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Putting the rural voice into climate action

Putting the rural voice into climate action

David Cope, UK100’s Countryside Climate Network Coordinator, spoke at the Rural Service Network’s annual conference Revitalising Rural on Thursday. In this adaption of David’s talk, he spells out why we need to include the rural voice in climate action and highlights some informative examples of councils engaging residents. 

UK100 is the only network for local authority leaders with a focus on net zero. But until recently, our network was predominantly urban. We recognised that we needed to be more inclusive, to support rural authorities that had distinctive challenges and opportunities around climate action, and to ensure that the rural voice was incorporated into our national advocacy campaigns.

That was why we created the Countryside Climate Network. We currently have 23 members from across England, together covering over 40% of the country and making up 20% of UK100’s membership. 

So far, more than 280 local authorities have declared climate emergencies. The ones that are generally finding it easier to act are those that have more devolved power or funding. But others, including many counties, unitarities and districts, are also acting positively. 

This second group is able to do so because they have the political will, public support and determination. We think that building consent and support among local residents is crucial for the success of climate action – it is a key aspect of building the power to act.

Climate concern is high

National polling tells us that concern about climate change is high. Before the pandemic, YouGov polling showed us that a quarter of the public felt that the environment was one of the most important topics facing the country – behind Brexit and health – with 74% concerned about climate change.

The pandemic hasn’t changed this. YouGov reported in July that ‘COVID-19 has not kicked environmental issues into the long grass’, with a quarter of Brits still viewing the environment as one of the most important issues facing the UK.

In spite of these general statements, it is evident that this doesn’t make the implementation of climate friendly policies smooth or simple. The introduction of low traffic neighbourhoods and pop up cycle lanes as a policy response to the need for travel adaptations to Covid-19 have demonstrated that even with a groundswell of enthusiasm for action, this doesn’t mean that everyone has provided their consent and support.

And even though the UK government is changing its position on support for onshore windfarms, there is still nervousness about whether communities will support their development locally.

That’s why we advocate for a high degree of engagement between local politicians and a broad cross-section of the residents and businesses in their areas. Last month we held a webinar on ‘mini publics’ – citizen assemblies and citizen juries – to discuss the pros and cons about their use in building consent and support in local communities around climate action. 

On 10 September, Climate Assembly UK – more than 100 ordinary people representing the diversity of the British public, commissioned by the UK Parliament – presented its report. The Assembly members supported the swift implementation of a variety of policies that the BBC referred to as ‘radical’, including banning gas boilers, frequent flier taxes, swift transition to electric vehicles and reductions in meat and dairy in diets.

But vitally, Assembly members also identified that the policy changes could only happen if there was better education for all on climate action. They highlighted that fairness needed to be an underpinning principle of the transition, and individuals and local areas needed to have freedom of choice. 

To me this highlights that the public are potentially very ready for radical changes, as long as they are part of those changes and they are not imposed on them. The importance of local choice and local solutions stood out for me too. 

The importance of engaging residents in action

Local authorities are well versed in engaging their residents in decision-making. As ambitions around climate action increase, it is ever-more important to involve residents in a discussion about what is acceptable and desirable to them. Here are a few examples from members of our Countryside Climate Network.

In Herne Bay, on the Kent coast, part of Canterbury City Council, planning permission has recently been given for the UK’s first green hydrogen plant. Powered by electricity generated by an offshore windfarm, this plant will produce hydrogen for use by buses, initially in London, but once production increases and new bus fleets are fitted out, it will be used by hydrogen-powered buses in Canterbury too. 

Some local residents had objected to the development on safety grounds – hydrogen being potentially explosive. The Councillor for the ward, Dan Watkins, one of our Countryside Climate Network members, had many conversations with local residents to discuss safety concerns, explain the risk profile and the project’s benefits. This type of engagement is crucial in achieving climate action.

In Cornwall, another one of our members, they recognise that some climate actions could be detrimental to some residents. So they have committed to ensuring no Cornish resident is worse off as a result of climate action. They developed a decision-making ‘wheel’ that balances environmental ambitions with social needs. 

With use of this framework, they have decided to not install fossil fuel heating in any new council-developed housing, have invested in a bike and walking network of trails to link together housing and economic growth areas, and are using central government funding to reduce bus fares across Cornwall. 

And in Cambridgeshire, the county council is working on a project that will replace oil fired central heating with ground and air sourced heating in the entire village of Swaffham Prior. The scheme is being offered to the village, but whether or not residents buy into it is up to them. The project was inspired from community members and this local ownership has been instrumental in building the support for adoption. 

Upcoming research to better understand local views on climate action

For all these reasons, we are about to commission some research into the views of rural residents on specific climate actions – including around transport, heating, energy generation and land management to name a few. This research will dig into what it is about these specific actions that make them easy to commit to, or contentious.

By understanding these issues better, we will be better able to explore ways to engage a broad section of rural society. This will allow local politicians to frame discussions about specific climate actions, equipping them to build consent and support locally. Ultimately, by building this consent and support, their power to act will grow. 

David Cope, Countryside Climate Network Coordinator

If you’d like to join UK100’s Countryside Climate Network, please do get in touch with Coordinator David Cope.

Local leadership: exploring decisions on hydrogen, by Hywel Lloyd

Local leadership: exploring decisions on hydrogen, by Hywel Lloyd

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future.  Like all futures it hasn’t quite arrived; yet it’s clearly an opportunity. 

A number of countries across the globe have set out, or are setting out plans and strategies to invest in Hydrogen for their economic recovery, for example Germany and Japan.  In the UK while the Energy White Paper and associated strategy for low carbon heat have yet to emerge, a variety of agencies and organisations are energy planning, looking to plot a positive energy future for their places, and communities.

As part of the work of UK100 we have a presence in some of the processes of the regulator Ofgem, and are working at representing UK100’s collective interest with organisations such as National Grid, for example in their Hydrogen Gas Market Plan (GMaP) program of work.

Given many localities are looking to understand their hydrogen options, here’s our latest take on the wider sense of what’s the future for hydrogen – and what that might mean for a local leader.

The first thing to say is that hydrogen is not a silver bullet, yet it’s certainly one of the things that will insure we can fuel our future energy needs.  The advantages of hydrogen include its multiple uses, for domestic and industry heat, powering vehicles, electricity production and long term energy storage. 

While it will be easier to maximise those benefits if we can reduce our demand through greater productivity and efficiency in our use of energy, we set energy efficiency to one side for now as it is in the domain of hydrogen supply where it gets more interesting for places and communities.

Many can see a potential opportunity in hydrogen, which could even give a first mover advantage to a community or location, helping secure some of the early economic benefits of the hydrogen economy.

So a first reference point would be to appreciate the basic technologies for the two main methods of production:

  • Reformation (SMR), a chemical process that uses a natural gas and steam reaction to create ‘blue’ hydrogen and other by-products.  Importantly one of those by-products is carbon dioxide so this approach really does need something like carbon capture and storage to make it an opportunity in the future, most likely to work where there is a ready opportunity for carbon capture

So that would suggest near the gas fields of the North Sea or other locations where there are geological stores for carbon dioxide, such as salt caverns.  This geographical constraint could affect as much as half the country.

  • Alternatively we have the process of electrolysis.  Electricity breaks down water to produce hydrogen and oxygen (so no GHG emissions), electrolysers effectively just need water and electricity.  With 100% renewable electricity, that would produce renewable, or ‘green’ hydrogen.

Some see ‘green’ hydrogen as the nirvana of the future of heat. We should note the caveats that hydrogen doesn’t have as much calorific value as the natural gas currently used for cooking and heating, and some of the engineering in those devices would need to be changed. Domestic appliances can take up to 20% hydrogen fuel blend, so anything above that would need them to be replaced with appliances ready for hydrogen.

Clearly electrolysis has far fewer constraints on deployment compared to SMR, so the question there then becomes much more about the value of the hydrogen, or the availability of renewable electricity.

The balance of costs of these two elements of the process are a key question on where best to put your electrolysis, which in turn suggest a key criteria will be what do you need the hydrogen for?  

And it is probably true to say it is easier and cheaper to transport renewable electricity than it is to transport hydrogen.  Clearly hydrogen can be a part of the gas mix for the heating of homes and cooking by way of the gas grid; it can equally be used to support transport and power hydrogen fuel cells which some propose as a good solution for HGVs.  This could be site specific or via the gas grid; thirdly you could use it to create electricity (which might sound odd because we may have used electricity to create it yet we can taking surplus renewables at one point, storing their energy value in hydrogen and then releasing it as electricity when there is a greater demand for electricity).

So, where does that leave a local leader?

For some you will already have made or been engaged in a hydrogen opportunity, particularly where your place has the geology to support a SMR/ CCUS type approach, and ideally with central government support given the capital costs and innovative nature of some elements of the approach.

For most of the rest of us the question is more nuanced – do we lead, what’s our opportunity, or should we let the energy system do its thing and concentrate on a different opportunity?

For electrolysis hydrogen, potential options include connection to renewable generation to ‘use-up’ surplus electricity, for example adjacent to a wind farm, or connected to solar on a capped land-fill site; that hydrogen could then be fuel for a bin or bus fleet, it could be injected to the local gas grid; it could be stored for later use when ‘additional’ electricity is needed.  Other examples include using hydrogen fuel cells in buildings to reduce emissions (in place of a boiler) or as part of a local micro energy network at an end of the pipe location.  Other opportunities are being created daily.

As with many ‘new’ opportunities for a local authority it is key that the political and senior leadership is clear about the purpose behind the opportunity.  Clarity of purpose helps everyone involved make better decisions, knowing what is, and equally what is not, important.  For hydrogen that purpose could be climate led, helping reduce emissions and improving air quality; it could be about local jobs and businesses, helping manage local energy prices, costs of transition or create new businesses; equally it could be part of an approach to bring new revenues directly to the authority.

While any one of these is fine, the political purpose is different; and the necessary deployment of political capital will also differ.  Without political capital hydrogen isn’t really a priority, because budgets, staffing, resourcing and other decisions (e.g. planning) won’t all be deployed to help secure pro-hydrogen outcomes – and those tools along with local goodwill, business engagement and the like are all going to be required at this early stage of hydrogen deployment, because hydrogen is not yet the lowest cost energy option.   

In perhaps 10 years time much of the landscape will be different, hydrogen will be in some people’s gas supply; tens if not hundreds of hydrogen refuelling stations will be scattered across the country; surplus renewable electricity will be making hydrogen in a variety of locations.  If hydrogen isn’t a priority for you and your area it will arrive eventually.  

 

We will be working with a range of stakeholders to progressively flush out opportunities by location so do drop us a line if you are interested in hydrogen for your place. 

 

Hywel Lloyd, UK100 Board Member, Hywel.lloyd@uk100.org