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Current± Predicts: The energy transition in 2021, part thirteen

Image: Getty.

Image: Getty.

Predictions for the role of local authorities in the green agenda for 2021 from independent energy agenda consultant Stephen Cirell

I have four predictions for the role of local authorities in 2021:

  • In renewable energy, many more local authority solar farm projects will come forwards as scores of Councils are now analysing their assets to ascertain suitable sites;
  • In transport, more local authorities will buy EVs as fleet vehicles and deliver more EV charging infrastructure;
  • In heating, Salix and other funding streams will accelerate work on energy efficiency in local authority buildings;
  • The Climate Emergency work of local authorities will accelerate, with greater engagement with both consumers and the business community;

Local authority solar farm projects

The solar farm industry is looking forward to a bumper year in 2021. As Finlay Colville points out in his latest review (in Current±'s sister siteSolar Power Portal), there is a total pipeline now in excess of 13GW, with over 3GW already having achieved planning consent.

Local authorities count themselves amongst the throng of other developers, being in an excellent position to bring forwards projects. Local authorities own huge tracts of land, much of which might be suitable for a solar farm. In a recent commission for a County Council I looked at land within 37 different County Farm and other estates, all within the ownership of the Council.

Local authorities do not just have the land though, they also have access to low cost capital via the Public Works Loans Board and are able to structure projects using bought in expertise and experience.

Local authority projects are also getting more ambitious. Recently, Warrington Borough Council has loaned £62 million to become the owner of two very large solar farms in East Riding and York. I am aware of at least one local authority that proposes to build out a 49.9MW site.

Others have beaten the track and speak highly of solar farm ownership and as the green agenda grows in importance and is highlighted by the UK’s chairing of the COP 26 conference in Glasgow, this can only continue.

Transport

Local authorities employ a lot of staff and therefore have both directly owned fleet vehicles and also pay car allowances to staff who use their own cars for official purposes (referred to as the grey fleet).

As transport ramps up under the legal targets set down by the Climate Change Act 2008, extensive plans are being drawn up to transfer fleets of cars and vans to EVs over the next few years. This is a significant number of vehicles.

Councils are also looking to lead by example and persuade employees to use low carbon transport in their performance of official duties. Schemes such as salary sacrifice and other incentives can help employees move over to hybrid or Battery Electric Vehicles. At the other end of the scale, car use policies can firm up against the use of polluting vehicles if allowances are to be claimed.

As part of this work, local authorities are working hard to procure suitable charging infrastructure in their areas, both for their own cars and the public at large. The debate with local DNOs is one that local authorities can assist with.

Heating

The latest report by the Committee on Climate Change has emphasised both how important it is for the UK to get to grips with heating and how far back it is from achieving the necessary targets.

But new funding streams have come on line. In particular the Green Investment Package announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in July as part of the recovery from Covid-19 has provided for a £3 billion fund to decarbonise public buildings and cut emissions from poorly insulated homes. This is part of the Build Back Better initiative and realistically offers replacement jobs for those currently in high carbon industries where jobs will be cut.

In particular, the Green Homes Grant has a £500 million portion for local authorities to deliver (the Local Authority Delivery Scheme), which will kick start this work and raise the energy efficiency of low energy performance homes. Aside from this, there is the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which will be delivered by Salix.

This scheme will be available for capital energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation projects within public sector non-domestic buildings, including local authority premises and will allow Councils to apply for a grant to finance up to 100% of the costs of capital energy-saving projects that meet the scheme criteria. Many local authorities already have bids in to this scheme and as these projects gain traction, the energy efficiency issue in the public sector will start to be more seriously addressed.

Climate Emergency Work

It should not be forgotten that the majority of local authorities in the UK have also declared climate emergencies. Even those that have not (often for political reasons) have still adopted net zero carbon plans for their functions and activities. Action Plans are being drawn up across the land.

There are a number of consequences to this work. Firstly, the carbon footprints of the UK’s local authorities will start to reduce, in accordance with national targets. More significantly, though, is the fact that local authorities are leading by example and encouraging others to act likewise.

Climate assemblies and juries offer an excellent example of how the public can be engaged on this agenda and encouraged towards positive behaviour change.

In Durham County Council, the local authority has promoted an engagement strategy specifically targeted towards the business community and was pleasantly surprised at its reception. Instead of taking the view that this was all the Council’s responsibility, it found that local businesses, particularly SME’s, took the view that we are all in this together and joint action is the only way forwards. Contributions such as this are hard to value but there can be no doubt that the climate emergency work will also grow in momentum during the coming year.

Conclusions

Local authorities have struggled during 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. But this has not dampened their commitment to the green agenda moving forwards. This is because they recognise that this may offer a positive route out of the problems: one that improves people’s lives as well as creating new growth and jobs and possibly even earning some income in the process.

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