SLES with benefits: how do we get there?

SLES with benefits: how do we get there?

Dr Mike Fell, Senior Research Fellow, Energy & Resources Faculty of the Built Environment, UCL

18th October 2021

This blog introduces the new Interactive EnergyREV Theory of Change.

Do you think smart local energy systems (SLES) have a part to play in the UK’s net-zero carbon future? If so, how will they come about, and how will they create wider benefits?

You might have ideas or conditions in mind which you think will be important in enabling them to  emerge. These might be technical, social, regulatory, and so on. And you probably think certain ways of organizing them are more likely to lead to some benefits than others. You may have ideas about how negative outcomes might arise, and be avoided.

By having and organizing these thoughts, you are creating your own “Theory of Change”. That is, you are on the way to setting out your story for how we get from A (no SLES) to B (SLES) to C (SLES with socially desirable outcomes – “SLES with benefits”?).

That’s great, but how is this useful? Let’s imagine I have my own ideas about how to get from A to B to C. But we have different knowledge and experience; things that are key points on your pathway, I haven’t even considered – and vice versa. Sometimes they might even be in conflict. We can discuss and combine our Theories of Change and come up with a single – better – one. Now it reflects our combined and more diverse beliefs. We were able to clearly share and debate our individual expectations, and can now communicate and discuss our joint expectations with others.

During our discussions, we also found out some assumptions we each were making. For example, my Theory of Change might not even have mentioned the local availability of workers with particular skills. I had probably assumed they would be there if needed – but what if they weren’t? By making it explicit, we highlighted that it is something that really should get attention if successful SLES are to emerge. This can now act as a prompt to others who might also have made this assumption.

At this point I should say this is what we did in EnergyREV, the research consortium investigating how and why “SLES with benefits” might come about. Many researchers from many different disciplines discussed their expectations, leading to development of a provisional Theory of Change (see report on that here). Because of the variety of voices, it ended up covering a range of different “challenge areas”: technology/system interactions; data and digital; users; skills; business, finance and organisations; heating and cooling; mobility; and ecosystems.

So we have a big Theory of Change – but again, apart from prompting discussion and surfacing assumptions, how is this useful?

Here is the answer I would give about the new Interactive EnergyREV Theory of Change, which was publicly released last week.

  1. As a SLES stakeholder, you can look at the challenge areas you are interested in, and click to see key EnergyREV findings and recommendations most relevant to you. Then follow the link for more detail in the original reports.
  2. You can see which metrics have been suggested as ways for SLES to monitor their progress and success.
  3. You can explore the key policy/governance conditions we think underpin different aspects of the creation of SLES.
  4. You can consider the whole of the Theory of Change and think about which conditions are met by SLES projects you are involved in. For those which aren’t, you can consider whether or not that matters.

Please note that this is an evolving project. There is still more EnergyREV outputs to be added, and as new evidence emerges we keep the overall structure of the diagram updated.

So far we’ve been using this as an internal tool, but we thought others could find it useful too, hence sharing more broadly now. When you see it, you might have ideas for how it could be made more useful for you and those with similar interests and goals. Or you might spot problems or things that unclear. In any of these cases, I’m keen to hear from you – please email me on or Tweet at @mikefsway.