Walking the walk: how to turn local net zero ambition into practical action

Vilislava Ivanova, Energy Policy Advisor, Energy Systems Catapult

Hundreds of local authorities have now declared ‘Climate Emergencies’ and ambitious carbon reduction targets. But how can they help create thriving low carbon economies and create great jobs with local partners and organisations?

Local authorities can control and influence emissions through a variety of measures – from direct control over buildings and operations, procurement and commissioning, through to place-shaping powers, showcasing brilliant ideas and innovations, forming partnerships and engaging their citizens.[1]

And while the greening of transport, buildings, waste and land use, are areas for action that immediately spring to mind, activities around energy are often considered more difficult. The complex energy sector regulations, markets, policies and governance arrangements are constantly evolving. And energy policy in the UK is very centralised and requires national strategic oversight to support energy system transformation at the local level.

Despite this starting point, partnerships across the country are driving innovation in cooperation, governance, planning, community engagement, new business models, investment and implementation. Below are some examples of the ways in which local partners can drive innovation to support Net Zero ambitions.

Using public sector momentum to kick-start activity

The greatest point of leverage a local authority can have is in developing a clear, credible plan for decarbonisation of its local area. A wide range of energy-related activities are developing across different parts of the UK - from energy efficiency improvements and renewable energy project development, to heat network identification and low-carbon transport. But a lot of this is sporadic, and not part of a clear plan.

Innovative approaches are emerging throughout the country – from new financing arrangements via a joint venture in Bristol and community bonds in West Berkshire Council, to the formation of new strategic partnerships in Manchester and Cardiff, and the development of new integrated planning practices in Glasgow.

Programmes like the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Modern Energy Partners programme[2] working with central government to develop a systematic approach to creating decarbonisation plans for complex public sites (e.g. campus scale sites such as hospitals, prisons, military bases, and other complex portfolio estates). A new wave of coordinated, place-based programmes can help deliver building decarbonisation outside the public estate.

One other idea is also gaining traction – the possibility for Net Zero Pathfinders in local areas, cities or regions to demonstrate how an accelerated transition to Net Zero can be achieved. Some regions like the West Midlands are already developing proposals.[3]What is critical from an energy perspective is for strategies and solutions to be well integrated – across vectors (energy, heat, transport), across scales (site-local-regional-national) and across supply chains and markets (from generation to consumer).

Local area energy planning

Developing a credible local plan for getting to Net Zero can build consensus and confidence, helping unlock both public and private investment, and forming the basis of a green industrial revolution across the country.

Energy masterplanning through the development of a Local Area Energy Plan can be an invaluable building block for local authorities who have committed to deliver net zero.

Bury in Greater Manchester, Bridgend in Wales, and Newcastle upon Tyne have developed local area energy plans. These focused on the challenge of decarbonising heat and considered energy supply and demand. They demonstrated that there is high value in bringing key stakeholders together to develop a plan for decarbonisation, utilising increasingly open data and underpinning the process with robust technical whole systems analysis.

A LAEP methodology has been developed for Ofgem, who recommended the benefits of local area energy planning to energy networks – a key stakeholder for local authorities in the planning and delivery of net zero.

In developing such plans, local authorities are placed at the heart of local energy transformation. The planning process can also provide a valuable mechanism for engaging citizens on what Net Zero might practically mean for them and to develop solutions that deliver better places and residents. It can help to increase confidence in the “direction of travel” and the design of Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES, see below).

Creating Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES)

Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES) are an emergent concept, both technically and commercially. The development of SLES concepts has been supported as part of the Prospering from the Energy Revolution industrial strategy challenge run by BEIS. Through it, partnerships between businesses, communities and local authorities across the country are exploring new ways of unlocking energy system flexibility and integrating low-carbon technologies across generation, distribution and demand and across multiple vectors (heat, transport, electricity).[4]

Delivering Smart Local Energy Systems can ensure the benefits of open data and digitalisation of the energy system are realised, while supporting a pipeline of integrated local decarbonisation projects and initiatives. Using Local Area Energy Plans as a catalyst, local authorities can develop smarter integrated decarbonisation projects, that support a net zero plan and also help realise community and environmental benefits like improvements in air quality, fuel poverty, mobility and digital connectivity.

Creating the skills needed for net zero and regional cooperation

But this transformation of local economies will not be possible, unless we have the skilled workers to deliver it. For example, transforming our building stock to achieve net zero will require hundreds of thousands of new engineers. Robust plans will need to identify and develop the necessary net zero skills for the future.

Local authorities can work closely with businesses, educational institutions and training providers to build a low-carbon workforce ready to realise potential local benefits of a digitalised, distributed and integrated energy future. Decarbonisation will require great, well paid jobs in every corner of the country.

A toolkit for local authorities

Energy Systems Catapult is working with partners to build an integrated toolkit that will provide support, guidance and information for local authorities, including in the areas of technology appraisal, funding and investment, partnering, engaging with decision-makers and upskilling. The aim is to make it as easy as possible for local areas to foster energy innovation.

To date UK decarbonisation of the energy system has had little impact on our day to day lives. The next stage of decarbonisation is going to be more disruptive and complex, in order to change how we heat our homes or power our cars. But it will also lead to better long terms outcomes, such as warmer homes, better jobs and healthier communities.

Local authorities have a key role to play in driving planning, innovation, co-ordination and maximising socio-economic benefits for their citizens. The local voice is critical to remove barriers, inform policy and unlock action at scale - and it needs to be heard.


1. Climate Change Committee: Local Authorities and the Sixth Carbon Budget

2. Catapult Energy Systems: Modern Energy Partners: Integrated Efficiency Solutions

3. The West Midlands Net Zero Pathfinder: Proposals to HM Government to accelerate the net zero transition and a green industrial revolution (PDF)

4. Catapult Energy Systems: ERISHub – Powering the Energy revolution