The case for solar energy in London

Solar panels on the roof of the Tate Modern. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly makes the case for going solar.

Like most people, I was disappointed at Ofgem’s recent announcement that energy bills will rise by £120 for millions of households, despite the government’s energy price cap coming into force. The rise will be hugely concerning, at best, for the one in nine households in London that already live in fuel poverty.

Earlier this month was Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, and it’s important to recognise that supporting low income Londoners to heat their homes actually goes hand in hand with decarbonising our energy system and protecting the planet.

The rise, according to Ofgem, was caused by increases in wholesale energy prices. At a time of intense global energy market uncertainty, including over our future trading relationship with the EU, renewables will add capacity and build resilience to the network, helping to control price fluctuations. In particular, in cities like London which would struggle to install large scale windfarms, the flexibility of small-scale low-carbon energy generation helps to improve energy system capacity and meet fluctuations in demand. We can’t underestimate the importance of renewables in ensuring we have a low cost and resilient energy market, let alone their importance in tackling climate change.

This is all without mentioning the fact that Londoners want low-carbon energy. Solar Together London is the mayor’s new group buying solar scheme, and almost 5,000 households have already registered across just 11 boroughs. When low-carbon energy is accessible and affordable, take up increases, and the resulting economies of scale reduces cost even further. A lack of support for small-scale low-carbon energy generation will prevent Londoners from fully benefitting from solar, despite there being a high demand for it.

However, the cost of installing renewables is a barrier for many households, despite the fact they will result in lower long-term energy bills. For example, even though the cost per watt of solar installation has fallen dramatically with technological advances, the upfront capital cost of installing solar PV is still fairly high (around £4,000-£6,000 for a typical family home in the UK). That’s why it’s so important that the mayor has implemented his Solar Action Plan and Fuel Poverty Action Plan, as part of a £34m investment in programmes such as the London Community Energy Fund and Solar Together London that are demonstrating the positive impact on uptake of renewables that subsidies can have.

But Londoners and the low-carbon energy sector are being let down by government. By cutting vital schemes that allowed energy generators to sell their energy back to the grid, government has created a situation where it will be difficult for these projects to survive. Furthermore, fuel poverty is, at heart, an issue of poverty and low pay. The government needs to step up for the low-carbon energy generation sector, to empower them to provide the clean energy we desperately need, and for low income Londoners, so nobody has to suffer another winter in the cold.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.


What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave

The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.