Repowering London offer internships to local residents interested in working on the renewable energy projects they install

It’s a key way of assessing the impact of our work and, with recent UK awardees working across low carbon transport, community energy, smart grid innovation and fuel poverty, the process also throws up insights that provide a snapshot of the overall state of the sector.

Here’s what our Award winners are telling us this year:

The Brexit effect – many highlighted the impact of Brexit, whether it be the diversion of BEIS civil servants to Brexit implementation, or the unwillingness of potential private or public sector clients to take major infrastructure spending decisions, given current uncertainty. This has impacted organisations like GLA RE:FIT, which facilitates large-scale retrofits in the public sector, and Monodraught, which sells low-energy cooling and passive ventilation systems. Many award winners are benefiting from EU funding, and there is concern as to how this will be replaced once this source of funding dries up in 2020.

Fuel poverty – whilst the government’s recent Clean Growth Strategy set high ambition for tackling fuel poverty, there is a shortage of practical policy.  The number of measures installed through government energy efficiency schemes has dropped by 90% since 2014 and our winners are struggling to compete for an ever-shrinking funding pool.  On a brighter note, there is a far greater acknowledgment of the link between fuel poverty and health. The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) in Bristol and Cosy Homes in Lancashire (CHiL) have both run successful referral schemes where health professionals direct vulnerable people to help with insulating and heating their homes.  

Local authority capacity – reductions in local government funding have impacted winners working in fuel poverty, community energy and retrofit. Often local government is a key facilitator, whether referring residents to fuel poverty schemes or assisting with solar installations and retrofit on publicly owned buildings.  Council sustainability teams have been cut, as local authorities have prioritised statutory services such as social care.  Nonetheless, some councils are still managing to fund low carbon work in innovative ways; for example Nottingham City Council, a 2017 Ashden Award winner, is part-funding its new electric buses through a forward thinking Workplace Parking Levy.

An electric bus in Nottingham

Community-owned renewables – winners like Low Carbon Hub and Repowering London pointed to the reduction in government support for community energy, which has resulted in a staggering drop of over 95% in the number of community solar installations in the last year. Only a small number of large-scale projects where most of the energy is used on-site are now viable. Responding to such straitened circumstances, both Repowering and Low Carbon Hub are undertaking more work on energy efficiency, including exciting trial projects to match energy demand to local generation. 

The changing energy system – as the proportion of our energy derived from distributed renewable energy grows (although not in the community sector), there is a growing need to manage generation which varies with weather conditions. The market for demand response, where electricity consumers such as industrial firms turning demand up and down according to the state of the national grid, has grown considerably in the last couple of years.

Winners such as Open Energi, which was an early mover in this market, now have more competition.  More positively, regulators are moving with the times, and there is more of a level playing field for new entrants to the flexibility markets compared to the fossil fuel generators which have traditionally dominated. There are also interesting new opportunities for providing flexibility such as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and Open Energi is participating in a government-funded trial to feed power back into the grid from electric cars at 1000 charging points.

A way forward

Our discussions with recent winners highlight the slow-down of low carbon policy in many areas at the national level. Innovation is increasingly happening at a city level, where issues that are strategic policy questions at the national level are practical, on the ground challenges that need solutions.

The election of metro mayors in May 2017 created six new, high profile leaders who, along with the London mayor, can put their weight behind transformative change. They are looking for answers to air quality, congestion, public transport funding and how to build or retrofit homes so that they are fit for the future.

Ashden Award winners, with proven solutions, are well placed to provide these answers. But those leading on sustainability in the city regions need support. Ashden’s sustainable cities programme will be working to build a peer support network that can help cities learn from each other’s experience, and be a forum for exploring new ideas and some of the cutting edge solutions to city challenges that our Award winners offer.

By Cara Jenkinson, Senior UK Programme Officer at Ashden, a charity that champions and supports leaders in sustainable energy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world.