Open mike The UK is in danger of losing its way when it comes to local energy generation projects. But an energy map can guide councils and landowners to a low-carbon future, says Robert Shaw

Let’s be clear here: fossil fuels are finite. The limited quantities available, their locations, the political and civil unrest that they can bring and the current economic climate all conspire to push prices higher while taxes on CO2 emissions increase the financial burden. During 2010, when global investment in low-carbon energy, excluding nuclear power, stood at £150bn, the UK had dropped seven places in terms of its financial investment: from third to tenth.

But reduced dependence on fossil fuels requires accelerated evolution. Those countries that adapt quickly to the new low-carbon economy will prosper. Those that don’t, won’t. The construction industry is well placed to lead the UK to a sustainable future, but it will need support from local authorities to deliver on the potential our island holds.

It is time to think bigger and more strategically. There’s nothing wrong with the small-scale energy schemes we’re used to designing and building - encouraging landlords and occupiers to retrofit existing buildings is an absolute must - but landowners, public sector buildings, neighbouring local authorities and construction companies must work together on local or sub-regional energy generation to have a significant collective impact.

So where do you start? How do you work out which initiatives will be physically and economically viable? The energy map holds the answers, and it should be shared with anyone with the ability or ideas to improve an area’s sustainability. It can show us publicly owned land, the physical constraints and boundaries, the area’s demand for heat and type of building, the existing power draws and provision and the unclaimed energy potential. It guides who needs to talk with whom to make a scheme possible. It shows us which areas or buildings might support CHP and district heating, where there might be a neighbouring energy generation project and where future developments are planned.

And with all that powerful information right there in front of us, we can see all possible futures. An energy map is an opportunity map: it can give us crucial information needed to plan the growth or complete regeneration of a neighbourhood or a town; not just energy generation and storage, but infrastructure, water and waste. Some local authorities are already producing good energy maps as part of the spatial planning process, but we need wider and faster adoption.

I should mention that criticisms have been levelled at energy maps, but these generally reflect a misunderstanding of their purpose. An energy map identifies the potential for co-ordinated decentralised energy infrastructure - it is a planning and investment tool and not meant to limit where energy developments are allowed, nor should it be used as the sole basis for determining a planning application.

So what of funding, that traditional deal-breaker? Again it comes down to give and take and adopting a long-term, strategic view. There are grants on offer, but most schemes will require investment from business. As an example, in order to achieve the zero-carbon buildings that regulations will soon demand, developers need to offset carbon emissions through allowable solutions: likely to be payments into a low carbon fund to be spent on renewable energy projects. This fund could provide the unsecured capital needed for project development and an opportunity for businesses to diversify to become an allowable solutions provider themselves. Since decentralised energy now allows anyone to become an energy producer, there’s money to be saved or made in renewable energy production. Local authorities can now sell electricity back to the National Grid too.

Informed correctly by the energy map and with input from sustainable energy experts, this could mean self-sufficiency for local developments and even towns. That really will drive regeneration, with a huge opportunity to generate income and provide extra jobs.

Robert Shaw is director of energy and sustainability at LDA Design