Greenhouse Pioneer: Simon Roberts, Centre for Sustainable Energy

While world leaders queued up in New York to sign the Paris Climate Agreement there were people in the UK getting ill and dying because they were unable to keep their homes warm enough. These two apparently disconnected issues are the two sides of sustainable energy and they are both at the heart of the work of a Bristol-based charity.

cse-logoThe Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) is an independent national charity which is addressing these two key challenges: the misery of cold homes and the threat of climate change. The charity is helping householders and communities take action as well as working with councils to develop low carbon initiatives and providing research and advice on key national policies. CSE provides energy advice through a free-phone service and by making home visits to vulnerable households within the local area across the West of England, Somerset and Wiltshire.

At their Bristol office Greenhouse met with Chief Executive Simon Roberts to discuss his pioneering ideas about energy efficiency, smart cities and the cruel and unnecessary suffering of people facing fuel poverty.

What is your Mission?

My mission is to share our knowledge and practical experience to empower people to change the way they think and act about energy. I aim for a world where sustainability is second nature, carbon emissions have been cut to safe levels and fuel poverty has been replaced by energy justice.

What motivates you?

On a basic level I have a general sense that I should leave the world a better place than I found it. And for me that means trying to enrich the lives of people around me by using my abilities to help them meet their needs for low carbon, affordable energy. Thismeans tackling the injustices of our energy system – where profligate waste is allowed to sit alongside deprivation in the form of people being unable to afford to meet their basic needs such as keeping their homes warm in winter.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

Simon Roberts (Triodos 2011-68)In the 1990 I worked at Friends of the Earth on a ground breaking energy campaign. We opened up the framework thatproposed to support nuclear power so that it was also supporting renewable energy. This was a huge breakthrough with the first wind farms and landfill gas projects set up under that support regime. It also paved the way for the huge growth of the renewable energy sector.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

We’re always looking for people and funders who would like to support our work. Energy does not necessarily resonate easily with funders – it’s technically complex and hard to frame in a way which is emotionally engaging.

Also, we need to find a way to establish meaningful public consent for the energy transition that’s needed in the UK. It’s something the renewable energy sector has really only paid lip service to over the last two decades and the recent weakening of government support for renewables is the result. I wrote about that in a blog last summer.

What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?

The toughest thing I’ve done is probably one of our recent projects which explores what needs to happen in Bristol for the city realise its ambition to be a smart energy city. The gulf between that ambition and current practice is huge. So we needed to bring public, private, academic and voluntary sector interests together and think about the challenges involved from technical, commercial and social perspectives. It’s been a mind spinning exercise but we have come up with three roadmaps outlining what needs to happen over the next 5 years to realise the potential for the city to deliver a much smarter energy system in the public interest. Our next step is to work with this new collaboration of all these different stakeholders together to follow those road maps. That could be even harder!

What are you working on that is getting you fired up and excited?

smartenergy bristol

CSE have been working on the Bristol Smart City Collaboration; enhancing the financial value of renewable heat and power generated in the city

At the moment we work on three major projects. Firstly, we’re engaging the health sector in the Bristol area to tackle health problems caused by cold homes and fuel poverty. We live in a rich country but each year thousands of people die – and even more are chronically ill – because of people not being able to keep warm in their homess.

The second project is researching best practice smart energy solutions for households, businesses and cities. And the third project is exploring approaches to help people consider what a low carbon neighbourhood would look like. We’re running workshops and engaging communities – trying to build that meaningful public consent through effective and open local dialogue about what a low carbon future would look and feel like ’round here’.

Where do you want to take the charity next?

In the next six months I’d particularly like to see if we can create a smart energy enterprise cluster across the West of England, bringing together a cohort of people and businesses to develop and deliver smart energy solutions through a collaborative programme.

What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

We should all be talking about how we use energy whilstfinding out more about what a low carbon future would look like in our localities – bringingthis global issue home. Then there are the simple things: switch to LED light bulbs, reduce your heating temperature by one degree, cut 30 minutes a day from the heating cycle. Individually, doing these things will not make a significant difference, but by talking about it with friends, family and colleagues we realise our collective agency and bring the issue to life.

If you were Prime Minister for a day, what would be the first thing you’d do?

Cancel the Hinkley Point nuclear contract. The development of this site is fraud on many accounts but the fact that it’s still ‘on the cards’ is crowding out initiative and stopping far more valuable projects from happening.

Can you recommend a life-changing book for our readers?

Second Nature by Michael Pollan.Great writing (from 1997) which changed my relationship with gardening and revised my conception of what counts as ‘natural’.

What are you listening when you are cooking dinner?Simon Roberts headshot Sept 2015 small (573x640)

On Sunday it’s the 606 football phone in on Radio 5. I love the passion of the callers – be great if we could all get
that worked up and committed about sustainable energy!

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

It’s probably captured best in a quote I read recently: ‘Frustrating though this may be, confusion and complexity are generally a truer way of looking at things than certainty and simplicity.’ So stop assuming there’s a simple, clean solution and take action in spite of the mess.

Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero?

Annie Roncerel, a woman working in Brussels in the early 1990s. She worked tirelessly – and very skilfully and diplomatically – to bring all the egos from different campaigning groups together into one coherent body that could represent civil society effectively at those vital early conferences on climate change. Heroic.

To find out more about the work that CSE have been doing including the Bristol Smart City Collaboration visit their website