The Centre for Sustainable Energy’s 40th anniversary conference ‘Inspiring Our Sustainable Energy Future’

By Colin Nolden. Colin is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at University of Bristol Law School. He is also a non-executive director at Community Energy South and currently works for Riding Sunbeams.

On Thursday 13 June 2019, the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) celebrated its 40th anniversary with a conference and party at ‘We the Curious’ in Bristol. The event had sold out well in advance and a packed room with around 150 attendees, including many of those that were involved from its early days, eagerly anticipated the great range of speakers lined up for the day to inspire ‘our sustainable energy future’.

And they were not let down. CSE Chief Executive Simon Roberts set the scene by calling for more urgency: ‘The danger is that we think we need to know everything to do anything’. A tour de force of CSE’s staff and guests from across the industry, including an all-female panel at the end, followed, divided into the 3 main themes of people, places and systems.


Adam Corner (Research Director at Climate Outreach) discussed how the new Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) centre based at Cardiff University seeks to link the dots that are not connected between bans on plastic bags and the journey of social transformation required to maintain our development trajectory within planetary boundaries.

Meghna Tewari (Head of Consumer Policy at Ofgem) pointed towards Ofgem’s commitment to alleviating social inequalities through its vulnerability strategy and their ambition to create a better representation of various ‘publics’ through the creation of ‘archetypes’. She also suggested that regulation will need to change significantly in light of mounting uncertainty.

Ian Preston (Head of Household Services at CSE) highlighted CSE’s success in advising nearly 10,000 homes on fuel poverty which has saved these households around £1.5m. Great work! They are now developing their Futureproof programme in and beyond Bristol with the help of BEIS support to develop supply chains and train builders in domestic retrofit.

Jazz Ketibuah-Foley stood out as the only non-white panellist at this event. Her moving story as a member of the BAME community attempting to breach the white male dominance in the wider sustainable energy and environment sector (which is the second most un-diverse sector after farming) was certainly an eye-opener: Although the BAME community is often disproportionately affected by energy and climate injustices, the lack of role models and spaces to engage imply a lack of understanding of the needs, requirements and desires of non-white communities.

Rosemary Kelly (Bright Green Future), despite her young age of 17, spoke very eloquently about the dangers of alienating communities that are often left behind in discussions around sustainable energy futures. Her personal experience of fellow school children chanting in favour of climate change while she attempted to raise awareness of the issue at her own school is certainly a strong reminder that the younger members of society from urban and rural communities all need to be involved in shaping inclusive and sustainable futures.


Becky Willis (University of Exeter) followed on seamlessly by sharing her experience of engaging former coal communities with the help of the New Economics Foundation. She emphasized the importance to taking their pragmatic answers seriously. She subsequently introduced us to the concept of Cockpitism which describes the tendency to leave decisions to white male pilots who view the issues from afar.

Rachel Coxcoon (Head of Local & Community Empowerment at CSE) called for participatory projects that create a shared understanding and values-based considerations at the point at which support for renewables drops. Emphasis needs to be placed on free, prior and informed consent (in line with UN recommendations), especially given the radical landscape changes required for a sustainable energy future.

Barbara Hammond MBE (Chief Executive of the Low Carbon Hub) spoke about progressive local energy planning and development in Oxfordshire. Their Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund supported LEO (???) project requires engagement of all communities, households and businesses and she explained this approach brilliantly using the example of Osney Island.

Jane Wildblood (Corporate & Community Sustainability Manger at Bath & North East Somerset Council) opened our eyes not only to the importance of leadership on climate action at council level but of mainstreaming climate emergency by including it in templates and decision-making. It is now a requirement in BaNES to demonstrate how investments address the climate emergency. She finished by calling on more sustainability advocates to engage in parish council meetings.

Polly Billington (Director of UK100) quite rightly remarked that this was the first conference she attended where she entirely agreed with everything that had been said. Without notes, she delivered a compelling call to garner cross-party support for climate change action by tapping into people’s fears and anxieties relating to health, security and jobs. She also stressed that we should not leave environmental decision-making to MAMILs (middle-age men in lycra) – otherwise ‘sustainable’ solutions will fail to take other members of society into account.


Felicity Jones (Partner at Everoze) advocated the concept of swarm governance for domestic demand-side response. Based on lean rules and principles combined with trust and good data, she suggested that some of the challenges associated with the static governance model may thus be overcome.

Alison Sleightholm (Resources and External Affairs Director at Western Power Distribution) discussed the role of Distribution System Operators in sustainable energy futures, describing some of the initiatives that WPD has in working with communities –  such as the ‘Open LV’ project giving access to substation data.

Joshua Thumim (Head of Research and Analysis at CSE) rounded it off by providing insights into CSE’s impressively detailed modelling tools which allow heat supply options to be costed remotely using GIS tools.

Joanna Wade OBE (Deputy Director of the Association for Decentralised Energy) suggested testing policies with users and rewarding users for beneficial actions to roll our sustainable and decentralised energy systems


Finally, the all-female panel suggested regulating for outcomes, rather than outputs.

All in all it was an excellent conference with brilliant speakers, great networking and unbeatable cake!