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View from the street: Breaking the energy ‘black box’


Tom Gillingam


In TV and film, a ‘black box’ is a device, object, or system the inner workings of which are unknown. It’s usually regarded as a bit of a cop-out, deployed by pressured writers to move a complex narrative on, or avoid exposition that would seem ridiculous if exposed to the light.

For a long time, the energy industry has relied on its own version of this ‘black box’ and, by-and-large, consumers have shrugged, accepting its existence as long as the lights stay on.

Many elements of the generation and delivery of power are fundamentally complex, but layers of additional obscurity have been added via industry jargon, oscillating government policy, and opaque billing systems.

Now, as an unprecedented global energy crisis looms, that secretive machine is about to be broken open.

Truly generational crises have a habit of educating people at breakneck pace and steering day-to-day conversations in a way that was hitherto unimaginable before they arose. In 2020, stay-at-home Zoom drinks were peppered with references to R-numbers, mRNA vaccines and spike proteins. Collins Dictionary’s word of the year was ‘lockdown.’

Before that, in 2008, we all learned the hard way about subprime mortgages, credit crunches and quantitative easing.

In both these examples, complex industries, concepts and sectors – previously the rarefied domains of sector specialists and geeks – suddenly became the fodder of armchairs.

Amidst dizzying increases in energy bills, there is no reason to believe this winter will be any different when it comes to surging awareness of energy industry ‘black box’ staples such as spot prices, interconnectors and transmission costs.

This sudden gear-change will be a nightmare for communicators in areas where detail has generally been ignored by most of the population and some policymakers. A dramatic increase in surface knowledge, combined with fear and frustration at the serious impacts of these costs, will be a potent mix.

These factors are further compounded by the fact that higher prices will almost inevitably lead to increased profits for anyone operating technology that generates electricity. The vilification of bankers’ bonuses may pale in comparison to the backlash if companies are seen to be profiteering while people choose between heating and eating.

The reprisal has already begun, with 96,995 people (and counting at the time of writing) prepared to go on bill-paying “strike” on 1 October, according to Don’t Pay UK.

The scale of the problem will almost certainly need some sort of government intervention, but in the meantime, there are tough communications decisions ahead for those in the energy industry. The narrative is already being shaped by pressure groups, politicians and consumer champions like Martin Lewis. It’s a high-stakes arena for energy companies and there have already been numerous missteps in terms of communicating energy-saving options, or around what chief executives will do with the cost-of-living payments being rolled out across the UK later this year.

The conservative leadership election is currently providing a degree of cover for the energy companies, but that will not last, and industry leaders have been “called in” for crunch talks by senior ministers.

These are only the opening salvos, but there is a role for good communicators – and whisper it, sector experts – to ensure the discourse is not dominated by third parties or reactionary punditry. There is very little time to build the necessary foundations before the storm is upon us, but increasing understanding of the uniquely terrible set of global circumstances that have led to this situation and the fundamental complexities of delivering power in an interconnected world should be a priority for any organisation in the energy sector.

However, any benefit of improved understanding will be negated if the central issue of profits and pay cannot be grasped. These elements will inevitably underpin the sector and its leaders’ great reputational challenge as winter begins to bite. To underestimate the level of scrutiny that will come would be to wilfully ignore the communications lessons of recent previous crises.

If an industry is unable or unwilling to explain the contents of its black boxes and learn from recent experience, there are plenty of people – qualified or otherwise – who will be more than happy to fill the vacuum.


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