy networks and embracing the collaborative economy with interdependent systems such as food, transport housing and water for example. We need integrative systems design for a resilient and sustainable future where we can thrive without compromising the existence of species in the future.
Can you tell us about an interesting climate change project happening in East Anglia?
East Anglia has some of the best conditions for developing a clean energy industry in the UK, if not the world. I see offshore wind as having the greatest impact here but we are missing out on opportunities to turn some of that energy into a local clean energy industry that powers our local economy as well as exports to the rest of the country. We must start to work together to set out our priorities beyond temporary disturbance to the look of the countryside, by understanding the necessity of a zero-carbon economy. Of course, onshore wind and solar (prioritising rooftop installations initially) will complement offshore wind, but I see the integration with our local economy and supportive government policies being the enablers of such sustainable transformation.
What are some achievable steps that businesses or organisations can take to operate more sustainably?
There are many great organisations that can help businesses transit from a linear and polluting model into a greener and more circular one. Science Based Targets is one such organisation.
Their mission is to drive “ambitious corporate climate action” by helping businesses set targets for operating more sustainably. This has now been extended to SMEs. As the name suggests, these targets are created in line with the latest research on climate change and require businesses to track and report their progress.
I believe businesses also have a responsibility to fundamentally understand the consequences of their actions, including designing-out waste in their processes. While systems-based change for sustainability should be led by local authorities, that doesn’t always happen. We need entrepreneurial and open-minded thinkers to step up and contribute their expertise to designing the changes required that are compatible with our local resources and overarching goals.
What sort of green recovery would you like to see happening?
There are many civil, commercial and local government stakeholder groups in East Anglia, each with their own green initiatives and agendas. But what’s missing is coordinated action in line with the realities posed by the limited carbon budget we have according to our central government pledges and policy commitments. To reach net zero by 2050 even is a terrifying challenge that we haven’t yet got to grips with, but will depend in a large part upon the availability of clean energy for everything. We don’t have enough cross-stakeholder collaboration, let alone aligned local policy objectives and business synergies around sustainable economy.
I’d like to see a forum where these groups can agree on a green strategy that allows our region to thrive while setting targets in line with the Paris Agreement. Ideally, these local organisations, including community enterprises would be financially rewarded by central government, and granted more of their own decision-making powers for local matters. There are some great stakeholder groups in the region. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts, with the power to decide our own future.
Do you have any future predictions on how businesses and organisations will engage with renewable energy or tackle climate change?
I believe there will be winners and losers in the future of energy. Local generation will become the norm. Rather than a centralised energy system, there will be a network of nodes: small renewable ‘power stations’, even down to an individual house level, generating energy for their local areas. This system is much more resilient: one node may fail, but the rest of the system remains safe.
Those that don’t engage with distributed energy models will be the losers. Organisations that embrace local generation and/or install their own renewables solutions will have a better chance of success.
Overall, I think we’ll see more bottom-up impetus for tackling climate change. People will be increasingly anxious to drive change (in the absence of centralised leadership affecting local requirements) within their local environment to meet sustainability targets. We’ll see people engaging with education, the built environment, energy, transport, and food systems to action collective change. As carbon and other forms of pollution advance relentlessly, I hope the lessons learnt from lockdown, that dramatic change is possible if we focus on the right measures and issues, will be developed and widely implemented. But we need to work together to address the complex system involved and the Doughnut model, scaled for our locale or region, could be a great framework to capture the problem and illustrate the pathways we will have to develop.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee. If you’d like to be part of RenEnergy’s Future Voices series, email Melissa.