Spring forward, LAEP ahead - Andrew Clark and James Wallin

Comment by James Wallin, Editor at Utility Week, and Andrew Clark, Business Leader – Place at Energy Systems Catapult.

The spring (May 2024) local elections reshaped the political order in communities across the UK and reaffirmed the mandates of existing councillors, offering us an opportunity to take stock of the investment and decarbonisation decisions being made on our behalf locally. It is a challenging time for local authorities. Since 2021, six local authorities have declared bankruptcy (Northamptonshire, Slough, Croydon, Thurrock, Woking, Birmingham City, and Nottingham City) – the Local Government Association predicts more will follow.

Local councillors have a mammoth task on their hands, maintaining essential services, while working out how to meet ambitious local climate targets. This is no easy feat and the approach from essential stakeholders such as the distribution network operators (DNOs) – seemingly differs from place to place and the route to leverage scaled investment to deliver Net Zero is unclear. Some areas are leaps and bounds ahead, while others are barely keeping their heads above the proverbial water. It is not an envious position to be in.

Energy Systems Catapult recognised the challenges faced by local authorities, in making sense of their climate ambitions, and sought to provide a solution in the form of Local Area Energy Planning (LAEP). A LAEP provides a costed and integrated plan for a Net Zero energy system and considers a range of technologies and scenarios – such as deploying different heat decarbonisation technologies in different areas to avoid a high-cost upgrade of the electricity network.

LAEP is a stakeholder-driven, evidence-based approach that combines data, knowledge, future plans, and whole systems thinking to map out the optimal route for a local area to decarbonise, identifying the ‘what, where, when, how much, and by whom’.

Since three areas first undertook the LAEP process in 2015, more and more areas have looked to the approach to shape a localised framework for achieving Net Zero. Now in 2024, over 100 local authorities have put a plan in place or are developing one. Local authorities from Land’s End to Orkney, Conwy to Cromer, have seized the initiative and taken action. Uniquely, in 2021 Welsh Government became the first nationally representative body to include LAEP in its national planning policy, paving the way for LAEPs across Wales to be funded.

There’s a catch to all this success. LAEPs are not centrally funded or endorsed by Westminster. This has created a two-speed approach to decarbonisation nationally whereby those who can afford to put a plan in place to help unlock investment are (even if it is not necessarily consistent with the framework of other plans), and others are being left behind.

That is why Utility Week with support from Utility Week readers, industry, and local government, is launching the ‘Make it a LAEP Year’ campaign to urge central government to endorse the process and provide the much-needed funds for local authorities to put a plan in place. With an estimated cost of just £40 million to the public purse for every local authority to get a LAEP, it really is a no-brainer.

The local elections this spring forced us to confront the issues that matter most to local people. With a general election on the horizon, the energy and environmental commitments from the major parties come at a crucial time.

Decarbonising our local places – where we live, work, and play – should be non-partisan. LAEP is the right socio-economic choice. It makes business sense. It makes social sense. It makes sense.

The campaign is clear in its goals and the Catapult is supportive of Utility Week’s ambitions. ‘Make it a LAEP Year’ will promote the benefits of LAEP and demonstrate the cost of inaction. A nationally endorsed and centrally funded, rollout of LAEP for all local authorities would:

  • help catalyse scaled investment in place-best Net Zero projects, informed via robust plans and low regret opportunities;
  • help tackle fuel poverty by facilitating energy efficiency measures and allowing local residents to benefit from the proliferation of cheaper renewable power;
  • support a just transition by ensuring that those with the best knowledge of local needs are plotting the journey to Net Zero in their area;
  • help to ease the queue to connect to the grid by giving networks line of sight on where upgrades will be needed;
  • accelerate electric vehicle take-up by ensuring charging infrastructure is matching local demand;
  • embed whole systems thinking;
  • and boost consumer engagement with Net Zero by properly engaging with their needs and by creating a swathe of local green jobs.

Time is not on our side. We have just 307 months to get to Net Zero. The clock is ticking, and the pathway is narrowing. To ensure investment at pace and scale, and an equitable and just transition that supports economic growth, we need to stop discussing what needs to be done and begin LAEPing ahead with doing what we know can be done.

Are you with us?

Join the campaign. Email James Wallin.

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