Local energy systems in the UK: Where and why?

Local energy systems in the UK: Where and why?

Callum Rae, Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University and Theodoros Arvanitopoulos, Senior Research Associate, University of East Anglia

26 November 2021

In the latest in EnergyREV’s Governance Insights Lunchtime Seminar (GILS) series, we shared insights from our respective ongoing research into local energy systems (LES) in the UK.

During the first part of the seminar Callum launched the EnergyREV UK Local Energy Map, developed at Heriot-Watt University. This has resulted from our review of local energy projects and combines a number of pre-existing project databases. The process of conducting this review yielded a number of valuable insights into the levels of project information which are stored and made available, and what this information can tell us about the local energy sector.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, there is no single, comprehensive database of local energy projects in the UK. The databases which do exist, typically compiled by intermediary/support organisations such as Community Energy England/Scotland, can vary in the levels of information they retain and make available, according to their own aims and priorities. Despite doing it well and whilst recognising the creation and maintenance of these databases is not the primary function of these organisations, we did find  the variation in design and detail creates  challenges for sector-wide analysis.

We therefore recommend that a standardised format is adopted in order to maximise the value of such databases and facilitate better knowledge sharing and dissemination. In addition to basic information such as project name, funder(s) and technologies used, the inclusion of project start dates and locations would enable a greater level of insight by allowing spatial and temporal analysis.

A number of examples of this were then provided using our own combined database. These included the growth of multi-vector projects, particularly those involving storage and transport/mobility components and a rise in projects describing themselves as ‘smart’. These examples show the types of insight that can be gained from basic project data such as start dates, technology type and energy vectors.

A key question raised during the seminar Q&A session was the issue of who takes responsibility for the funding and maintenance of these standardised databases. And while it appears that the compiling organisations are best placed to lead on this, it should also be noted that funding bodies also have a role to play through the project reporting requirements they impose. Crucially, it is our view that implementing the recommended level of standardisation would not require a level of resource much greater than that which already goes towards project databases. We would welcome input from compiling organisations on how this could be implemented and the support that would be required.

The main message from the first part of the seminar was that the more project information we capture and make available, the more we can learn. There are some positive developments in this area, not least the recently launched Catalogue of Projects on Energy Data (CoPED) project, involving BEIS, the Energy Systems Catapult and EnergyREV researchers.

The second part of the seminar focused on why LES can be found in some areas and not in others led by Theo. The UKERC Energy Demonstrators dataset has been used to analyse this which included information on 146 LES projects that took place from 2010 to 2020. The dataset included geographical location, indicating that 1 in 5 local authorities has at least one LES project, although LES are unevenly distributed across the UK.

To better understand the factors influencing the spatial diffusion of LES, information about energy networks and systems, socioeconomics and housing stock, social capital, local government, local economy, and natural resources were investigated.

Our analysis has found that LES are more likely to be found in areas with existing energy and climate action plans, and more Electric Vehicle charging infrastructure. LES are strongly associated with local activity in the tech sector and therefore local strategic investment and planning towards low carbon goals can actively enable development. Our interpretation is that skilled local labour forces and business experience supports local supply chains and innovative practices for LES development.

In addition, LES are more likely to be found in local areas with active renewable energy projects, few or no major conventional power producers, and limited access to gas infrastructure. High numbers of existing renewable energy projects indicate potential intermittency and balancing issues, limited conventional power producers indicates low generation capacity and supply constraints, while reduced access to gas increases loads on electricity networks further reducing surplus capacity. LES offer potential solutions to these issues. We also find that LES are used as a means of upgrading the building stock efficiency, although not specifically in fuel poor areas.

Local authorities and other trusted local partners can help accumulate knowledge and experience that enable successive LES projects. Our research suggests that in 3 of the 4 local areas that have more than one LES at least one partner involved in multiple projects (industry partner 62% of projects, university/research partner 59% of projects). Technological expertise beyond the energy and utility sector, and specifically in the tech sector, can support the diffusion of innovative LES projects. LES can also help to improve living conditions.

Nonetheless, both LES and local conditions associated with them are unevenly distributed and it is therefore important that economic development policies targeting disadvantaged areas support a more equitable distribution of LES. Policy support could include the provision of appropriate financial, regulatory incentives to energy and technology businesses and entrepreneurs, specifically small and medium size enterprises in targeted areas. Local skills development can also support the development of LES projects within local areas.

We would like to thank everyone who attended the seminar, the organisers at Imperial College including Madeline Morris, Prof. Charlie Wilson at the University of East Anglia for taking part in the Q&A session, and Regen’s Poppy Maltby for chairing the session. A recording of the session is available here.

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