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April 2021
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Why the Covid backlog mustn’t slow down councils’ response to the climate emergency

Stephen Stead

By Stephen Stead, director of strategy and digital services at SSE Enterprise’s distributed energy business

COUNCIL officials have shown incredible leadership during the coronavirus pandemic – from supporting vulnerable citizens through to maintaining essential services, local authority workers have been at the forefront, ensuring the wheels of local government keep turning.

Now, many will be returning to their desks for the first time in months. They’ll be greeted by bulging inboxes and in-trays as they begin to catch-up on the projects that had to be put to one side to cope with the first wave of the virus.

Yet, while the backlog of work that’s been piling up during the lockdown will be immense, it is fundamentally important that this does not overshadow the longer-term threat of climate change. With circa three quarters of local authorities having now declared a climate emergency, now is the time to create a “better normal” and not just a “new normal”.

That same leadership that local authorities showed during the lockdown must now come into play in response to the climate emergency. Councils don’t need to do it all. However, they have a key role as a catalyst for decarbonising their local communities and in tandem, stimulating economic recovery and growth.

Boosting the local economy by making buildings smart

The simplest way of reducing carbon is to use less energy. Deploying energy efficiency measures across building stock has the added value of generating work for local contractors. Getting the basics right is an essential first step – from fitting insulation and double glazing to energy efficient lighting. A greater benefit can be achieved through the deployment of low carbon assets such as solar, energy storage, and high efficiency boilers or heat pumps supported by alternative funding models ranging from a basic Salix loan, through Energy Performance Contracting (EPC) to an Energy-as-a-Service model.

In tandem, further benefits can be delivered by making buildings “smart”. Depending on building type and size, this may involve the installation of a Building Management System (BMS) to provide energy optimisation and core control. With or without a BMS, sensor-based services can be applied that utilise measurement, intelligence and control to drive efficiencies. For example, occupancy sensors to tailor lighting and heating or to enable needs-based cleaning.

Smart building technology can also speed-up the return to work following lockdown. They can monitor room and desk occupancy and police separation. Post Covid well-being can also be improved. For example, SSE is installing innovative air purification technology that removes common harmful airborne substances and has been shown to be effective in reducing the infectivity of bacteria and viruses.

Buildings as revenue generators

Reducing carbon comes hand in hand with saving money when it relates to power. Additionally, it can also present a revenue generation opportunity. As the country moves to zero carbon, the penetration of intermittent solar and wind into our power system will increase. However, unlike coal and gas power plants, wind and sun cannot be controlled. Hence the energy system needs a way of balancing generation and load to align to a new world of low carbon generation intermittency.

To achieve this, markets have been established that pay asset owners to turn electrical demand and generation up and down in order to keep the system in balance. A building is essentially a large load. Even more so when heat pumps are installed and EV chargers connected. Where solar and storage are installed, it can additionally deliver controllable generation. As such it can allow organisations such as SSE to control its assets and generate revenues for it. Alternatively, it could simply use this smart control to accommodate local power network constraints and therefore defer investment.

Powering the switch to electric vehicles

Carbon reduction is not just about power. It is also about transport. As the number of EV models on the market increase, so too does consumer appetite to convert although this will remain muted until confidence in availability and speed of chargers increases. In short, to feel fully comfortable with an EV vehicle, charging needs to be a pop-in event, not just an overnight stop. Local authorities can impact this by influencing third party charger deployment. They can also lead by example with their own fleet, incentivise the conversion of grey fleet, and influence EV bus deployment.

There is also a revenue play here. As take up increases, so too will the demand for forecourt style EV charge hubs. By targeting their own fleet and/or that of large local businesses, sufficient anchor demand can be enabled to seed their funding, hence providing convenience infrastructure for the wider community. These hubs can be fed by solar power through private wire, increasing both green credentials and earning potential. They can be done on authority land, fed by authority solar power, or even done in partnership. All of which would generate much needed revenue.

What’s often overlooked is that each of those EVs is in fact a portable battery, so when power isn’t needed to turn its wheels then it becomes a resource that can be plugged into the grid to either store the excess electricity being churned out on windy or sunny days, or to feed energy back into the wider system to meet moments of peak demand, like when everyone turns on the kettle at half time during the cup final, or when the adverts come on during Coronation Street. Each of these events supports wider decarbonisation whilst having revenue generation potential.

Turning up the heat on decarbonisation

Carbon reduction is also about heat. This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge with winter peak heat demand being around four times that of power. This challenge is not simply one of scale. It is also one of technology and cost. Heat networks can be limited both technically and commercially in terms of the number of homes that can viably connect. And where a heat network is not viable, a standalone heat pump is a poor cousin to cheaper, smaller, but, crucially, higher carbon gas boilers. Furthermore, individual property level heat pumps can exacerbate constraints in local power networks and could well result in increased connection costs where deployments cluster.

Due to their economies of scale where densification is sufficient, heat networks are without doubt the preferred choice to decarbonise heat. Their ability to transport waste and recoverable heat, from, for example, industrial processes, water, air, ground and even sewers makes them a powerful tool to help deliver heat decarbonisation. The Climate Change Committee and BEIS see heat networks as playing a crucial role in the pathway to net zero. So how can we increase the number of properties that can viably connect?

The starting point is to consider that, at the same time the government is pushing the rollout of heat networks, it is also encouraging the deployment of both fibre and EV charging networks. Were the local authority to align trenching, the civils element of each element can be greatly reduced, hence improving commercial viability. Where heat pipe building penetration is an issue, building level heat pumps can be deployed. Their associated operating cost can be reduced by connecting to a private electrical network, which, in turn, connects to local renewables, storage, EV chargers, and large local load, providing a local renewable energy system. Not only can the central heat pump that drives the main system be connected to this network, but also the heat network reach can be improved by running spurs off of the private wire network to outlying heat pumps and associated localised smaller networks. These in turn could target pockets of waste heat therefore further improving viability.

Sitting above all of this, is an overarching control system spanning heat, power and transport. This will use heat and power storage and demand flexibility to smooth peaks and troughs and to generate revenues that subsidise the system.

Finally, Energy-as-a-Service funding models can be applied to take the financial pain away by blending asset costs into the ongoing service cost and smoothing this across both heat networks and standalone heat pump deployments.

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