With the United Nations’ COP26 summit on the horizon, local authorities across the UK are under pressure to make progress towards net-zero targets.

At the same time, local leaders are managing the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and making provisions for economic recovery in their communities. Recent estimates show councils in England have spent over £4.4 billion more than planned this past year whilst income has fallen by £2.8 billion.

This dual pressure to increase revenue whilst decreasing emissions is a formidable challenge for local leaders. However, these priorities are not mutually exclusive; green credentials and concern for the climate are of interest to business, investors and residents alike. Readily available electric vehicle (EV) charging stations could become as important to prospective buyers as school catchment areas.

Investment in energy infrastructure can support local authorities to achieve their goals to cut emissions and boost investment, not to mention to generate additional income to support local services.

Meeting COP26 targets

Local authorities have a major role to play in helping the UK meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement. COP26 is focusing minds on upcoming climate deadlines – over 300 councils have already declared a climate emergency. Their strong relationships with local business and communities, and democratic accountability, put councils in a unique position to drive the behavioural changes needed at a localised level to help achieve the UK’s target of net zero by 2050.

Equally, local leaders have the best understanding of the unique economic needs of their regions. Local authorities can look across the whole local energy system to help coordinate the divergent streams – from heat networks to EV vehicles – that need to be integrated to build a truly smart energy system.

Multiple councils across the country have already drawn up plans to modernise their energy infrastructure. For example, Swindon Borough Council have launched a solar offset scheme at the Chapel Farm solar site in North Swindon. The council’s energy consumption will be directly offset by the energy generated at the site. By generating approximately 5 million kWh of electricity each year, it will provide nearly 25 per cent of the council’s corporate electricity consumption.

At SSE Enterprise, we’re working with Peterborough Council to develop the Peterborough Integrated Renewables Infrastructure project (PIRI). This Innovate UK design project brings together energy generation, demand and storage, across power, transport and heat vectors, to unlock efficiencies not deliverable under existing, traditional energy systems.

Impact of Covid-19

Alongside the amplified pressure to meet climate targets, the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the necessity of reliable energy infrastructure to support educational and economic attainment in a just way. Access to good fibre-optic broadband is a requirement for many businesses, but it is also increasingly crucial for the needs of schools and families.

High energy users such as data centres or power intensive manufacturers need a strong, resilient connection that provides uninterrupted supply. However, in a world where home working is widely accepted, and in many cases expected, residential homes will need a reliable connection on par with that of traditional business premises.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed the development of smart energy. Many authorities are reliant on financial reserves to balance their 2020-21 year-end budgets. Whilst investment in smart initiatives is still a priority, actions to progress this investment have been pushed back.

Transforming local energy infrastructure

Despite the challenges, developing smart energy infrastructure can accelerate the road to recovery. To build a more resilient, just and future-proof system, local authorities should adopt whole systems thinking, taking a bird’s eye view of how the various components of our energy ecosystem interact and finding solutions that work in unison.

Indeed, many local authorities already want to transform their communities into ‘smart cities and places’ to drive decarbonisation and are exploring opportunities with energy suppliers. What has typically been a measured EPC contract – whereby suppliers deliver energy efficiency measures in buildings owned by councils, paid back by the energy savings rate over several years – is becoming increasingly multi-faceted, with local authorities working with energy suppliers to deliver more innovative solutions.

As a starting point, councils can look for quick wins. Solar-to-load is a good, low-regrets choice in many cases. If energy developers can use council land to install solar and connect via private wire to demand, local authorities can benefit from reduced energy bills whilst simultaneously lowering their carbon emissions. This directly helps local authorities meet Climate Action Plan goals.

The next step would be exploring how to improve efficiencies to reduce the biggest and most intensive energy demands. For example, street lighting can be anywhere between 30 and 50 per cent of a council’s entire power consumption. Combining smart street lighting with smart city platforms allows local authorities to monitor and manage energy consumption across a range of assets and can even improve traffic measurements to evaluate transport infrastructure needs.

For instance, when combined with separate LoRa and Bluetooth networks, smart lighting can provide the mesh network to connect smart camera technology that is able to count traffic and identify EV vehicles. As a result, the most ‘connected’ councils will know exactly where to install EV charging stations to reduce the risk of stranded assets.

As one of the UK’s largest emitters of CO2, councils must tackle polluting transport to drive down local emissions and improve air quality. Covid-19 has ignited renewed interest in moving to smaller towns and rural communities whilst the pending Environment Bill could see legally-binding clear air targets come into force as early as 2022. Councils which take the desire for clean air seriously could attract new residents and entrepreneurs.

Alongside transport, buildings are one of the greatest contributors to local authorities’ carbon footprint. Heat decarbonisation of council buildings is not a ‘quick win’, as building retrofit is the first step, but this highly effective tactic should be planned early to deliver a more integrated solutions approach. Local authorities that invest in smart building energy management technologies will benefit from greater efficiencies and emission reductions long-term.

Bristol is a good example of a council thinking long-term. It is one of the first local authorities to set up schemes to actively buy electricity generated from renewable sources. Since then, many properties in the area have been powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity. The council has also delivered a multi-million pound solar investment programme by installing over 8 MW of solar PV across the city – enough to power eight thousand homes.

Financial pressures remain, but the UK government is increasing the number of support available for such initiatives. The first phase of the £1 billion Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme was aimed at energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation measures in non-domestic public sector buildings. Since closing in January this year, it has awarded 317 public sector organisations funding for 429 energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation projects, valued at £932 million.

Clear benefits of a green agenda

Local authorities are under considerable pressure to deliver for their communities on all fronts: to reduce carbon emissions whilst reviving the economy, to cut pollution whilst attracting business and new residents.

But the green agenda is not opposed to economic prosperity. By investing in smart energy infrastructure that integrates whole systems thinking, councils can offer attractive work and life benefits.

Residents, businesses and investors who see a local area is decarbonising – investing in renewables, working with industry partners to deliver innovative energy solutions, deploying EV infrastructure at pace – will make the move.