By Luke Gooding, Rebecca Ford and Rachel Bray, University of Strathclyde
While the central outcome of an energy transition is to reduce emissions and avoid escalating the costs of continuing climate change, schemes such as Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES) offer the potential to deliver multiple benefits and impacts in other areas. These include health, ecosystem performance, social equity, and economic development or regeneration. If combined or aligned, these outcomes can have greater impact than solely reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Moving away from traditional siloed thinking (and categorisation of benefits), and instead analysing benefits and co-benefits in a holistic manner, could help maximise positive feedback loops while minimising risks and unintended consequences. A shift away from focusing on central core benefits as independent outcomes could help identity sensitive interdependencies, which if managed well could amplify positive impacts of energy systems across different areas, scales, and stakeholders.
In our research with SLES stakeholders we identified 40 distinct benefits that they believed SLES could deliver (and we’ve written more about these 40 benefits here). Examining these benefits through a systems-thinking lens, as we have done in the graphic below, highlights this interconnectedness and the need for joined up thinking when designing and implementing SLES. These benefits are interconnected; benefits can share similar processes. Treating outcomes independently fails to account for interdependencies between impacts, neglects trade-offs, misses opportunities to amplify benefits and risks unintended consequences.
Delivering maximum benefits from these interconnections requires a focus on three different areas:
1 Adopt a systems-thinking approach to SLES implementation
Systems thinking provides a route to tackle complex issues with a structured approach, uncovering how changes in one aspect can impact relationships with other areas. This in turn can provide a route to inform and plan future decision making, and avoid adverse side-effects. In providing an overarching view of interconnecting relationships, this approach also ensures against prioritising certain elements above others, or a singular aspect of the energy system, such as household bills for instance.
2 Focus on the make-up of institutional infrastructure
This could offer a route to providing outcomes in a wide range of areas, as shown by the graphic. Importantly this could offer a route for policy makers to frame SLES from different angles, enabling discussions of benefits to occur around the varying areas of the diagram above. For instance, the cyber physical environment has the potential to impact wide ranging areas of society and the economy, but data generated across the SLES infrastructure must be optimised and acted upon in a timely manner to tailor the system to best deliver benefits. When this data interacts with policy it can achieve multiple outcomes; offering a platform for peer to peer (P2P) trading for instance, thereby highlighting the value of SLES in boosting local economic growth
3 Implementing processes across different scales, from local to national
This offers a route to view who SLES recipients are and where they are located, and also importantly, if they were involved in decision making and thought processes during SLES design. By viewing different scales, any groups benefitting significantly more than others can be detected and adjustments made to ensure levelling up for all. Likewise, if any parties encounter adverse side effects or consequences, changes can be made.
Figure above: Benefits of SLES. The circles represent SLES outcomes or benefits and the lines between outcomes highlight the process involved in generating these benefit. The graphic can also be found here; https://embed.kumu.io/fb5222c2176fc1f7a925a964314d28d5#sles-benefits