The London mayor’s focus on distributed energy generation risks missing the greater prize of energy efficiency

Barny Evans

The London 2020 vision document launched in the summer by mayor Boris Johnson is a very good read, covering the big issues that concern Londoners including housing, transport, education, and the environment. It is optimistic, ambitious, and with just enough references to ensure that it can’t be dismissed as ‘flimflam’.

However, on the issue that is both very general and long term, (how we reduce carbon emissions) and on the very specific issue of the moment (domestic energy bills) the document is worryingly light. In a document of 84 pages, there is no more than a page or two on these subjects and only two recommendations:

  • 25% of London’s energy supply should be from decentralised energy sources by 2025.
  • By 2020 a plan should be in place to retrofit all badly insulated homes

But our view at WSP is that the immediate focus and outlay aimed at decentralised energy be redirected to energy efficiency / retrofitting. It is far too complacent to suggest a seven year timeline to not even to start work, but to just have a plan. The need is now!

On the long-term target of carbon emission reductions, district heating is unlikely to be the panacea that is hoped

District heating, (the main source of decentralised energy for the mayor’s target) has a part to play by using genuine waste heat to serve homes that cannot easily be insulated and businesses that need heat continuously. However, on the long-term target of carbon emission reductions, district heating is unlikely to be the panacea that is hoped. It is expensive; the expected cost is £7bn to deliver the target, but carbon emission savings are limited when using conventional fuels. Further, the energy centres that serve these systems may even make air quality worse. The limited experience of these systems on new build developments is that they do not reduce energy prices.

Improving the energy efficiency of existing homes on the other hand, offers a win/win opportunity. Bills and carbon emissions can be reduced whilst making people happier, healthier and more comfortable, and the training and employment opportunities are immediate.

In reality the £7bn set for district heating is not in one bank account waiting for reallocation. One problem is that although energy efficiency is generally agreed to be the most cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions and bills, there is a disconnect between the beneficiaries and those bearing the cost. Occupiers get a benefit but it is difficult to reclaim the cost from them.

Unfortunately the Green Deal, which does exactly that, has not been a success so far. We need a way to crack this issue and it is something I have worked on with the UKGBC in their report considering Green Deal incentivisation. My preferred option remains an Energy Efficiency Feed-In Tariff, where people are rewarded for reducing energy use. Again funding and calculating what genuine savings are is crucial. Although loft and wall insulation, double glazing, and sealing draughts are important, the other aspect is occupant behaviour. How many people can honestly say they have a complete understanding of their heating system? How do we improve energy literacy? The GLA RE:NEW programme is attempting to achieve this, but it needs an order of magnitude greater resources and to be more proactive.

Changing our focus from blanket district heating to energy efficiency is a tough challenge, but something the “greatest city on earth” has to address immediately.

WSP’s full response to the document, released last week, is available here.

Barny Evans is a specialist in renewable energy and energy policy