Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

Duncan Smith

Duncan Smith, River Clyde Homes’ energy & sustainbility manager, looks at the economic argument for decarbonising our buildings.

Over the coming decade, we have to decarbonise heat and make our buildings as efficient as possible to meet our climate change objectives and have any chance of staying with a 2-degree rise in temperature.

Buildings, and the built environment, are pieces of the decarbonisation puzzle we will need to solve, because even today as much as 80% of UK homes are still heated by fossil fuels – mainly natural gas. Although it is essential we reduce this use of gas for heating, it still remains cheaper when compared to electricity prices.

The backdrop of the cost of living crisis and energy prices has, perhaps understandably, shifted the focus away from climate change. When you can’t feed your family or heat your home today, it’s hard to concentrate people’s minds on targets twenty years in the future, in 2045 and 2050, for Scotland and the UK to become net zero.

So the questions of how deep we retrofit, how much it costs, how we phase works, and how well we design the heat pump that replaces the boiler become crucial. But are these the correct questions to be asking?

It’s the cost of electricity – the “net zero” fuel we’ll all need and use to heat our homes and power our cars over the next two decades that’s where the issue really sits, not with the heat pump. That’s the metric we have to measure as much as KWh pm2/pa or air changes.

Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

Greenock and Port Glasgow have the potential for district heating

It’s the current model and the reluctance of the Government to intervene within the system to reform the pricing mechanism and a regulator that hasn’t been able to protect consumers in the way they should.

It’s also how we continue to produce energy – centralised and far away from most communities that need and use it.

None of this will likely change any time soon - so what do we look for as an alternative model? What is a model that not just creates an equitable energy price for both the consumer and business?

Getting the energy model right could directly address fuel poverty and put money, millions of pounds, back into the pockets of households, eliminate cold and damp homes, improving the health and lives of their occupants and providing the basis for economic stimulation and skilled employment in local communities.

If we could develop locally owned heat and power networks with the resources we already have at our disposal in the hills and moors and from the sea and sun - through wind turbines, solar panels, and water-based heat pumps; or if we could generate heat and power through decentralised energy centres – centres that also capture and reuse excess heat from local businesses and industries.

Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

The Queens Quay project in Clydebank does just this - it provides heat to local public buildings and housing and will be expanded this year to include the local hospital and six multi-stories nearby.

The heat pumps that extract the heat from the Clyde come from a Glasgow-based company, partly funded by the Scottish Government and West Dunbartonshire Council and delivered by Vital Energy.

The success of this project means residents in Queens Quay will be paying about a quarter of the standard electricity price that most of us are paying today - about 7p per kWh compared to between 28p to 33p.

In her book ‘Mission Economy’, economist Mariana Mazzacatto talks about the opportunity to redesign our economy by developing a mission-based approach to addressing climate change.

Unlike the Apollo programme of the 1960s, which had to invent new materials, practices and processes to get a man on the moon – we already have everything we need to provide clean, decentralised, affordable heat and power. Not only has the technology already been invented, it’s already being usind in practice in countries like Denmark and Sweden.

Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

Rather than looking at the cost of the solution, we need to see value that we can develop - which necessitates looking at the argument in a different way, from a different angle.

Take, for example, the opportunity for an economic model that provides stability to local businesses. One which supports the new businesses we’ll need, like urban vertical farms, in a way that the current system does not – a system that currently makes it very difficult for energy-hungry companies to survive.

Regardless of the merit of their output, the current system doesn’t care. Who gets to determine the viability of the local businesses that make up the economy or, indeed their survivability under the current climate?

By providing affordable energy to residential households, businesses, and public buildings, we can develop decentralised, more egalitarian heat and power networks that serve society and commerce rather than the other way around.

We can end fuel poverty and homes with dampness and mould. We can reduce the burden on the NHS and make people healthier and we can create local high-skilled jobs for many of our young people.

Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

In a recent article in Inside Housing, the minister for net zero buildings, Patrick Harvie, responded to the question of is the government in Scotland is doing enough and willing to financially support housing providers to achieve net zero.

His answer: “Some of these organisations can be anchor organisations for things like heat networks. I think over the course of this decade, for example, we’re going to be seeing a lot more in the way of heat networks going in, where a social landlord is not just a customer but is contributing to running that business and actually seeing a larger part of our energy system, at a local level, operating in the public interest.”

He is correct, but there is more that has to be done. However, this doesn’t come from a technology perspective – that’s already there. The real change has to come from people; from the arguments we make; and the people we convince.

It has to come from the vision and will of local politicians, elected members, convenors of committees, MPs, MSPs and senior officers in local authorities; and housing providers - to get it and understand it. To see the merit, indeed the need, and to work together to deliver the opportunity into a reality.

Duncan Smith: Power to the people – how local heat & energy networks can deliver a new economic model

Later this year, the Scottish Government requires each local authority to have developed a Local Heat & Energy Efficiency Strategy. The strategy should identify where heat networks should be prioritised with the Heat Networks bill providing legislation on how they are licensed.

This strategy is important, but more so is that each of those authorities through LHEES looks at establishing a Heat Networks task force or a working group made up of local authority officers from Energy, Environmental Services, Education, Waste, Housing and Economic Development.

A group that includes local businesses and social landlords and that can implement the LHEES strategy on the ground - establishing vehicles, such as ESCo’s, for the delivery of community-owned decentralised heat and power.

A group that can liaise with neighbouring authorities on these strategies and use their shared resources to develop plans and proposals for decarbonising heat at scale and pace and how we can benefit from a new model.

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