Why Smart Local Energy Systems HAVE to be part of the Green Industrial Revolution?

Why Smart Local Energy Systems HAVE to be part of the Green Industrial Revolution?

By Rebecca Ford, EnergyREV Research Director, University of Strathclyde

Over the past decade the UKs electricity system has seen increasing quantities of distributed and decentralised renewable generation. Supported by initiatives such as the Feed In Tariff (FiT) scheme, households, communities and businesses invested in small scale wind and solar technologies, using the government incentive to overcome upfront costs and drive ongoing revenue generation. More recently this has led to the emergence of smart local energy systems (SLES), exemplified in the Prospering from the Energy Revolution (PFER) programme, which brings together a number of different stakeholders to deliver place-based solutions for decarbonising the energy sector. 

Following the release of the Government’s Ten Point Plan, including the goal of producing 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, generating enough to power every home,  I’ve been pondering what this means for the future of smart local energy systems. The more I consider this, the more I’m convinced that growth in offshore wind - and other forms of large scale clean energy generation - will make SLES more important than ever…here are 5 reasons why:

1. SLES are not just about generating electricity

Although local energy may have its roots in electricity generation due to the financial incentives such as FiTs, that’s no longer the sole or primary focus. Recent work led by Charlie Wilson at the University of East Anglia found that there are four common types of smart local energy system projects in the UK. These include:

  • Projects led by 3rd or public sector organisations emphasising energy demand-side technologies and sectors such as housing;
  • Projects led by private firms focused on electricity supply integration and management;
  • Projects led by private firms with multiple energy vectors integrating across demand, network, and supply-side technologies;
  • Projects led by power network operators focused on network improvements.

Beyond these 4 primary focal areas, SLES could help deliver a wider number of benefits, as highlighted in early work undertaken in EnergyREV.

These provide more equitable and addressing fuel poverty issues, delivering wider environmental benefits, balancing supply and demand locally and increasing the resilience of local networks. As the proportion of renewables in the electricity systems grow we can expect to see an increased need for system balancing to maintain security of supply. SLES could be key to enabling this.

2. The demand side is really important too

Decarbonising the energy sector relies on demand side changes as much as supply side, and modelling undertaken by Marko Aunedi and Tim Green at Imperial College London shows that SLES can help reduce peak loading of power system infrastructure, reducing the need for investment in local and national infrastructure and enabling demand to be met with less installed generation capacity by leveraging demand side management alongside local storage.

This co-ordination of demand side action is underpinned by digital energy platforms, which form the basis of many SLES developments. A review of these newly emerging digital energy platforms highlights how they can help SLES stakeholders to realise the value in their clean energy assets, especially those supporting more flexible use of energy, by providing new routes to new markets. Ultimately this will help balance the system, locally and nationally, supporting grid operation under increasing penetration of variable renewable generation (like offshore wind).

3. SLES can help align across energy vectors and scales

Working at the local scale and with Local Authorities, who often play a key role in place based energy solutions like SLES, offers the potential to combine planning across small scale generation, mobility, heat, and wider environmental and economic objectives. A recent briefing document on pathways to net zero heating in the UK published by UKERC illustrates the importance of bringing together energy efficacy, heat-pumps, and district heating approaches for decarbonising heating, all of which require an inherently local approach to deliver and operate. For example, as part of local energy planning processes, local authorities can help ensure that plans on efficiency and heating are aligned. Under this approach efficiency measures could be targeted in areas where homes are of a certain age, for example 1930’s homes that need a new roof, or 2000’s homes that are likely to need a new boiler. Likewise, efficiency improvements could be targeted preferentially in areas where challenges to grid operation due to installation of electric heating, such as in off-gas grid areas, is expected to be highest, meaning costly grid upgrades can be deferred. In this latter case, coordination with the local distribution network operator in rolling out these measures is important, particularly where efficiency is cheaper than network reinforcements.

A fundamental goal for the PFER projects, which are at the forefront of large scale smart local energy system design and demonstration, is to provide solutions that integrate across energy vectors. They consider mobility and heating alongside power generation, and this cross-vector approach is really important to support balancing supply and demand and maximise the effectiveness and use of renewables.  Focusing on each element independently could result in a misalignment of heating, transport, and energy strategies, leading to higher system costs being passed on to end users.

4. Local action is more ambitious, happening faster, and could help the UK “level up"

While the UK’s target for net-zero by 2050 is a critical milestone, many UK local authorities are pushing for more rapid action by declaring a Climate Emergency, setting net-zero carbon targets for their own operations in advance of 2050, and developing ambitious plans for creating a net-zero localities that integrate heat, power, transport and storage at local scale, and reducing overall demand. Mags Tingey and Jan Webb from the University of Edinburgh outline in their recent report the multiple social benefits and values that can be achieved by investing in net-zero localities and exploiting their untapped economic potential.

There is also the potential for SLES to help deliver wider regional development activities and a more equitable energy future than traditional national level policies targeted toward individual level change, which could see parts of the populate left behind in the transition. Take, for example, the Feed-in-Tariff scheme to encourage adoption of small scale renewables. While successful in stimulating uptake, the scheme has created distributional inequalities and energy injustices, because access to this incentive requires participating households to have an awareness and understanding of the policy context, technical capacity, financial and time investment, and knowledge of how to opt-in or qualify. Instead, stimulating uptake through community, city, or regional level schemes can mitigate some of these issues through building capacity and knowledge at a communal level, rather than leaving it up to individuals. Instead of seeing only those households with the resource and capacity to engage benefitting, SLES could help distribute those benefits amongst the wider community.

5. SLES can provide a pathway to environmental stewardship

Most people don’t have a very active relationship with their energy system today as most UK households have become accustomed to flicking a switch to light our homes and turning a dial to warm them. I noticed this when I moved to New Zealand in 2011 and my first home had one heating source - a wood burning stove in the living room intended to heat the whole house (not uncommon in NZ). This required a total mental shift about heating our home. We had to chop the wood, dry it out, manage our supply over the winter, and plan for evenings away from home (and decide whether to light the fire when we got in later that evening or just accept being cold through the night and the next morning). Having to play a more engaged and active role in our household energy system really shifted the way we treated our resources and made us far more aware of the implications of our energy actions. Some work undertaken by my friend and colleague Aimee Ambrose has shown similar effects when people engage with local energy systems; by engaging people (through walking interviews and research participation) with an Energy from Waste facility in the UK, the researchers were able to promote a reconnection between people and the energy system on which much of their daily life depends, delivering potentially lasting effects in civic awareness and environmental citizenship. 

The grand challenges we need to address to deliver a net-zero future requires engagement and change across the whole population. Offshore wind offers very limited scope to facilitate such engagement; it maintains an “out of sight out of mind” element to energy system operation and missed the potential for new forms of participation. Local energy systems, on the other hand, could serve to supplement the wind energy generated offshore, creating a new space for people to reconnect with their energy systems, and delivering long lasting positive effects that spill over into other areas needed for a sustainable society, to 2050 and beyond.