What can existing Smart Local Energy Systems teach us about scale-up?

What can existing Smart Local Energy Systems teach us about scale-up?

By Callum Rae, EnergyREV Research Associate, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh 

Energy systems research moves pretty fast. Driven by ever-expanding technological advancements and a growing sense of societal urgency, the question of how best to meet our future energy needs is one of the defining issues of our day. Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES) – the focus of EnergyREV’s research – are at the heart of this issue and are rightly seen as a crucial part of a sustainable and just energy transition. 

In such a fast-moving and innovative field, it is easy to forget that in reality the concept of community energy is nothing new. Since emerging in the 1990’s, hundreds of local energy projects and initiatives have been implemented in the UK alone - our initial review identified over 500. Such projects showcase a wide variety of technologies, ownership models and scales, and have enjoyed varying degrees of success. As such, these projects – and the communities and organisations involved in their development and operation – represent a vast source of practical knowledge and expertise. And yet, evidence suggests that evaluation of such projects is seldom prioritised, meaning that this resource is also underutilised. 

That’s where we come in! Our research aims to draw on the experience of those involved in delivering SLES projects, placing emphasis on the technical challenges and barriers they faced. Working as part of EnergyREV’s efforts to support the scale-up of SLES, we plan to conduct a number of case studies of UK-based SLES.  

Having recently completed our review of existing UK-based SLES, we are now in the process of finalising our case study selection from a shortlist of 24 of the most relevant UK examples and we hope to reach out to potential participants in the coming weeks.  

Each of our three case studies will allow us to take a deep dive into how the SLES in question works, the challenges faced by those involved, and how these can be mitigated or avoided in future. This will be achieved through semi-structured interviews with key project stakeholders – everyone from planners to end users.  

What were the main technical challenges faced? What were the contributing factors? How were these challenges addressed, and how successfully? 

Answering these key questions will help us identify the technical aspects of SLES projects which limit their potential for scale-up, i.e. growth, replication or integration with the wider energy system. This will also include consideration of the non-technical factors which contribute towards these technical barriers. Our findings will then be used to help inform and facilitate the scale-up of SLES in the future. 

2020 is shaping up to be an exciting year for us, we’re excited to get out there and start gathering information! Stay tuned to hear about our findings…