North East Lincolnshire Council: Smart Energy Greater Lincolnshire, supporting businesses and SME’s in their carbon saving journey in challenging times

Smart Energy Greater Lincolnshire is a £8.5 million European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Salix part funded project, providing ‘one stop shop’ free advice and grants for small/medium businesses (SMEs) and public buildings to boost renewable energy use and lower carbon emissions.


Introduction

The project is delivered by North East Lincolnshire Council on behalf of Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and partnered with The Institute of Applied Material Flow Management (IfaS) who are international experts in circular economy and material flow management. 

The focus of this case study is how the project successfully engaged SMEs and overcame delivery challenges over last 18 months, to achieve the objectives and outputs.

The challenge

The Programme commenced in April 2018. The Programme had to overcome significant challenges to deliver high quality support, and associated outcomes, to SMEs in the last 18 months:

  • Turning busy and concerned SMEs engagement interest into applications, supporting them through the process to ensure the funding criteria was met.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic. This led to a significant drop in applications and stalling of existing activity. It restricted the ability to deliver aspects of the Programme, for example on-site energy audits and the programme of events and workshops.
  • Uncertainty within the SME community related to Brexit and reduced availability of supplies/suppliers and increased product costs.
  • Due to the time limited nature of the project and contractual delivery targets, the risk of non delivery was potentially an over £3 million risk which wouldn’t be invested in communities or supported to save many tons of carbon.

The solution

  • Ensuring a balance of flexibility and robustness within the Programme, supported by leadership and a commitment to continual learning and improvement. 
  • Additional dedicated skilled engagement resource put in place, focussed solely on SME support. 
  • The project robustly and significantly adapted its management and delivery approach. For example, quickly putting in place virtual energy audits, replacing workshops with webinars, streamlining processes and revised marketing messages and approach.
  • An agile SEGL’s Programme Board which met increasingly often enabling swifter decision making.
  • Effective leadership and day-to-day Programme Management as a driving force. The management approach included clear and regular communication processes across the team, robust processes and systems, recognition of risks, and a willingness to improve, responding to SME feedback.
  • Working with the Government Office to share and agree solutions, reprofile and flex contracts where needed.

The impact

The project has met its objectives and now overachieved overall on all of its contracted outputs; providing dedicated support to 260 businesses and 31 public buildings, saving over 3665 tons of carbon.

External independent evaluation confirms SMEs welcomed the SEGL’s ‘end product’, and changes to approach. They identified knowledge and information which was obtained via the advice, energy audit, and the funding provided which enabled improvements to SME premises and associated positive outcomes:

  • enhanced knowledge to make decisions around energy efficiency, and financial assistance to implement these
  • financial savings, reduced carbon footprint and enhanced working conditions - as a result of implementing improvements.
  • increased propensity to undertake future environmental efficiency activity, indicating longer-term thinking, changing behaviours and a sustainable legacy.

“Our electricity costs from June to the end of August this year were £15,200, compared to £26,143 for the same time last year – a saving of £10,943 for one quarter.”

Businesses identified the following benefits and gains following engagement with the project:

  • tools for improvement
  • knowledge
  • funding
  • financial robustness/ COVID-19 proofing
  • improvement works and activities
  • financial savings
  • reduced carbon footprint
  • enhanced working conditions
  • jobs safeguarded
  • sustainable legacy.

The programme achieved delivery of the financial investment profiled for both SMEs and public buildings despite the significant challenges.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The Council are using the learning to shape its Carbon Road Map actions and develop a partnership offer to continue to support North East Lincolnshire businesses. Findings have been shared with the Greater Lincolnshire LEP and Government Office to inform regional and national development. The Council have applied for, and continue to explore, further funding support activity.

Lessons learned

  • Dedicated service, time and resource are needed to support SMEs from engagement to delivery.
  • Importance of providing dedicated resource to support busy SMEs who need to focus on operational delivery priorities, particularly recovering from pandemic but also to achieve sustainability and support to achieve carbon savings.
  • Importance of listening and responding to customer feedback, continuous improvement.
  • Good leadership, management, robust processes, flexible agile approach, key for successful project delivery. 
  • SMEs benefitted from examples, case studies, and network opportunities for SMEs to see what’s possible and the benefits realised from other SMEs.
  • Provision is needed for trusted independent dedicated technical advice to support for SMEs in their zero-carbon journey; SMEs often didn’t know where to start, what the current position was, what the renewable opportunities were and low carbon solution ideas as well as business case development.
  • Provision of a dedicated engagement officer/service represents an effective means of supporting businesses to convert their interest into actual engagement - enabling a more bespoke and personal approach to engagement and support.
  • An account management approach. SMEs, welcomed a single point of contact and effective communication – this also promotes dedicated responsibility for individual SMEs within the delivery team.
  • Financial assistance is key enabler, as businesses identified they wouldn’t have achieved their projects as quickly without both advice and financial support. For most low carbon interventions supporting SMEs, the provision of grant funding is an important mechanism for encouraging initial engagement and assisting businesses to take initial steps.
  • Future interventions involving energy efficiency (or similar) audits and workshops could consider a ‘parallel’ approach, whereby a proportion of these are undertaken virtually/online - as technological advancements continue, this approach should become increasingly viable.

For policy makers:

  • Longer-term interventions are needed - short-term (three-year) funding generates a ‘stop-start’ culture.
  • Demand for energy efficiency improvements will continue. Different funding criteria may be required to enhance more complex/older buildings that aren’t viable within some funding regimes.
  • There may be a need for increased regulation alongside funding provision (i.e. ‘push’ as well as ‘pull’ factors).
  • Wherever possible, funding-based targets should focus on outcomes rather than outputs. Outcomes demonstrate the impact of support, rather than volume of delivery – furthermore, a focus on delivering 12 hours of support is not always appropriate.
  • Interventions should avoid contradictory targets wherever possible - within SEGL the engagement target had the potential to conflict with the carbon saving target.

Contact

Helen Norris, Programme Manager - Smart Energy Greater Lincolnshire

helen.norris@nelincs.gov.uk