Sustainable energy – don’t let them stop you

Compare renewables homepage

I’m convinced and really optimistic for a change. Despite the staggering cuts that local authorities face, our biggest conference room was jam-packed with councillors and officers talking about sustainable energy for six hours today. It was the launch event of Compare renewables, a resource that helps local authorities understand their sustainable energy options. Based on the enthusiasm in the room and discussions during workshops, I’m fully convinced that councils still see energy as a priority.

The audience mentioned several clear challenges that are stopping them from leading on decentralised energy. These are familiar barriers: high start-up costs, uncertainty over government incentives and community opposition.

The most convincing response to these concerns came from our local authority speakers. There is nothing like hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth. I invited the leader of Stockport and two senior officers, from Bristol and Croydon. Their presentations were honest, pragmatic, and inspiring. They admitted to the challenges and the hard work they’ve undertaken to convince civic leadership and communities to support new energy schemes. It was the strongest call to arms I could have possibly relayed.

After lunch we had a panel session that asked ‘what is the biggest sustainable energy opportunity for local authorities?’  Richard Crawley (Programme Manager, PAS) gave us the planning perspective. His introduction was simple:

  • we are going through a period of unprecedented change;
  • money is scarce;
  • there are ‘fake’ markets with ‘easy answers’; and
  • renewable energy developers say planning is the problem.

Even the Prime Minister says planning is the problem! We are the so-called ‘enemies of enterprise’. As planners, we know that we’ve been put in an impossible position – battling climate change whilst giving consent to endless growth.  Nevertheless, Richard was surprisingly optimistic in his main message.  He said (under the heading it’s not easy):

  • put a clear vision in your local plan;
  • use your planning powers;
  • be flexible and trusting;
  • and ‘just begin’.

It’s a bit like the Nike slogan, just do it. This is a typical Crawley-ism, but it’s in line with PAS’s ongoing message since they were set up to assist local planning authorities in core strategy development. Given the onset of neighbourhood planning, the message has never been clearer. You need to get your local plan in place.

I think this message holds true for sustainable energy projects as well. Zero Carbon is coming and developers will be looking for ways to offset their development’s unregulated carbon emissions by paying into a fund (this is one of the proposed ‘allowable solutions’). Clever local authorities will have evidence in place that tells them their best opportunities for cutting carbon with this money. This could mean insulation to start, but it is about low and zero carbon energy projects as well.

Sustainable energy options publication

This conversation has rapidly moved on from talking about what local authorities should be doing, to sharing success stories of what they are doing. If you want to read some, there are 25 examples (a couple are led by schools and community groups) on the Compare renewables case study library. These include examples of councils that have used planning policy, decentralised energy studies and energy strategies to drive their work.

The case studies are nicely summarised throughout a short publication as well: Sustainable energy options: How do you choose the right solutions for your area? If you have other examples to add to the case study library, please get in touch.

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4 thoughts on “Sustainable energy – don’t let them stop you

  1. The main problem with most sustainable energy is that our current power grid just isn’t made for it. It would be a huge strain on the grid to take in so many smaller source instead of the large electric producing power plants.

    • Thanks for the comment Nate. We talked about grid decarbonisation versus decentralised energy today. The message was that we need a mix of both. I take it you are implying that we need to update the grid?

      For me personally, the argument that grid decarbonisation doesn’t deal with issues of social equity is very compelling. This was also raised today. Basically, the big power stations get stuck in the communities that can’t say ‘no’ to them. And there’s no benefit to those communities of the local energy generation. Whereas decentralised energy offers the potential for local benefits (financial and otherwise). The wider issues in this debate are summarised here: http://www.idea.gov.uk/idk/core/page.do?pageId=23703754.

  2. I was talking more about the fact that our power grid is pretty blunt (not really the right word but the best I could think of). It depends on the large producers as its base power-load. If we tried to use solar/wind/geothermal/etc as a main source of electricity our current grid would have even more trouble supplying the correct amount of electricity.

    My guess is the addition of a large amount of renewable energy sources with our current grid would result in a lot of wasted electricity to prevent the grid from overloading. I know the results of when we overload. I remember well being without power for a week or more in 2001.

    • Oh I see, I’ve never heard that issue raised here in the UK. I don’t know the difference between the UK and US grid systems. I wonder if any others readers can help. Is this a UK issue?

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