Decentralisation and devolution have been two of the policy buzzwords of recent years, especially in the energy sector. Local models of generation, supply and delivery have gained a huge amount of traction, from community owned solar PV farms to a growing number of district heating networks to cooperative wind farms. But what about the human face of a decentralised energy system? Who’s in charge? What skills and competencies do they need? Who holds them accountable?
We asked Emma Bridge, Chief Executive of Community Energy England, and Julian Packer, Low Carbon Investment Director at Greater Manchester Combined Authority, for their views.
Q: Where does leadership come from in a decentralised energy system?
Emma Bridge: The whole premise of a decentralised energy system is that leadership comes from the local area. To be truly effective, this needs to be a mixture of local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, local businesses and communities. Community energy has a vital role to play here. It doesn’t just enable energy to be generated at a local level, it encourages us as individuals to take greater control over how our energy is generated. It also reconnects communities with their relationship with energy, enabling them to get involved and engaged with energy efficiency and process of demand management. You need all these facets to be brought together for decentralised energy to work effectively.
Julian Packer: [At a national level], there is a clear political commitment to district heating from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as evidenced by the Heat Network Delivery Unit (HNDU) and the Heat Networks Investment Project (HNIP). This is a real positive. Local authorities are, potentially, the key driver for the wider adoption of decentralised energy. In many local authorities, there is a strong political will to move to a low carbon future in which decentralised energy features strongly.
Q: So, do we have the leaders that we need, in the right places?
Emma Bridge: I think we still have some work to do to make sure that we have the right leaders in the right places. Energy has been so removed from day to day life that it will take a while for that connection and the wider benefits of decentralised energy to be grasped across the board. There are some fantastic examples of this starting to take place though, and I don’t think it will be long until these start to be replicated across the country.
Julian Packer: Political will [at a local level] is often not matched by executive action in terms of implementing supportive robust planning (a notable exception being London with its London Plan). Often, this is in large part due to the fear of setting planning requirements which are unattractive to developers, an understandable concern given the increasingly severe budgetary pressures being experienced by Local Authorities and their not wishing to lose a development to a nearby authority with less stringent requirements.
Q: What skills and competencies need to be developed (and among which types of people) to ensure the success of the decentralised energy revolution?
Julian Packer: Consultants need to improve the quality of the work they undertake; they lack “coal face experience”. There needs to be a standardised approach to financial modelling of schemes – too many bespoke models are produced. Likewise, streamlined procurement and contractual frameworks are required – too many projects “reinvent the wheel”. Local authorities need more embedded expertise in order to be effective, informed clients.
Q: How do we ensure that the customer is protected in a highly localised energy system?
Emma Bridge: By ensuring that they are engaged in the process. Community energy is a great example of communities “doing energy” rather than energy being done to them. Their knowledge of local people and ability to engage traditionally harder to reach consumers and, where appropriate, turn them into prosumers in unparalleled. Regulation also needs to start to put the consumers first.
Julian Packer: Obviously the Heat Trust provides protection for the private domestic customers of heat networks. Commercial customers are normally protected through contractual provisions, but again some standardisation and sharing of experience would be invaluable. The question we keep encountering is more about providing choice rather than protection. For example, housing developers will insist on providing a gas supply in order to be able to offer gas hobs! Another example: commercial developers still require the installation of gas boilers as this is insisted on by institutional investors.
Q: What models for local energy are interesting to you at the moment? Who’s doing interesting things?
Julian Packer: Local authority owned, licensed energy supply companies as a catalyst for decentralised energy. Robin Hood Energy and Bristol Energy Company are interesting examples to follow. [Models for] local authority investment into district heating projects are an active interest too, as they provide local authorities with an opportunity to convert capital into long term revenue.
Emma Bridge: Cornwall Council is starting to really explore the role of local energy through its devolution deal. The Energy Local pilot in Wales is developing new systems so that communities can benefit from pooling and using their own generation directly through new relationships with suppliers, smart meters and technology. Plymouth Energy Community is doing excellent work linking generation with addressing fuel poverty. And in the heat world, Kingston Heights in London is using the River Thames to provide renewable heating and hot water to 137 apartments and a hotel. I think we’ll see a lot of innovative and exciting models coming through over the next couple of years with strong ties to the local community.
We will be exploring the place of decentralised energy on the local, national and global stages at this year’s Heat Conference. The conference is hosted by the ADE and the Energy Institute and sponsored by Engie.
Join us on Wednesday 23 November at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London and make your voice heard. We have discounted tickets available for local authorities, others in the public sector, charities and SMEs. Find out more and book your place here.