The Future Is Local (Area Energy Planning): UK100 writes to ICON

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Christopher Hammond (Credit: UK100)

It’s time to power up Britain by investing in our local leaders and empowering them to deliver the affordable, clean energy systems we urgently need from the grassroots up, CEO of UK100 tells ICON readers in this thought piece. 

 

The government’s Rosebank oil field approval exposes a glaring contradiction in the Prime Minister’s approach to energy security: expanding North Sea drilling just locks us further into volatile fossil fuels, international markets and in the long-term, rising bills. Real security requires a far less headline-grabbing move to empower local authorities to deliver the flexible, resilient home-grown clean energy systems we need.

This is the point made powerfully by the Local Mission Zero Network’s new The Future is Local report. Co-authored by Chris Skidmore MP, the report, a follow-up to the Net Zero Tsar’s Independent Review of Net Zero, spotlights Local Area Energy Plans (LAEPs) as a critical tool to achieve that locally-led transition.

UK100 was invited to contribute to The Future is Local given our role as the UK’s only cross-party network for highly ambitious local climate leaders. For years, we have argued councils can drive cost-effective Net Zero action while unlocking its economic opportunities, including highlighting the critical role of LAEPs.

That is why I wholeheartedly support the Local Mission Zero Network’s call for the next Spending Review to guarantee funding for every authority to develop a LAEP.

What are LAEPs?

In short, they take a whole-systems approach to managing local energy supply and demand. The plans combine renewables, storage, flexible use and smart grids tailored to each area’s unique geography, resources, and communities.

The benefits of this locally-led approach are clear. Analysis shows it could reduce costs by over two-thirds while almost doubling bill savings compared to one-size-fits-all national plans. Crucially, doing it from the bottom up also unlocks far greater social value for local residents and gives them more opportunities to influence their local energy systems.

From Greater Manchester to Wales

Greater Manchester’s pioneering Local Energy Market (LEM) is already balancing supply, demand, and storage options across the region’s ten boroughs. The LEM is designed to meet the specific needs and circumstances of communities in each borough. Each borough has developed its own LAEP, identifying priority areas for insulation, heat pumps, EV infrastructure, and community engagement. It aims to meet the combined authority’s 2038 Net Zero target.

The LEM exemplifies the benefits of empowered local leadership and social value for residents. It is a partnership across the combined authority, local authorities, the DNO, and private and third-sector organisations.

By taking a hyper-local approach, the LEM can maximise impact by tailoring the technology mix to match different neighbourhood infrastructure needs and opportunities.

In Oxfordshire, Project LEO is trialling innovative technical, market and community approaches to smart local energy systems. Part-funded by Innovate UK, the £40m project involves local authorities, businesses, academics and community energy groups. It provides further evidence of the value of locally-led innovation and collaboration.

In Wales, the devolved government aims to roll out LAEPs nationwide, aggregating each local authority plan into a National Energy Plan to enable effective comparison and integration. In Cardiff, the LAEP is already catalysing further investment plans, having established what is needed for the local area through the Cardiff Capital Region Energy Strategy.

Across Britain, uptake of LAEPs is growing, with 66 authorities now committed compared to just 15 in 2021. But progress remains patchy across most of the UK due to disjointed policies, limited resources and lack of governance. Short-term, competitive funding also hampers coherent local planning when long-term support is required to develop ambitious LAEPs and attract private investment.

Local pioneers

It is clear local authorities stand ready to pioneer the affordable, responsive Net Zero energy systems we need. But while the potential is enormous, local leaders cannot realise it alone. Funding is not the only barrier. The Future is Local and Powers in Place both highlighted a “Kafkaesque” policy and regulatory ecosystem that is thwarting local leaders’ attempts to go further and faster on everything from LAEPs to energy efficiency.

There are also significant barriers of capacity and capability of local authorities to achieve LAEPs on their own.

We need better partnerships, resources and financing to pool limited resources to deliver the grid decarbonisation that both political parties are committed to.

With Rosebank approved amidst wider policy rollback, local ambition is more critical than ever. If Whitehall won’t step up, or at worse, steps back, it must — at the very least — get out of the way of ambitious local leaders who will. With a coherent and supportive framework, their plans and expertise can futureproof local energy supplies and finally break free from fossil fuel dependency.

Local authorities are champing at the bit to transform their areas’ energy systems and unleash green growth. It’s time to power up Britain by investing in our local leaders and empowering them to deliver the affordable, clean energy systems we urgently need from the grassroots up.

The future is local. The future is community-driven innovation. The future is local area energy planning.