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Decarbonising heat is one of the biggest challenges local authorities will face over the coming decades. Councils tell Utility Week they face a raft of barriers – from uncertainty over which technologies will play a major role, to the retrofit challenge and the availability of everything from grid capacity, to resources and funding.

Local authorities’ ambitious plans to decarbonise heat risk being knocked off track by a range of obstacles – from a lack of understanding of the electricity network to recruiting the necessary skills.

These are among the key takeaways from the first of a series of Utility Week roundtables, in association with SSEN and SGN, focusing on how energy networks can assist councils in achieving their net-zero targets.

This first event, looking at decarbonisation of heat, made it clear that while engagement between networks and councils is increasing, there is a long way to go. Tensions include those around electricity network capacity upgrades and a lack of clarity on the role of hydrogen for heat.

One representative of a city council talked about their experience of going through the public sector decarbonisation scheme to fund the installation of heat pumps and solar PV across four leisure centres.

The first sticking point was the timeframe demanded by the scheme, which was initially set at just three months after the funding was delivered. An extension to nine months was eventually given but with such a tight timeframe, the ambition had to be constrained.

The council was doing its best to avoid planning decisions and capacity upgrades, however one part of the scheme did require a new substation to be built – a step that led to approximately a nine-month delay to the project.

In the end the challenges on timeframe and the delays in getting a capacity upgrade agreement meant the project was ultimately delivered with hybrid systems, with some gas left in the mix.

The council executive said: “It was frustrating but we understood the constraints on the distribution network operator (DNO). What was fairly apparent was that they are totally under-resourced as well. The guys on the ground really know their stuff and they’re great if you can get hold of them but the lead we were dealing with was one of about seven people and he alone had about 200 connections projects on his desk. I don’t know what can be done about that to improve it going forwards but there certainly needs to be a swifter response if we’re going to meet the challenging heat decarbonisation targets we have. It’s an urgent situation but the infrastructure isn’t quite ready to respond.”

This view was echoed by a sustainability manager at a borough council which is seeking to incorporate heat pumps in a new development but has been unable to secure the necessary upgrades in capacity. They gave an example of one particular development that required 2,000 kVA of capacity, whereas the DNO was only able to offer 500. They accepted the council had perhaps not communicated in a sufficiently joined-up or strategic way with the DNO and that conversations were ongoing about what capacity could be released during the ED2 price control up to 2028.

The role of hydrogen

The use of hydrogen for home heating was another key debating point in the roundtable. Various attendees said they had discussed the potential but that the lack of a definitive decision from government on the matter made it hard to factor in to plans.

But as one city council official put it: “Hydrogen would be the easiest solution for everyone. If we could decarbonise the gas grid we wouldn’t have these network capacity issues.

“The only issue is that we need to ensure that hydrogen is sustainable. If it starts off as blue hydrogen then needs to be a transition to a fully green, sustainable solution and an affordable solution for everybody.”

SGN’s Paul Rose pointed to worldwide efforts to drive down the cost of producing green hydrogen, adding that while blue hydrogen would be needed as an interim step there was  a shared goal to move to a genuinely green gas as soon as possible.

In the meantime he pointed to various projects underway to explore the role of hydrogen in a number of aeras, including heat. These include SGN’s own H100 project in Fife, where a bespoke hydrogen pipeline will feed 330 homes, and the village trials, where the winning pilot will convert the existing mains to carry hydrogen.

Rose added: “We appreciate there is no silver bullet but we are going to need a whole systems approach to have any  chance of hitting net zero and it’s important that everyone is aware of that. What we want to do is work with councils of all sizes to understand what the challenges are and what the best solutions are for them. To do that we need to keep our options open.”

Rose went on to talk about the “low regrets options” already being explored by gas networks, including a focus on decarbonising heavy industry and the pre-feed work to prove delivery of 100% hydrogen through the gas network is viable.

Resource pressures

Securing the right resources was a key barrier referenced by attendees at the roundtable, with several admitting they did not fully understand the network in their area. There is also clearly a lack of co-ordination and knowledge-sharing between local authorities.

On the latter point, SSEN referenced the Regional Energy System Optimisation Planning (RESOP) project, which seeks to draw together data from multiple sources into a single tool that can pinpoint the most cost-effective location for low-carbon technologies.

Rory Brown, stakeholder manager at SSEN, said: “This workshop highlights that the energy transition for heat isn’t straightforward and that working together is key to unlocking our net zero ambitions. We’re excited about the potential for the LEAP+ tool developed in RESOP and how it can help local authorities visualize their needs and the impacts on the network. In addition to our Whole Systems team, we hope that this creates some robust support for councils interested in furthering local area energy planning.”

While there was general agreement that local area energy plans are an important step in aligning energy networks and councils, one attendee questioned how much weight they will actually have. They referred to what they saw as a “lack of commitment from Ofgem” in this area.

They added: “We’re seeing some of the right structural things coming through, like the idea of the future system operator handling regional planning.

“But what they’re stopping short of doing is saying they will use local area energy plans as the evidence basis to inform network design.

“It’s about having the confidence that we’re going to be listened to in terms of our local development needs.”

The appetite for risk within councils was also cited as a potential problem. A county council climate change manager talked about the challenges of rolling out an energy efficiency retrofit campaign across the area. This was aimed at tapping into the able-to-pay market – something which was treated with a “healthy dose of scepticism” at the top of the council.

They said: “There’s a lot of ‘let’s just wait and see’ mentality but we’ve been making the point that whatever happens at a national level, we’re not going to be able to deliver anything locally unless we’re ready with both the supply chain and the mechanisms to deliver.”

To this end, the council has worked with other stakeholders to set up a retrofit academy to train up a workforce to delver the project. They have also engaged closely with residents and community groups, even Extinction Rebellion, to understand what they want the scheme to look like.

The manager said they got a very clear steer from the executive that it was not the role of the county council to actually deliver this work, begging the question as to who could take it on. They suggested that this could either be done by a consortium of community groups and district councils or that it could even be delivered by a profit-making entity.

It was clear from the roundtable that there is appetite from local authorities to engage with energy networks to better understand how their individual decarbonisation plans fit into wider net-zero strategies and what realistic timelines look like.

As one attendee put it: “We have bits and pieces of funding and we know we can’t do everything at once. So it’s about having someone to tell us, don’t start here.”

Utility Week is partnering with SGN and SSEN on a series of events exploring different challenges for local authorities, which will feed into some wider research. The next topic to be covered is the decarbonisation of transport.