How local government can take positive steps towards carbon net zero

The UK has cut carbon emissions by more than 40% since 1990. We are the first major economy to pass laws committing to net zero by 2050.

The built environment is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact and, through its provision of buildings for millions of citizens accessing public services, the public sector will continue to play a significant role in the country’s journey towards net zero. 

Energy efficiency and management in the heating and cooling of public buildings is going to be crucial and there is huge potential for the changes the public sector makes to its estate to be a force for good – enabling the UK to build back better and greener. 

The challenges of energy efficiency and heat decarbonisation for local government 

In the government’s Net Zero Strategy launched in October, local authorities are identified as ‘integral’ in the battle for net zero, with the government estimating that 82% of all UK emissions are within the scope of influence of local authorities. During the COP26 summit in Glasgow there was a dedicated local and regional government day on the 11 November, hosted by the Local Government Association (LGA). The focus of the day was on cities, regions and the built environment, with the LGA taking forward its key messages on the ‘unique and powerful’ role of councils in climate change.

Local government is already at the forefront of the fight against climate change but it can be challenging to stay on top of the emerging obligations and opportunities. For some local authorities decarbonisation is not happening fast enough. Many have not yet finalised plans on how they meet their own targets as well as the UK wide goals set by the government. 

Barriers include a lack of inter-departmental and stakeholder coordination, lack of access to affordable and readily available energy efficiency technologies, and limited capacity and experience, which prevents many local authorities from gathering sufficient information about their energy performance. 

Budget constraints can also make meeting the high up-front costs of energy efficiency upgrade projects difficult and grant funding, such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, can be oversubscribed.

However, the returns of improving energy efficiency can be substantially high. Often energy efficiency technologies repay their initial capital cost within the first few years. 

Positive steps towards carbon net zero

Energy efficiency projects represent an investment opportunity for local authorities but knowing where to start can be challenging. 

The vast majority of buildings local authorities will need in 2050 have already been built; therefore, the principal question is how can they alter their municipally-owned buildings and building stock to make them more energy efficient? One tact is to begin by retrofitting and decarbonising the buildings most likely to be in use for decades, such as council offices, town halls, libraries and leisure centres.

A ‘whole building’ approach needs to be taken to heat decarbonisation, through combining low carbon heating system upgrades with energy efficiency measures. The solutions are all interlinked. 

Start by understanding your data. Do you know where your primary energy consumption is coming from? Only once you understand where you are wasting energy can you then start to implement change.

It may not be obvious which improvements and changes will make the biggest impact on energy use in your municipal building. An energy audit can help you understand the most effective options for energy efficiency improvements. An audit can be carried out professionally or you may choose to carry out your own.

Based on the data you collect or from the results of the audit, you can identify potential areas for improvement and changes that you can make, prioritising your options based on the resources available to you.

Write an action plan based on your priorities and use it to allocate resources and timings to implement improvements to the building. You can then identify short, medium and long term actions including:

Switching to LED lighting

Lighting accounts for nearly 5% of global CO2 emissions. A global switch to energy efficient light emitting diode (LED) technology could save over 1,400 million tons of CO2 and avoid the construction of 1,250 power stations. 

With savings of up to 50-70%, LED lighting has been recognised as one of the most actionable and ready-to-implement technologies for cities to transition to a low carbon economy and peak emissions in the next decade.

Air source heat pumps and heat networks

In terms of carbon reduction, installing heat pumps is probably the single most important thing you can do. ​​From the point of view of running costs you can save money on your heating bills immediately by replacing older, less efficient boilers. It is important to note that this will likely increase your electricity demand which is something that you will need to consider within your business case and financial forecast. 

Heat pumps are critical but local authorities should also consider heat networks. A heat network – sometimes called district heating – is a distribution system of insulated pipes that takes heat from a central source and delivers it to a number of domestic or non-domestic buildings. They provide a unique opportunity to exploit larger scale – and often lower cost – renewable and recovered heat sources that otherwise cannot be used.

There may be a private heat network already established that you can connect to or you might look to create your own.

Choosing renewable energy sources

Local governments can dramatically reduce their carbon footprint by purchasing or directly generating electricity from clean, renewable sources. 

Options include generating renewable energy on-site e.g through solar panels on a municipal building and purchasing green power through power purchasing agreements  – a long-term supply contract of renewable power at a fixed price, giving you certainty on both your cost of power and its origin.

Scaling up smart building technology 

Central and local government organisations are integrating advanced technology solutions into operations, ecosystems, and maintenance regimes. 

Introducing IoT solutions based on sensors and data is a cost-effective way to tackle energy inefficiencies from heating to lighting. Designing and deploying automation into systems, buildings management, operations, and ecosystems at scale can deliver enhanced capacity while also helping building managers focus on more complex operational processes. 

Automating operational processes saves money, time, and resource allocation.

Investing in retrofits

Energy efficiency retrofitting presents an opportunity to upgrade the energy performance of public sector buildings for their ongoing life. Energy-efficiency retrofits can reduce the operational costs, particularly in older buildings for example by improving insulation, water efficiency and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. 

It can be a big process however, involving upgrading the fabric of the whole building, which can be intrusive and disruptive, but the long-term cost saving can be worth the upheaval. 

How Crown Commercial Service can help

At CCS we offer a suite of ‘end to end’ energy saving solutions that will help to deliver decarbonisation for the public sector. 

Our CNZ experts will help you look at your needs in a different way and encourage suppliers to innovate on your behalf.  Whether you have a single requirement or need an integrated solution, let’s work together to make the UK a cleaner, greener country.

We have created a series of 3 step guides to help you on your journey to carbon net zero, whether you’re just starting or already well underway. 

Visit our webpage to find out more

This article was originally published in the Municipal Journal