Our work

Our multi-disciplinary research addresses a major gap in UK sustainable energy policy, which is the neglect of energy used for heating and hot water in buildings. The project is funded by the UK Research Councils’ Energy and Communities Programme, and is one of seven projects which place society, environment and economy at the centre of the public debate. Preliminary findings are summarised in a podcast here. We focus particularly on the potential contribution of community heat (and cooling) networks, combined with energy saving improvements to existing and new buildings. These are proven systems for energy and carbon saving, which are well-developed in a number of Northern European countries.

UK and Scottish government low-carbon energy policies and climate change legislation presage far-reaching societal transformations. Policies and plans set ambitious targets for sustainable energy, but there is a gap between these ambitions and the means of delivery. Almost half of final energy consumed in the UK is for heat; of this total, around ¾ is used to heat space and water for houses, and commercial and public buildings, and most of this currently comes from a mains gas network. Energy policies intended to end reliance on fossil fuels such as gas, however, pay limited attention to the challenges of low carbon, secure and affordable heating.

Our research aims to contribute to answering the complex questions confronting us in relation to future heating provision and practice. Public debate has been marked by a division between macro and micro perspectives: the first puts the onus on government to pass legislation to control emissions from energy generation and use; the second puts the onus on individuals and households to change their behaviour. This project instead examines the argument that major change is more likely to be achieved at the meso scale of the city, where local actors and institutions intersect with governments and with global energy and financial market actors. Our ‘whole systems’ perspective examines the interactions between the mix of local and non-local actors who comprise urban communities: municipal authorities, residents, civil and commercial organisations, on the one hand, and energy, finance and legal experts on the other. The research aims for a comprehensive picture by situating urban practices in relation to economic and political structures for energy systems. We seek to understand the socio-technical networks which stimulate innovation, in the context of multi-level governance, uncertainties over energy policy, and mature centralised energy markets dominated by transnational corporations.

We began by analysing the recent history of urban heat networks in Northern Europe and the UK, which demonstrates the varied community energy business models in use, and the key roles played by urban authorities in leadership, trust-building, investment and multi-party negotiation. Preliminary findings have formed the basis for knowledge exchange workshops with practitioners and policy-makers, in turn creating further reflection and development.

We are now focusing on data collection in two areas. First, in relation to the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, councils, businesses and community enterprises are interacting over the plans for, and development of, sustainable heat and energy saving measures. We are attending project meetings where feasible, and interviewing practitioners from public, civil and commercial sectors. In each city we are also studying the experiences of householders whose old electric storage heating is being replaced by a communal heating system. Second, since the finance for UK urban heat network infrastructure is a particular challenge for project developers, we are interviewing finance experts on the inter-relations of markets, politics, policy and low carbon heating.

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