In an attempt to urgently puzzle out how to tackle an energy price crisis, the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the stark ‘now or never’ IPCC report on climate change, the UK government issued its new Energy Security Strategy.
By policy standards, the paper was thin on detail and focused on just one leg of the tripod of crises, producing more homegrown energy in the UK to reduce the reliance on foreign sources, principally Russian oil and gas.
A pivot to nuclear, exploiting North Sea oil and gas, developing hydrogen, and increased solar and offshore wind ambitions were the headlines pre-briefed to the media more than a day before the Government published the final strategy.
In those 24 hours, local and regional leaders waited to learn what the strategy meant for them.
And what did they discover? Despite being vital partners in delivering UK energy security and net zero, the strategy virtually ignored them. Local authorities are mentioned just twice in the whole document.
Energy efficiency and demand reduction
With the cheapest homegrown green energy being the energy we don't use, we, as a network of local government leaders, hoped the strategy would prioritise reducing energy demand and upgrading Britain's draughty homes to reduce energy wastage (aka: ‘retrofit’).
Almost deafening silence on retrofit, however, is what the paper delivered. There were crumbs to be welcomed, including a doubling of funding for green finance products from £10m to £20m and a request from the chancellor that the UK Infrastructure Bank should support energy efficiency (announced ahead of the strategy) alongside investment in heat pumps.
But we desperately need more. With only 2.8% of homes due to be retrofitted in the next three years, it begs the question: why are we waiting until 2050 to make the other 97.2% energy efficient?
Decarbonising homes should be a central element of the UK's energy security strategy. And, as a recent PwC report argued and the Green Home Grants scheme has proven, the best way to do it quickly, economically and at scale is hand-in-hand with local authorities. And it helps the cost of living crisis now, which is why this oversight is so disappointing.
Another area where the role of local leaders is particularly crucial is in reconfiguring and redesigning the energy networks to be more agile and responsive to make the most of the UK's clean energy potential.
Boosting our energy security and progress on net zero transition means the energy networks that currently fuel our lives by connecting our homes and workplaces, commercial and industrial buildings, to energy sources for heat and power must adapt.
The companies that run these direct connections are known as network operators. There are eight distribution network operators (DNOs) across the UK.
Different cities, towns and regions will have different energy needs and means of production. At UK100, we are supporting our members to work directly with DNOs to ensure they play a part in the future development of their regional and local networks. Local authorities have a vital role to play. One is recognised by the energy markets regulator Ofgem. The lack of reference to that role in the strategy is an oversight that needs a quick remedy.
On the makeup of those future energy markets, the apparent scaling back of ambition on onshore wind is disappointing. Onshore wind is one of the cheapest and cleanest routes to energy independence. It also enjoys broad support across the UK. But the door isn't closed. The promise to work with supportive local communities to expand onshore wind is welcome.
We know there are local leaders throughout our network, like those in Cornwall, who are ready to work with the Government to increase onshore wind capacity.
Ultimately, it remains the case that renewable energy, onshore and offshore wind and solar remains the quickest and cheapest way to secure our energy independence, reduce bills and progress towards net zero.
And while the increased ambition on offshore wind and solar capacity and promises to slash red tape is good news, the Government needs to work with local leaders and communities to increase the pace and scale of the strategy's clean energy commitments.
Finally, the strategy comes as local authorities express their anger at missing out on the latest round of funding to improve and decarbonise public transport in their towns and cities. Meanwhile, a promise of 4,000 electric buses stays, as yet, unfulfilled.
But there is little action offered on transport, despite it being a key means of reducing our demand for Russian oil and a vital driver of the transition to net zero.
Out of the loop
The fact is this is an attempt at a long term plan trying to solve a short term crisis and failing to do either effectively. Cutting bills now requires rapid energy efficiency measures as well as a rapid switch to cleaner cheaper forms of energy. But the strategy fails to offer the UK the quickest and cheapest route to lower bills, increased energy security and accelerated action on net zero.
The strategy is, at best, a missed opportunity to harness the power of engaged local leaders to achieve cleaner, cheaper and more secure energy. Local authorities are a vital piece of the puzzle.
Polly Billington is chief executive of UK100