Energy models and transparency

09 Dec 2020

Why are energy models so important?

Analysis of the energy transition is dominated by energy modelling. Why is this? Well, first we’ve been analysing the energy sector for decades (since the oil shocks of the 1970s). Second, the topic lends itself well to quantification (e.g., physical flows of energy, technology characteristics, economic costs and benefits, environmental impacts, etc.) And third, energy is a truly interdisciplinary subject and models are a great short-hand way to combine different methods from different disciplines.

So – like them or loathe them – energy models are here to stay. Obviously, models exist alongside empirical analysis and qualitative research methods. But modellers are always trying to find ways to capture the insights from these other approaches.

Hence energy models provide the underpinning language to support decision makers across policy, industry, and civil society. If you see an energy related number (or much better a range of numbers) in a media outlet, a company strategy, or a policy document – it likely originated in a model.

What is a “UK energy model”?

We intentionally cast a wide net in our definition, and consider a “UK energy model” as having six key elements:

  1. It has an underlying methodology captured via equations
  2. It is processed via a programming language or via a software environment
  3. It produces results that can then be communicated
  4. It has energy as a key part of its inputs or outputs
  5. It has the UK (or sub-regions of the UK) as part of its geographical coverage
  6. It is designed to be used more than once

Who builds, runs and maintains energy models?

Energy models don’t only exist in academic ivory towers! Much of the UK’s modelling expertise is in consulting firms (both large and specialised), in national and devolved government, in public and regulatory bodies, and in-house in companies.

No matter which organisation you sit in, life as an energy modeller gives you two big problems:

  1. Finding the balance between telling folks about your model and its brilliant findings, while retaining the intellectual property you have spent ages working on. This is especially true in the private sector where the model is often a key part of your business.
  2. There is never enough time to test, calibrate, and document the model. Funders only want to pay for the exciting outputs, no-one gets promoted for doing this unseen work, and quality assurance and documentation are pretty dull tasks!

Why should energy models be more transparent?

In academia a debate has raged (Pfenninger, 2017), to make energy models transparent so they qualify as “true science” where others can understand your work, and can verify and replicate it (DeCarolis et al., 2017). The UK government has led a parallel effort to make all the models it uses to be transparent and quality assured via the guidance in the Aqua Book.

We recognise the practical difficulties of making models transparent and to maximise inclusivity have defined three levels:

  • Open Description models: concise methodological summary, outline documentation, and link to outputs and applications;
  • Open Access models: as ‘open description’ plus full documentation, data sets, and a user group for access and shared responsibility for model development;
  • Open Source models: fully transparent and accessible models available for any user to download and apply.

What do decision makers want to know about energy models?

We believe that transparency is key to ensure the implications (and limitations) of energy models are fully understood by decision makers.

  1. How the model is managed: who built it, who funds it, how open is it?
  2. What is in the model: how does it solve, how does it deal with time and space, what sectors and technologies does it cover?
  3. What are the model’s inputs and outputs: what external drivers it uses, what key insights it gives, what impacts has it had?

The UKERC Energy Modelling Hub Survey

So, this is why we are launching a ground-breaking survey of ALL the energy models in the UK (take the survey here). This is coordinated via UKERC’s Energy Modelling Hub, which is advised by a Steering Group of key stakeholders (UKRI, BEIS, Scottish Government, Northern Ireland Government, Committee on Climate Change, Energy Systems Catapult, and the National Infrastructure Commission).

The major findings will be initially communicated by putting interactive diagrams/tables on the UKERC website. Contributing modelling teams and our Steering Group will receive further in-depth analysis of the range of UK energy models.

A mid-term aim is that all policy orientated energy modelling would become more transparent, progressing to level 1 (open description), and onto level 2 (open access). And we will discuss with our Steering Group how transparency can be built into future funding calls and commissioned energy modelling projects.