Transitioning to Smart Local Energy Systems: skills for Leadership

Transitioning to Smart Local Energy Systems: skills for Leadership

Caroline Bird, Research Associate and Dr Ruzanna Chitchyan, Associate Professor of Software Engineering, University of Bristol

28th September 2021

Smart local energy systems (SLES) are made up of a diverse set of sub-systems that increasingly need to be integrated, to work together. But which institutions or people are best placed to lead the transition and what skills and knowledge are required?

A smart local energy ‘system’ is comprised of different parts or ‘sub-systems’, traditionally this might be thought of as energy generation, transmission and distribution; and the ICT infrastructure to support data collection, exchange and decision making. But, in our analysis, sub-systems also have to include: the buildings that both generate and use energy and their construction and retrofitting; a transport and mobility system which incorporates electric vehicles (and batteries connected to the grid), smart public transport and new fuels; local and national government policies and regulations that define the operation of energy services and businesses; community energy generation and engagement; and the behaviours and understanding of citizens who use these services. 

Our published report, briefing note and webinar looking at future energy system skills in a case study of the city of Bristol, identify three main challenges to be addressed in integrating sub systems and working towards common outcomes:

  1. Lack of understanding across the different sub-systems of a) each other’s issues and aims and b) their role in the wider integrated city system
  2. Integration of sub-systems which each have their own physical infrastructure, and IT / data management systems
  3. Governance of the system as a whole to ensure equity and fairness across sectors and users, and to enable cross-sectoral optimisation

We suggest that a SLES coordination body is needed, made up of key players (eg local government, distributors, energy producers, tech start-ups, transport providers etc.), in order to bring together the different needs and interests of the various sub-parts of the system and facilitate collaboration, communication and understanding.

There is a precedent for this in Bristol  in the development of the Bristol One City Plan. The Plan, driven by Bristol City Council, brought together a broad group of stakeholders across the city to think about how the city should be by 2050; relevant themes include economy and skills, transport, homes and carbon neutrality. This model brings knowledge of the issues from across different parts of the city system in order to develop a shared vision and plan for the future. This experience demonstrates that Local Authorities (exemplified by the City Council in the case study) can play a key role in bringing together the various stakeholders to help coordinate local action and ensure that stakeholders across different sectors recognise their role and responsibilities and that of others in working together towards a common goal.

The knowledge and skills needed to accelerate this transition start with understanding how the energy system operates now and is changing, and thus the place of different stakeholders and technologies within the current and future smart local energy system. The Bristol Case Study report details specific skills needed within each sub-system as well as across sub-systems.

Local authorities (such as Bristol City Council) are well-placed to take the lead and serve as a core around which smart local energy system governance would coalesce. However, as we see in Bristol it is important that these authorities engage with their local citizens, and have supportive relationships with community energy groups, partnerships with community support groups, and equally importantly, good working relationships with commercial organisations locally, nationally and globally. Leadership of SLES thus needs to align across local and global priorities and requires a wide range of regularly updated skills and knowledge, and the ability to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders to develop common goals and collaborate in accelerating local energy transitions.