Voulez-vous prosumer avec moi? How France and the UK can learn from each other on collective consumption of energy

Mike Fell writes for Policy Postings about a France/UK workshop on collective consumption and peer-to-peer trading of energy, he co-organised with Alexandra Schneiders and Blanche Lormeteau of the University of Nantes.

While we knew in theory that arranging an international workshop was likely to be hard work, the reality still managed to exceed our expectations.

Identifying and then contacting the right mix of participants, sorting out dates that work for the majority, then arranging agendas, travel, accommodation and catering. All, tough but fair enough. One thing we hadn’t considered in advance — perhaps an oversight considering this was a France/UK workshop — was the possibility we might need simultaneous translation. It’s all too easy as an English speaker (especially in academia) to assume that everyone will just speak English.

We quickly realised, however, that this assumption was both wrong and unfair.

Our French co-organiser, Blanche Lormeteau, had identified potential participants with unique experience of working with the collective consumption and peer-to-peer trading of energy (the subject of the workshop), but without arranging translation, it would be impossible to benefit from their expertise. We bit the bullet and requested more funding from the original funder of the workshop, UCL Grand Challenges — and luckily they came through.

While arranging the translation required yet more unexpected administration, we’re so glad that we did. We were now able to hold a unique conversation that could never have happened otherwise.

Peer-to-peer trading and collective consumption of energy

The participants, a range of policy, industry and academic stakeholders from France and the UK, heard about the different approaches being taken towards collective consumption in both countries.

In France, legislation gives people the right to consumer electricity they generate (such as through solar panels), either individually or with others (collectively) if they form a legal entity and are connected to the same substation. In the UK, this kind of collective consumption is allowed under trial conditions in a regulatory sandbox run by Ofgem, the regulator.

One form of collective consumption is peer-to-peer trading, where households can sell energy they generate to others, such as their neighbours. This can support low-carbon generation, potentially help fund community organizations, and could also be a way of making more efficient use of the electricity grid.

Certain challenges are common to both countries. Probably the main one is how to charge for the use of the networks which transport electricity. Currently these costs form part of the unit price of electricity, and vary only depending on where we live (in the UK), or not at all (in France).

Proponents of collective consumption argue that because local energy trading relies less on the national network, and can also help in managing local grids, network charges for participants should be reduced.

The counter argument, however, is that those who do not participate in local trading (perhaps those who can’t afford solar panels or batteries) will end up picking up more of the cost for operating the whole network. And even those who get a lot of their energy locally still rely on the national grid from time to time.

There are therefore important questions for policymakers around how to fairly apportion these network costs — but we heard from various participants that, without reform, the opportunities for collective consumption could be limited.

The question has an important political angle, since in France (especially) there is a strong emphasis on national solidarity, where essential services such as electricity provision are seen as a national responsibility to which all citizens should have equivalent access — a situation which local pricing approaches could be incompatible with.

Other key points that arose included getting clarity on the rights and obligations of prosumers (those who both produce and use energy, or provide other electricity system services), understanding potential impacts on vulnerable people, and how the benefits of increased data availability could be maximised while assuring acceptable levels of privacy and security.

Learning from each other

The main thing we took from the workshop was the value of this kind of focused, in-depth, international discussion. UK participants could see how French law-making in this area was giving confidence to innovators, even if the network charging and tax regime is not yet fully aligned to support this.

French participants, on the other hand, admired the regulatory sandbox approach which gives projects greater flexibility to experiment and demonstrate value.

To return to where we started in this blog, it’s clear that even once the workshop is over, the work doesn’t stop. As well as producing summary notes, we’ve also published policy briefings in English and French, and will shortly be releasing a summary of key research needs. We are also planning to work on an academic paper with two of our French collaborators — so watch this space for more.

Mike Fell is a Research Associate, Buildings (Domestic Energy & Behaviour) at the UCL Energy Institute.

Please get in touch with any comments or questions! You can reach Mike Fell at michael.fell@ucl.ac.uk or @mikefsway, and Alexandra Schneiders on a.schneiders@ucl.ac.uk or @LexScn.