Skip to main content

Blog Innovate UK

Innovate UK
Innovate UK

Smart Local Energy Systems for net zero carbon

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: ISCF

Director of the UKRI’s challenge fund ‘Prospering from the Energy Revolution’ explores the opportunities around smart local energy systems to help in achieving net zero carbon.

Having spent the last ten years stimulating UK energy innovation, I am very aware of the interdependence between policy and new energy solutions. In a heavily-regulated energy sector, with multiple market failures, undergoing huge change, investment in new solutions needs policy certainty. At the same time, policy must adapt for new technologies that bring better outcomes for society.

Cowley hybrid battery.
Cowley hybrid battery.

So it was with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that I greeted the slew of new policies, plans and assessments appearing at the end of 2020. But I found these publications to be a big step in the right direction, building momentum and urgency on our journey to reaching net zero emissions, while setting up development of £50 billion UK markets for products and services that will power a green recovery.

How will we reach net zero?

In combination, The PM’s 10 point plan, the energy white paper and the 6th carbon budget from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) paint a picture of a better, affordable future where low-carbon electricity delivers our power, heat and mobility, with hydrogen and biofuels filling in the gaps where it won’t work.

It is now clear what needs to be done, but ‘how’ remains a vast challenge. The success to date in greening our power supply has demanded technical but not societal change. CCC are clear that the majority of actions needed from here need societal change as well as technical.

With the technology largely available, the speed of our shift to a low carbon emissions world will depend largely on how well we persuade people to adopt net zero solutions. This issue is largely missing in the recent publications, outside of making it easier to switch supplier.

The UKRI programme I run, ‘Prospering from the Energy Revolution’, is all about this. It aims to show how society can build a foundation for net zero by combining the best existing technologies into smart local energy systems - providing cleaner, cheaper, joined-up energy services that local people want to buy.

Solar panels on house roofs in Kirkwall.
Solar roof panels Kirkwall. (Photo credit Colin Keldie), courtesy of Solo Energy.

Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES)

But why local? The reasons are both technical and societal.

Technically, energy assets are becoming much more widely distributed (think electric vehicles, solar, local batteries, heat networks, heat pumps), and without local coordination, we will need wires big enough to cope with everything operating at once, meaning hugely expensive upgrades. By putting everything together intelligently, we can make best use of existing infrastructure - and reward users for flexing their demand to help balance the system.

Societally, we live our lives locally and trust our communities more than anyone else. Change driven locally will be faster and more suited to needs. As the CCC’s paper on local authorities’ role says: “Top-down policies go some way to delivering change, but can achieve a far greater impact if they are focused through local knowledge and networks.”

But local systems will also have to work within a national system. A framework for how local and national net zero delivery will work together would unlock the best of each. This is missing from the energy white paper, but must be central to delivery plans ahead.

REFLEX electric car charging at charge point
REFLEX electric car charging. (Photo credit Colin Keldie)

Prospering from the Energy Revolution Challenge

While there are many benefits to be gained, integrated local energy systems are not easy to set up. They are complex; they disrupt the status quo; and they require investors willing to take significant risks until proven.

That’s why we’re investing over £100 million in the Energy Revolution challenge. The aim: to show that such systems can provide cleaner, cheaper energy services that people want, build more prosperous and resilient communities, and offer good opportunities for investors.

Projects showing the way to UK net zero

We have invested over £38 million in three large-scale demonstrators:

  • Energy Superhub Oxford: a transmission-connected network of rapid electric vehicle charging, hybrid battery energy storage, low-carbon heating and smart energy management technologies that reduces stress on local grids
  • ReFLEX Orkney: a first-of-its-kind integrated virtual energy system linking local electricity, transport and heat networks
  • Project Leo (Local Energy Oxfordshire): a local energy marketplace that actively balances generation with demand for power, heat and transport, enabled by an intelligent local grid

Alongside these are more than 50 other projects developing designs, concepts, technologies and data approaches that will help such systems become reality.

We’re already seeing evidence that these approaches can offer efficient and sustainable ways of investing for net zero, acting as lighthouse projects for others to follow.

Net zero emissions by 2050: delivered for people

Our projects are starting to show how we can design for society’s needs and resources in local areas, and deliver what they want and need. They hope to accelerate demand and take-up of new net zero solutions in ways that national “one size fits all” approaches cannot do.

Conversely, failure to deliver what people want will mean a slow, difficult and expensive transition to reach net zero emissions targets. Consumers who don’t feel that changes work for them will vote with their feet and block progress. We must keep people at the centre of our designs for net zero.

North of the border, a local energy policy statement has been published putting people at the heart of a new framework for local energy to meet their needs and desires. We need to see this more strongly recognised across the UK.

It’s only through combining national policies with local projects, putting people’s needs first and creating thriving net zero places to live and work, that we’ll be able to make the energy revolution a coherent reality. And there is no time to lose.

Explore our Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) pages to learn more about the funding available to tackle a range of societal and industrial challenges, from clean growth to future mobility.

Sharing and comments

Share this page