What is a 2050 Calculator?
The 2050 Calculator is an open source model of an energy system. It can be used to explore the impacts of a range of possible future energy scenarios, with the aim of reducing emissions to tackle climate change, conserving natural resources like water and/or reducing dependence on fuel imports.
A Calculator provides a platform to have more informed conversations. Policy makers and influencers can use the information to make better decisions.
How does it work?
Each Calculator is designed to model the energy system of a designated region or area, for example, a country, a continent or even the entire globe. It can also consider the impacts other countries and regions have on the given area.
Users control the Calculator through a number of ‘levers’ (usually between 25 and 40) to make choices that impact the supply or demand of energy in a particular sector, for example, by building offshore wind farms or reducing the distance people travel by car. The combination of lever choices creates a ‘pathway’. The Calculator then displays the implications of the pathway over time, for example, in terms of energy demand, emissions, land use or air quality.
The Calculator helps to answer questions like:
- How much energy could we supply in our region from different technologies?
- What would be the cost of different energy pathways?
- Which sectors should we focus on? Which ones are less important?
- How could we achieve our emissions targets?
- What impact would different pathways have on our air quality and land area?
- What could happen to our energy dependency and security?
- What technology options are acceptable to the general public?
Who is it aimed at?
Calculators can be tailored for different audiences. There are currently three main versions:
- The full model – Built in Excel, this model contains all calculations and assumptions, allowing expert users to examine pathways in detail and to vary options to suit their needs.
- The web tool –An interactive and user-friendly web interface that allows users to explore all options in an easy way. The web tool is aimed at policy makers and stakeholders but is also suitable for members of the public who are interested in the subject.
- My2050 Calculator – A simplified, game version that is aimed at the general public.
What makes it different?
Some system models only include the power sector or do not include process emissions from industry or land use. The 2050 Calculator covers all energy forms – oil, coal, gas, biomass, renewables, etc – and all emissions, from fossil fuel combustion to industrial processes, land use, etc. Because you can see all the options available to you, as well as all their impacts, it makes the Calculator a more powerful tool.
Economics vs engineering
The Calculator is not policy prescriptive. Many energy models are based on economics. They look at what effect changing prices, demand or supply could have on the market and, in turn, what the optimal energy system would be under the circumstances. Economic models use complex equations and assumptions about the behaviour of individuals and firms. They are sometimes called ‘black box’ models because inputs go in and outputs come out, but it is not clear what is happening in the middle because they are so complicated. This means that typically only a few experts can properly use them, and consequently, trust is low.
The Calculator is based more on engineering and physics than on economic forces. Users choose from a range of options for the future without really needing to consider the set of circumstances that would cause them to come about. It avoids assumptions about what motivates behaviour and instead allows the user to see what the direct impact of changing behaviour would be. It is about what is possible, not what is probable.
Open and transparent
The Calculator also differs from most system models in that it is as simple as possible, but no simpler. The full models of Calculators have been published online, so anyone with an interest can explore how they work and examine the assumptions used. Because the basic model is built using Excel, which is widely used all over the world, users can get answers without the need for specialist training or waiting days for results.
The Calculator methodology also encourages transparency with stakeholders, actively consulting them at every stage of the design process. This means that the finished Calculators are more accurate and therefore trusted.
While the Calculator approach has several advantages over conventional modelling, it also has limitations to consider:
- Because it is not an economic model, it cannot be used to explore the potential impact of changes in fuel prices, new policies or international agreements. Traditional economic models still have an important role to play in policy development, and the Calculator should be seen as a complementary tool in the policy maker's armoury, rather than a replacement.
- Because it has been built as simply as possible, the Calculator removes the fine detail from each sector. For those looking at a particular sector closely, it may not be the right tool to use. The Calculator is most valuable when looking at large-scale changes and overall trade-offs, rather than sub-sections of the energy economy.
- It doesn’t predict what will happen in the future.