Dr Graeme Hawker, UKERC researcher, University of Strathclyde Dr Faye Wade, UKERC researcher, University of Edinburgh
Net-zero can only be achieved with decarbonisation happening in every place across the country – that’s every household, community, and local economy. What does this mean for a just and responsible decarbonisation of the grid? How are the adverse impacts of climate change such as increased flooding and drought being considered in a resilient energy system and how can local partners including councils work to help build resilient places and communities in the energy transition?
2021 has already seen a clear demonstration of the impacts of climate extremes on the energy system, with 4 million customers across Texas subject to rolling blackouts as winter storms batter a state unused to such prolonged cold weather. In planning for such contingencies, we know that with climate change we can expect to see an increase in the frequency and extent of extreme weather events (PDF). This implies that while we seek to mitigate the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by our energy systems, we must also ensure those same systems are resilient against the changes in the climate that we can already expect to occur.
Even in the UK, a few degrees change in average global temperatures is likely to translate to significant shifts in our climate. For example, we can expect Edinburgh in 2050 to have the climate of Paris today, and for London to become as Melbourne, with the hottest month having a maximum temperature 6C above today. The likely impacts of extreme weather events are less predictable but likely to be severe – we can expect to see more and longer periods of wet and windy weather, as well as water shortages from extended periods without rain. Floods are only likely to increase in frequency and impact.
Designing our energy systems for the future means understanding consumers’ resilience and their capability to tolerate supply issues. Undoubtedly many people from rural areas of the UK will be familiar with the utility of having candles or a torch to hand, or to be able to cook on a camping stove, when the power is out. The level of reliability we require from our energy networks is strongly defined by the resilience of the customers connected to it.
Because of this, it is important to consider the nature of future changes in energy use: for example, if the power goes out, currently cars powered by fossil fuels will be unaffected. What happens in a future where we have successfully decarbonised, and the majority of homes have electric vehicles and heating is based on electric heat pumps? A large part of the energy diversity that grants consumers their current resilience will have been removed, and the value of an uninterrupted supply becomes much greater. Local authorities are well positioned to support (PDF) developing resilience. They have responsibilities for planning, oversight of a variety of sectors including energy, health, education and buildings, and long-term commitment to a region. It is crucial that the work they undertake now can have a positive impact on the future. In particular, local planning decisions around land use and infrastructure must be made with acknowledgement of their implications for living with climate change. For example, increasing green spaces can support drainage in urban areas, helping to alleviate future flood risks. In addition, local authorities often hold a large building portfolio, including social housing. If long-term funding is made available, they can take action now to ensure that these properties are as energy efficient as possible, comfortable and healthy for future inhabitants.
One example of this is the work taking place in Scotland for the development of Local Heat and Energy Efficiency Strategies (LHEES). Developed by local authorities, LHEES are 20-year plans for area-based energy efficiency and low carbon heating, including heat pumps and district heating. Developing LHEES includes analysis of the existing building stock, understanding potential heat sources (for example local industry), and the geographic features of a local area. This is exactly the type of work that authorities across the UK can be undertaking right now.
However, they need additional support to do this. Crucially, as a result of long-term austerity measures, many local authorities lack the resource or in-house expertise to carry out this work. Evaluation of the LHEES pilot programme shows that such strategic planning activities require skills in collating and analysing multiple datasets, using Geographical Information Systems for mapping local areas, costing large programmes of work, and understanding the technical requirements of different solutions including heat pumps and district heating networks. Thus, for local authorities to play their role in planning for and delivering a resilient future, they need support in these areas.
The interface between local and national strategy is also unclear. How can a local authority be expected to create effective plans for transitioning energy supplies in a resilient manner without a clear picture of the future of, for example, the gas grid? While there is a necessary need for near-term decision-making if we are to stand a chance of meeting our climate targets, there is the danger that we hard-code a particular trajectory in local areas which turns out to be incompatible with broader-scale system evolution. In this context, some technologies – such as heat networks – allow for greater hedging of bets by permitting future changes in grid-level energy supply to be incorporated into how these systems are operated. Other options, such as energy efficiency and building fabric investment, are clear ‘least regret’ options that can be seen as bringing obvious benefits to health, resilience and wellbeing no matter what the future may bring.
The net zero target for the UK in 2050 carries profound implications for every level of society. While the UK’s reduction in emissions has been ambitious and broadly successful to date, this has largely been driven by changes to the supply of energy. There still remains, however, many sectors – building efficiency, heat, transport, industry – where this rate of change has not been in step with ambition. To tackle this, our national aspirations require us to consider deep transformation of energy not only at the scale of grids and large utility companies, but also within local authorities, who are at the coal face of supporting neighbourhoods and individual households. The concept of a sustainable energy system requires that resilience and well-being is maintained and promoted in the face of a changing world.
This article is from our Local Path to Net Zero series.