London leads the way in sustainable energy

GovToday’s Sustainable Communities 2013 conference on December 10th provided useful insights on the potential for local authorities to lead on promoting sustainable heat and energy networks, particularly in London.

Energy production and consumption are increasingly visible issues, with heating costs high on the political agenda. The morning plenary focused on the  increasingly polarised debate between policies favouring sustainable energy and those focused on fuel poverty.

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement cut funding for retrofit programmes in favour of relieving fuel poverty. Green levies, used to pay for investment in sustainable energy and retrofit, add to household heating bills, but speakers argued that by reducing energy costs, such measures are the best way to reduce fuel poverty in the long term.

Derek Lickorish, Chairman of the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, suggested that the structure of green levies – most of which come as a flat-rate charge on electricity bills – puts a disproportionate burden on the poor. A more nuanced system of taxation could both relieve the burden on fuel-poor households and provide funding for sustainability measures.

The rest of the day provided useful delivery discussions and case studies on new approaches to implementing effective sustainability measures such as retrofit and decentralised energy networks.

London leads the way when it comes to decentralised energy networks: the Mayor has set a target of 25% of London’s energy to be provided through decentralised networks by 2025 and the GLA has established a Decentralised Energy Project Delivery Unit to offer technical, financial, and commercial advice to councils looking to implement these networks. Thanks to the success of this unit, DECC has set up a nationwide Heat Networks Delivery Unit to offer further support.

Dominic Bowers, Energy Solutions Director at Parson Brinckerhoff, called the inclusion of decentralised energy networks in London’s energy strategy “hugely influential” in encouraging uptake from local authorities and developers. As a large, densely populated city, London is well suited to district energy networks, which require a critical mass of properties in order to be commercially viable. It also has wide scope to make use of waste heat [PDF] from buildings and energy production.

Map showing potential for waste energy re-use in London (source)

Several speakers said local authorities are well-placed to lead on establishing these networks, which can not only help them to meet carbon reduction targets but also reduce fuel costs for councils and residents.

As well as being eligible for support from the GLA’s Decentralised Energy for London Programme (only available to LAs), councils are already major energy consumers, are trusted to provide services, have access to funding streams such as the Public Works Loan Board and the Green Investment Bank, and have access to large, detailed data sets through which to identify action areas.

Speakers also called on councils to develop robust procurement practices to get best value; to support works projects with communications campaigns, so residents get the most from energy efficiency measures; and to plan strategically, so energy networks can expand as demand grows and more projects come on line.

Bunhill Heat and Power network in LB Islington provided an interesting case study: in accordance with the borough’s energy strategy, studies were carried out to determine which areas in the borough would benefit most from a district energy network. Once a site was identified (the area in red on the map above), grant funding was obtained through the LDA and HCA, and the first phase was completed in November 2012. The modular plant is owned and managed by the council, which provides heating to local estates, businesses and leisure centres. A second phase will extend the network and make use of waste heat from the Underground.

Map showing LB Islington’s heat networks (source)

This kind of information-sharing is highly valuable as district energy schemes spread across London. Overall, the conference message to local authorities was that ambitious targets and strategic planning – coupled with clear and consistent communications – are key to delivering sustainability and the benefits affords residents, through lower fuel bills, and society in general, through lower carbon emissions.