Energy firms’ customer service plummets to record lows, Citizens Advice says

With call waiting times rising and customers saying they can’t get hold of their supplier, the average score (2.8 stars) for the Citizens Advice’s ratings table is the lowest on record.

Standards have plummeted since June 2021 when the energy market started to collapse, with millions of customers shifted to new suppliers as a result of their own provider failing.

To prevent such a scenario occurring again, UK energy regulator Ofgem recently announced tough new measures to prevent waves of suppliers from failing during future periods of price volatility.

Citizens Advice is warning the decline is happening at a time when people need good customer service the most. Between January and March 2022, the charity’s Consumer Service helpline saw more than 70,000 cases related to energy issues – a 63 per cent increase on the same period the previous year.

Even at the top of the table, standards are spiralling down. The highest score is now just 3.6 stars, compared to 3.85 in the previous quarter and 4.65 at the same time in the previous year.

Energy suppliers are obliged to help people who can’t afford their bills, but Citizens Advice warns they’ve been struggling to cope with increased demand over the past year.

The charity is particularly worried about people on prepayment meters, who are at risk of having no gas or electricity if they can’t afford to top up.

The average time to wait on the phone to speak to an energy supplier is now around six and a half minutes (391 seconds), compared to just under four minutes (224 seconds) during the same period in the previous year.

Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “At a time when customers need all the support they can get, it’s worrying to see service performance is the worst on record. This leaves people frustrated and in the dark at the end of the phone.

“For many families on low incomes, life will get even harder when the price cap goes up again in October, despite government support.

“We recognise call centre staff are working incredibly hard to answer as many calls as possible, but energy companies must do better. This should include improving support services for people struggling the most. Ofgem should make sure suppliers are following the rules, and take action where needed.”

One of the largest energy firms to fail in recent months was Bulb, which had around 1.6 million customers when it collapsed. This meant it was too big for the government to allow it to go through the normal process that suppliers enter when they fail.

Despite being bailed out months ago, the firm has continued to be run by its co-founder Hayden Wood. But the government announced today that he would step down at the end of July while it looks for a sale of the group.

He will not be replaced, with the role being split among the remaining executive team.

US Supreme Court restricts government’s powers to regulate carbon emissions

The administration of US President Joe Biden has suffered a significant blow, as the country's highest court has ruled that the country's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not have the authority to limit emissions that contribute to climate change across whole states.

The court sided with 19 conservative states and fossil fuel companies in a case against the EPA brought by West Virginia. In its 6-3 ruling, the court said that only Congress, not the EPA, has the power to create a broad system of cap-and-trade regulations to limit emissions from existing power plants. 

Biden called the ruling a "devastating decision" but said that it will not undermine his administration's efforts to curb climate change and reach the goal to completely cut all carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and reduce the country’s overall emissions by half by 2100.

The EPA called the Supreme Court's decision "disheartening", but said that it remains committed to protecting communities and reducing pollution.

The case stems from a disagreement about the Clean Air Act, a groundbreaking environmental law that lays out the EPA’s responsibility to protect the nation’s air quality by regulating pollution. In 2015, the Obama administration invoked this legislation to mandate a new set of regulations for power plants called the Clean Power Plan. 

Under the 2015 EPA directive, coal power plants were mandated to either reduce production or subsidise alternate forms of energy. However, the rule was never implemented because it was immediately challenged in court by states concerned that the move away from coal would come at a high economic cost and reduce the number of available jobs.

Eventually, the Trump administration replaced the Clean Power Plan with its own weaker greenhouse gas regulations called the Affordable Clean Energy rule.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt for Missouri - one of the 19 states that supported this case - called the ruling a "big victory... that pushes back on the Biden EPA's job-killing regulations".

Currently, fossil fuel-fired power plants are the second-largest source of pollution in the US, while the nation as a whole is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world behind only China, according to the EPA.

The 19 states involved in the case alone made up 44 per cent of the US emissions in 2018 and since 2000 have only achieved an average 7 per cent reduction in their emissions.

The court's decision now forces Biden to rely on a change of policy from the states in question, or a change in the stance of Congress regarding these issues, for the country to reach its climate targets

“Today, the Court strips the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the power Congress gave it to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,’” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissenting opinion, joined by the court’s two other liberal judges. 

Although the ruling affects a law that never came into effect, it could also have sweeping consequences for the federal government’s ability to set standards and regulate in other areas, such as clean air and water, consumer protections, banking, workplace safety and public health. 

The decision gives "enormous power" to the courts to target other regulations they don't like, noted Hajin Kim, assistant professor of law at the University of Chicago, speaking to the BBC, as judges can now say that Congress did not explicitly authorise the agency to do a certain thing. 

Last year, the US rejoined the Paris Agreement - having been taken out by one-term president and climate change denier Donald Trump - and pledged to contribute to limiting global warming to 2° Celsius above preindustrial levels. However, according to the watchdog Climate Action Tracker (CAT), the country is not yet meeting its obligations under the agreement.

Switch to energy-efficient LED lighting now to mitigate energy crisis, company says

Signify argues that the switch to LED lighting would help the millions of families pushed into fuel poverty due to the recent surge in energy prices by saving each household up to £250 per year. The move would also benefit businesses and could deliver a quick win for the UK’s net-zero ambitions.

With the recent change in price cap introduced in April 2022, millions of households have been pushed into fuel poverty and several businesses are now facing added volatility due to its impact. Earlier this week, for example, it was reported that the automotive industry is facing a 50 per cent hike in energy costs this year.

In response to the energy price squeeze, Signify – a long-established name in lighting – is advocating an accelerated transition to energy-efficient connected LED lighting. With energy prices around the globe reaching all-time highs and global emissions rising at unprecedented levels, the company said it is now more urgent than ever that businesses lead by example and take immediate action to tackle climate change.

Over a decade since Signify called for a worldwide phasing-out of the energy-inefficient incandescent light bulb, the company is now calling for the transition to energy-efficient connected LED lighting as the new standard of ‘general lighting’ (defined as everyday lighting, e.g. bulbs and luminaires for home and professional settings such as offices, commercial buildings, retail, stadiums, road and street, bridge, park and tunnel lighting, and so forth).

The fact is acknowledged that there will be some non-LED conventional lighting still sold and used for specialist applications, where there is no LED alternative, but a majority switch to LED lighting would help meet the goals of the UK’s ten-point plan and similar commitments that other nations around the world have made in line with the Paris Agreement.

According to Signify’s findings, switching to LED lighting in the professional lighting market could reduce CO2 emissions by 3.9 million tonnes in the UK&I region (defined as comprising Britain and Northern Ireland). This is the same amount of CO2 that 175 million trees could sequester in a year. Making the switch would also save 16.1TWh of electricity, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of more than 4.3 million households. This would result in an estimated saving of €3.8bn (£3.3bn) on electricity costs, according to Signify's calculations (based on a simulation within the framework of its 'Green Switch' conventional light point conversion model). Upgrading to connected LED lighting could also offer enhanced controls for better energy consumption management.

For private households, research from the Energy Saving Trust (data published in its 'Guide to energy efficient lighting') indicates that lighting takes up around 11 per cent of the average UK household electricity consumption. Signify's own UK data suggests that, on average, a home has 15 incandescent bulbs on for three hours a day.

After the change in the energy price cap introduced in April, Signify calculates that switching to energy-efficient LED lighting could help the average British household save £15-£18 per light bulb, which equates to a saving of £250 per year (based on a saving at three hours per day, 365 days a year, at 28p per kWh, where a 60W incandescent bulb is replaced with a 60W equivalent (7w) LED bulb).

Stephen Rouatt, CEO, Signify UK&I, said: “Households in the UK are now in one of the most difficult situations as they see their energy bills rise by 54 per cent, while businesses continue to struggle as well. We understand the urgency created by the energy crisis to help families and businesses under pressure. Switching to energy-efficient LED lighting guarantees quick wins in saving money on energy bills and responding to the urgent action needed to tackle the climate crisis.

“Accelerating the transition to LED lighting is one of the quickest renovations that can dramatically cut CO2 – it does not require large capital investments, has a short payback time and can positively impact the challenge posed by the UK’s built environment and its carbon footprint.

“As leaders in the lighting sector, we have a firm commitment to transformative action and there is no better opportunity than London Climate Action Week to commit to change. This is an opportunity to harness the power that businesses, climate professionals and communities in London can bring forward to tackle global climate action."

The International Energy Agency (IEA) echoes Signify’s call to LED action. Nicholas Howarth, senior analyst at the IEA, said: “The world is facing the most significant energy crisis in recent history and energy efficiency is a solution to many of its most urgent challenges.

“Highlighting its importance, in June at the IEA Global Conference on Energy Efficiency, 27 governments from around the world issued the Sønderburg Action Plan calling for energy efficiency and demand side action to play a much greater role protecting households, businesses and the economy from high energy prices. This is vital for addressing the energy crisis, rising inflation and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Stronger policy packages covering regulations, information and incentives will play a key role accelerating energy efficiency and related measures. This includes the deployment of smart, efficient lighting, upgrading homes with better insulation, improving the fuel efficiency of cars, as well fostering investment in new industrial machinery.

“Efficient lighting is a proven technology to reduce electricity demand, fast. This will also help create extra electricity capacity needed for electric heat pumps and vehicles which put upwards pressure on power demand."

Climate Group, an international non-profit working with businesses and governments around the world to drive climate action, is also aligned with Signify’s ambitions. Toby Morgan, senior manager for the built environment at Climate Group, said: “LEDs play a key role in decarbonisation as we strive to halve emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero carbon buildings by 2050. The unprecedented energy savings from LEDs compared to traditional lighting presents compelling urgency to raise the priority of global LED adoption.

“The drive towards smart, connected LEDs can also serve as a digital platform for smart building and Internet of Things solutions, opening up a myriad of options for businesses.”

UK’s first mass-produced hydrogen truck unveiled

Truckmaker Tevva has launched the first hydrogen fuel cell-supported heavy goods vehicle (HGV) to be manufactured, designed and mass-produced in the UK.

The hydrogen fuel cell system has been integrated into the firm’s battery-electric HGV design, enabling the hydrogen to top up the battery in order for the truck to carry heavier loads over longer distances. As a result, the 7.5-tonne hydrogen-electric truck can be driven for up to 310 miles, according to Tevva.

“When a zero-emission truck is doing more miles per day, that is very good for the air we breathe, for the planet and for the economics of running electric trucks,” said Tevva’s CEO and founder Asher Bennett.

“Every mile you drive on an electric truck, it’s so much cheaper than driving on a diesel truck.”

New hydrogen electric truck from Tevva

New hydrogen electric truck / Tevva

Image credit: Tevva

Hydrogen has been used safely in buses and other vehicles in more than twenty countries for many years, and many consider it the solution to the decarbonisation challenge the transport sector currently faces. 

Although hydrogen is currently more expensive and harder to obtain than electricity, it has a higher energy density than lithium-ion batteries or even diesel, a characteristic that makes it particularly attractive for use in larger, commercial vehicles.

In 2019, for example, HGVs contributed 18 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, according to UK government figures.

By adding a hydrogen fuel cell system to its battery-electric HGV design, Tevva is reportedly able to enable zero-emission transport solutions for the majority of fleet operators.

In its truck design, the hydrogen acts as a range extender, rather than the primary source of power. Instead, the new lorry’s “main fuel” will continue to be its electric-powered battery which is recharged overnight, according to the company. However, the addition of a hydrogen supply will “remove the concern” that the battery could run out of power.

Engineer working on new hydrogen truck

Engineer working on new hydrogen truck / Tevva

Image credit: Tevva

Tevva is offering “affordable” hydrogen supplies to customers, according to Bennet, that provide similar refuelling times as those of diesel truck refuelling (5-20 minutes), while also “future-proofing” the transport industry. 

“Hydrogen fuel cells and other zero-emission technology will be vital in helping us decarbonise transport,” said Transport Minister Trudy Harrison.

“A thriving UK hydrogen industry could not only help us meet our climate change obligations but also support thousands of jobs across the country in years to come.”

From 2040, the sale of new diesel-powered lorries will be banned in the UK, as part of the country’s efforts to reach net-zero for carbon emissions by 2050, prompting carmakers to come up with new net-zero solutions that will meet the needs of fleet operations and support the country’s vital supply chains.

Telecoms and automotive industries seek solutions amidst cost of living crisis

The UK’s biggest broadband and mobile companies have agreed to improve low-cost offers to help customers stay connected as the cost of living soars.

The bosses of BT Group, Openreach, Virgin Media O2, Vodafone, Three, TalkTalk and Sky made a number of commitments to support vulnerable customers during a Government-led summit at Downing Street yesterday (Monday 27 June).

The measures include allowing people struggling with their bills to switch to cheaper packages or agreeing manageable payment plans, exploring tariffs, improving existing deals and better promoting these more affordable options.

Telecoms providers, with the help of government, will also raise awareness of low-cost products to people on Universal Credit.

While social tariffs, or discounted deals, are already available to customers who receive certain government benefits, anyone struggling to pay their mobile or broadband bill can now “expect support from their provider if they ask for it,” according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

Digital Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “Families across the country face increased anxiety about keeping up with bills, so today I agreed with broadband and mobile industry bosses what more can be done to support people during this difficult time.

“I’m pleased to report the industry is listening and has signed up to new commitments offering customers struggling with the cost of living help to stay connected. Those who need support should contact their supplier to see what is available.”

Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the pledges “must progress to tougher, permanent protections.”

She added: “We still see too many examples of sharp practice like overcharging loyal customers, inflation-busting mid-contract price rises and a shockingly low take-up of social tariffs. So this is by no means job done.”

Meanwhile, the soaring cost of energy - affecting millions of consumers - is also hitting industry hard. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), UK vehicle-makers are facing a 50 per cent increase in energy costs this year.

Analysis by the SMMT states that the sector’s annual energy bill – already £50m more than its European Union rivals – will rise by an additional £90m in 2022.

UK electricity prices are the most expensive of any European automotive manufacturing country and 59 per cent above the EU average, according to the SMMT. The industry body says this means UK firms could have saved nearly £50m annually if they were buying energy in the EU even before this year’s spike in prices.

The additional cost of producing vehicles and components in the UK is putting manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage, the SMMT warned.

Speaking at the organisation’s annual summit in central London, Mike Hawes, the SMMT's chief executive, said challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic, parts shortages and trade uncertainty are “immense,” but addressing the UK’s high energy costs is “the industry’s number one ask” as they are hitting manufacturers “extraordinarily hard.”

The Government must do “all it can to create stability and help keep us globally competitive”, Hawes said.

He welcomed the news that electric vehicle battery manufacturers are benefitting from support as energy-intensive businesses, but cautioned that manufacturers are not benefitting from a cap on energy prices and that “we need energy costs to be competitive for all the automotive industry.”

Hawes warned that inflation, energy shortages, rising fuel prices and the cost-of-living crisis give the impression the UK faces “the return of the 1970s.” He acknowledged the automotive industry is being “hit hard just like it was hit then”, but he insisted there is a “big difference.”

He said: “Go back to the ’70s, typified by poor management, poor labour relations, hence poor quality. That’s not the situation now. We have a global reputation for engineering excellence, innovation, admired and desirable brands from across the country.

“We have a strong foundation. We’re still a powerhouse of international trade, with great wealth, contributing billions to the economy and supporting thousands of livelihoods in every corner of the country.”

However, he also noted that circumstances in recent years “have not been easy,” with Brexit a “trauma” that is “not yet done.”

In a pre-recorded video message for the industry summit, Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the audience of automotive leaders that the sector is “incredibly important to the UK economy” and “that’s why the Government is doing more to support you.”

Sunak said this support includes a commitment for £2.5bn of investment since 2020 to support the transition to zero-emission vehicles.

Why using up-to-date clean air technology is a win-win solution

The importance of clean air to the UK is finally being recognised. A new clean air law is starting its passage through Parliament as a tribute to nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died from asthma induced by air pollution. The bill would establish a right to clean air, and set up a commission to oversee government actions and progress – but could more be done?

Poor air quality causes heart and lung diseases, is linked to low birth weight and children’s lung development,?and may even contribute to?mental health issues. The way the clean air problem can be tackled is clear: improving both outdoor and indoor air quality through a number of means. It might be surprising to know that we spend 90 per cent of our time in buildings. So, when much of the conversation focuses on improving outdoor air quality, indoor air quality (IAQ) cannot be ignored. Indoor air is sometimes five times more polluted than outdoor air, so even just ensuring clean air is being filtered in from outside buildings can be enough.

How can we improve our air quality? Control, improved ventilation, and clean air technology can all assist in improving both outdoor and indoor air quality. Among other changes, existing buildings must improve the quality of air through the installation of new controls. In new buildings, there must be regulations put in place to ensure that the air quality for the occupants is safe, efficient and healthy. Without clean air technology, particulate matter can invade our indoor spaces and cause health problems.

Air pollution should be considered as a decisive factor for all of us in choosing an area to live in and a place to work. To start delivering the change at the speed needed, we must look to the technologies that address the problem. To improve the air that we breathe every day, we need to use operational technology. Technologies exist that can capture 99.7 per cent of airborne pathogens, ensuring the air people breathe is safe.

Regulations around clean air need to be revised and drastically improved. Currently, the HSE Approved Code of Practice states fresh air flow should not fall below 5 to 8 litres of air per second per occupant, while CIBSE’s guidance suggests that buildings should have a ventilation rate of 10 litres per second per person. For the regulations to be effective, though, more needs to change than just the ventilation rate. Simply put, regulations are not strong enough and will put the health of your employees and the productivity of your business at risk. Businesses that truly want to get the best out of their employees and keep them healthy must set their own higher benchmark for clean air.

It’s great to tick the regulatory box, but we shouldn’t be waiting to be pushed to make these changes – there is added value in being more energy efficient and using smart technologies, particularly in the name of safety. One thing is for certain: to avoid falling short, clean air technology is a must.

While it’s a given that we must put safety first, how is clean air technology successfully implemented? To effectively exceed current clean air regulations, the technology used must be linked to an occupancy measuring solution and technology to measure air quality.

Occupancy management and measuring come down to two things. First, it’s about ensuring the maximum occupancy of rooms isn’t exceeded. This can be done effectively by introducing booking systems, which is particularly easy post-Covid due to a hybrid working environment. Secondly, it’s important to use technology that can constantly count how many people are in each room.

The data collected from occupancy-measuring technology can then be fed to the ventilation, filtration and disinfection technologies. So long as the maximum occupancy isn’t exceeded, you can then automatically adjust ventilation rates in the room, providing the optimum level of clean air for the number of occupants. This integrated approach ensures the system isn’t working at full throttle all day, helping to reduce costs and improve energy efficiency.

Investing in clean air technology means investing in people’s health. Not only do occupants benefit, but so do businesses – it’s a win/win. Improved indoor air quality not only holds huge health benefits, but also increases productivity within the workplace.

Integrated clean air technologies allow employees to focus and thrive in their respective environments, and businesses now have the opportunity to create an environment that’s sustainable, efficient, and healthy. Ultimately, air quality needs to be put firmly on the agenda, at all times.

Mark Bouldin is a clean air expert at Johnson Controls.

Cities of the future could be built with algae-grown limestone

Global cement production accounts for approximately 7 per cent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, in large part through the burning of quarried limestone, and concrete is one of the most ubiquitous materials on the planet, a staple of construction around the world. It starts as a mixture of water and portland cement, which forms a paste to which materials such as sand, gravel or crushed stone are added. The paste binds the aggregates together and the mixture hardens into concrete.

To make portland cement, the most common type of cement, limestone is extracted from large quarries and burned at high temperatures, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. The research team found that replacing quarried limestone with biologically grown limestone, a natural process that some species of calcareous microalgae complete through photosynthesis (just like growing coral reefs), creates a net-carbon-neutral way to make portland cement. In short, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere equals what the microalgae already captured.

Ground limestone is also often used as a filler material in portland cement, typically replacing 15 per cent of the mixture. By using biogenic limestone instead of quarried limestone as the filler, portland cement could become not only net neutral, but also carbon negative by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it permanently in concrete.

The CU Boulder engineers and their colleagues at the Algal Resources Collection at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have been rewarded for their work with a $3.2m grant from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, Energy.

The research team has also been selected by the HESTIA program (Harnessing Emissions into Structures Taking Inputs from the Atmosphere) to develop and scale-up the manufacture of biogenic limestone-based portland cement and help build a zero-carbon future.

“This is a really exciting moment for our team,” said Wil Srubar (pictured), lead principal investigator on the project and associate professor in Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and CU Boulder’s Materials Science and Engineering Program. “For the industry, now is the time to solve this very wicked problem. We believe that we have one of the best solutions, if not the best solution, for the cement and concrete industry to address its carbon problem.”

Wil Srubar holds a sample cube of concrete that contains biogenic limestone produced by calcifying macro- and microalgae

Image credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder

If all cement-based construction around the world was replaced with biogenic limestone cement, each year a whopping two gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would no longer be pumped into the atmosphere and more than 250 million additional tonnes of carbon dioxide would be pulled out of the atmosphere and stored in these materials.

This could theoretically happen overnight, as biogenic limestone can “plug and play” with modern cement production processes, said Srubar.

“We see a world in which using concrete as we know it is a mechanism to heal the planet,” said Srubar. “We have the tools and the technology to do this today.”

Srubar said the idea came to him while snorkeling on his honeymoon in Thailand in 2017. He saw firsthand in coral reefs how nature grows its own durable, long-lasting structures from calcium carbonate, a main component of limestone. "If nature can grow limestone, why can’t we?" he thought.

“There was a lot of clarity in what I had to pursue at that moment. Everything I've done since then has really been building up to this,” he said.

The team subsequently began to cultivate coccolithophores: cloudy white microalgae that sequester and store carbon dioxide in mineral form through photosynthesis. The only difference between limestone and what these organisms create in real time is a few million years.

With only sunlight, seawater and dissolved carbon dioxide, these tiny organisms produce the largest amounts of new calcium carbonate on the planet and at a faster pace than coral reefs. Coccolithophore blooms in the world’s oceans are so big they can be seen from space.

“On the surface, they create these very intricate, beautiful calcium carbonate shells. It's basically an armour of limestone that surrounds the cells,” said Srubar.

These microalgae are hardy little creatures, living in both warm and cold, salt and fresh waters around the world, making them great candidates for cultivation almost anywhere: in cities, on land, or at sea. According to the team’s estimates, only one to two million acres of open ponds would be required to produce all of the cement that the US needs – only 0.5 per cent of all land area in the US and only 1 per cent of the land used to grow corn.

Limestone isn’t the only product microalgae can create: microalgae’s lipids, proteins, sugars and carbohydrates can be used to produce biofuels, food and cosmetics, meaning these microalgae could also be a source of other, more expensive co-products, all helping to offset the costs of limestone production.

To create these co-products from algal biomass and to scale-up limestone production as quickly as possible, the Algal Resources Collection at UNCW is assisting with strain selection and growth optimisation of the microalgae. NREL is providing state-of-the art molecular and analytical tools for conducting biochemical conversion of algal biomass to biofuels and bio-based products. Companies have already expressed interest in buying these materials, with the limestone already available in limited quantities.

The current pace of global construction is staggering, on track to build a new New York City every month for the next 40 years. To Srubar, this global growth is not just an opportunity to convert buildings into carbon sinks, but to clean up the construction industry. He hopes that replacing quarried limestone with a homegrown version can also improve air quality, reduce environmental damage and increase equitable access to building materials around the world.

“We make more concrete than any other material on the planet and that means it touches everybody's life,” said Srubar. “It's really important for us to remember that this material must be affordable and easy to produce and the benefits must be shared on a global scale.”

The cement and concrete industry is well aware of its environmental impact. Earlier this month, cement and concrete industry CEOs met with global policymakers including the United Nations, the US Department of Energy, global economists and built environment leaders to discuss how to establish a sustainable future for the built environment.

E&T produced a cement and concrete special issue earlier this year, looking at new ways to use these classic building materials, bioengineering solutions for the future, tackling the carbon footprint, smarter and greener options, and the first concrete on the Moon

Early warning of bridge damage could be predicted by new sensor design

Scour is erosion of riverbeds and banks, which can cause major bridge structural failure problems. Dr Myra Lydon has been working on the sensor to tackle the problem since 2021.

An initial prototype sensor has been developed in partnership with Somni Solutions Ltd and testing has now completed. Dr Lydon hopes it will be in place on a Northern Ireland bridge this summer and after further research there will be a wider roll out of the device.

The project has been funded by UK Research and Innovation’s Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAA) and Invest NI has provided additional funding for market exploration.

Dr Lydon explained the significance of the new sensor at Queen’s University Belfast’s ‘Research with Impact’ event, which took place at the Sonic Arts Research Centre: “In 2019, it was estimated that within the UK an average of 8.2 million passenger journeys are lost annually due to the risk of bridge scour, with an associated economic cost of £60m.

“In 2009, we witnessed catastrophic bridge failure in Malahide, Co. Dublin, where scour failure occurred suddenly. With scour, there is often no prior visible sign of distress to structure. In Malahide, the bridge was inspected just weeks prior to its collapse and had passed inspection, but then failed seconds after a full passenger train crossed. Thankfully, it narrowly avoided the catastrophe.

“It is vital that we protect our bridges and are able to detect scour before incidents like this take place. The sensor that we have developed detects changes in the riverbed prior to the damage occurring on the bridge. This can provide an early warning, which undoubtedly is safer and helps to prevent widespread bridge failures when we are faced with extreme climate events, such as flooding.”

Dr Myra Lydon, Queen's University, Belfast - inline RF

Image credit: Queen's University

Initial laboratory and field trials have been completed and Dr Lydon is now working with Kris Campbell Head from the Highway Structures Unit in the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure to identify a suitable test site. The sensor will be installed along with other structural health-monitoring equipment to ensure the safety of aging bridges.

Professor Roger Woods, dean of research for the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Queen's, said: “Today’s [‘Research with Impact’] event has been a fantastic opportunity to hear about the innovative and revolutionary research being carried out at Queen’s.

“Our researchers continue to make a difference to lives and livelihoods in Northern Ireland and around the world. Through cutting-edge research, experts at Queen’s are developing solutions to real-world problems on our doorstop, which has a positive impact right across the globe.”

Earlier this year, scientists called for a ‘paradigm change’ in the science of forecasting corrosion damage for reinforced-concrete structures such as bridges, warning that the issue is a “pervasive, urgent problem” that requires greater attention and public awareness.

The group of researchers from Switzerland, the US, Canada and Norway said the most common cause of degradation and failures of reinforced-concrete structures is chloride-induced corrosion of embedded steel elements.

Meanwhile, at the start of June, construction began on what will eventually be the UK’s longest railway bridge - the Colne Valley Viaduct - which will stretch for two miles across a series of lakes and waterways between Hillingdon and the M25. The enormo-bridge is part of the HS2 rail project.

Ofgem unveils plans to prevent energy supplier collapse amid price volatility

The plans set out tough new measures to improve the financial health of energy suppliers so that they can withstand future shocks in the energy market, especially over the autumn and winter.

The proposed changes include protecting consumer credit balances and green levies when suppliers fail, to prevent the costs being picked up by consumers.

There will also be new requirements for suppliers to have better control over the key assets they need to run their supply business, and a tightening of the rules on the level of direct debits suppliers can charge customers, to ensure credit balances do not become excessive.

These changes will reduce the risk of suppliers going bust and protect the credit balances of energy customers if this does happen, preventing a repeat of last year’s failures.

The cost of moving customers to new suppliers from 28 failed suppliers since September 2021, including new suppliers having to buy extra gas at short notice while prices were at record highs and replacing lost customer credit balances and green levy/renewables payments, was £94 per household.

Jonathan Brearley, CEO of Ofgem, said: “Today’s plans are another step in making sure the complex energy market is fair, resilient and works for everyone.

“The energy market remains incredibly volatile and there are a number of huge geopolitical issues continuing to apply massive pressure. Ofgem is working hard to ensure energy suppliers shore up their positions so they can weather the ongoing storm.

“By ensuring that suppliers are operating well-financed, sustainable, and have more resilient business models, we can avoid the supplier failures we saw last year which caused huge stress and worry and added costs to everyone’s bills.

“But if some do still fail, consumer credit balances and green levy/renewables payments will be protected. Currently they are used by some suppliers like an interest free company credit card. Moving forward, all suppliers will have to have enough working capital to run, without putting their customers’ credit balances at risk. Today’s proposals will make sure that customers’ hard-earned money is properly protected so that a company must foot the bill if it fails, rather than consumers picking up the tab.”

When an energy supplier fails, Ofgem’s safety net means customers are quickly moved to a new energy supplier with their credit balances intact.

This protected over 2 million customers last year. But under current rules the new supplier does not get the customer credit balances from the failed supplier, so the costs of replacing those balances are currently shared across all consumer bills. A similar arrangement is in place for money paid through customer bills to the Renewables Obligation, the government’s green levy scheme.

The plans announced today would mean energy retailers are required to protect their customers’ money.

These proposals form part of Ofgem’s plan to build longer-term resilience in the market by encouraging sustainable business models and stopping risky behaviour.

In May it was announced that the energy price cap will rise again in October, from £1,971 to £2,800 a year.

Could AI protect renewable energy sources on the grid?

According to experts, solar panels and wind turbines, now projected to produce 44 per cent of America’s electricity by 2050, present cyber-security challenges.

Many of these renewables have sensors, controllers, actuators or inverters that are directly or indirectly connected to the internet, and they’re distributed far and wide across the country and the countryside.

Many have insecure connectivity to legacy electric grid systems, therefore making them subject to advanced persistent threats. More of these systems will also be online over the next few years.

So there’s a need for cyber-security systems that “prevent, detect and mitigate” attacks on renewable sources sending power to the grid, said Gelli Ravikumar, a research assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State University.

Ravikumar is leading a team that is developing such systems for protection as part of a $12m, six-project effort by the US Department of Energy.

“Investing in cutting-edge cyber-security technology keeps us at the forefront of global innovation and protects America’s power grid in the face of increasing cyber threats from abroad,” said Jennifer Granholm, the US secretary of energy, when they announced the grants this spring.

The energy department is supporting the Iowa State-led project – penned 'GridDeep' – with a three-year, $2m grant which will see the team research, develop and demonstrate a physics-based system that uses artificial intelligence (AI) tools to improve the cyber security of the country’s energy-delivery systems.

“The project’s next-generation, AI-integrated cyber-physical security technology, and tools can aid in ensuring energy-delivery systems are designed, installed, operated, and maintained to quickly recover from cyber attacks,” Ravikumar said.

Because those energy-delivery systems are complex and constantly changing, Ravikumar said AI technology will help electricity producers better understand their systems, quickly respond to attacks and restore critical functions.

The project is especially timely because “a lot of green energy is being integrated into the grid”, said Manimaran Govindarasu, an Iowa State Anson Marston distinguished professor in Engineering, and a co-leader of the research team. “We want to ensure the security and resilience of this renewable integration.”

According to Govindarasu, a major challenge is that these renewable power sources operate more like smaller municipal or co-op power plants. There are also limited resources for protecting them and more opportunities for attacking them.

Govindarasu stressed the need for innovative solutions to tackle this, with the potential to scale up.

The Iowa State engineers said it will take a group effort to secure the growing number of renewable power sources – and so the project includes researchers from Iowa State, the University of Texas at El Paso, the Electric Power Research Institute, Duke Energy, Alliant Energy, Google, OSIsoft and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories.

“We’re bringing together IT companies, energy-system vendors, and utility companies,” Govindarasu said. “This will be an opportunity to use their expertise and advance this technology. There will be more synergy, collaboration, and innovation.”

This will lead to “cyber-physical security tools and technologies that are not yet available but can become widely adopted throughout the energy sector to reduce the risk that a cyber incident could disrupt energy delivery systems”, Ravikumar added.