Energy-sustainable cities: councils have the vision, but now need help
Researchers at the University of Leeds have found that while UK local authorities are willing to think strategically about energy sustainability, their limited resources make it difficult to act.
A study published in the journal Energy Policy, shows that while local authorities may have a vision to make cities sustainable in terms of energy use, it is difficult to implement a strategy to make this happen during this challenging time for local government. The researchers used the City of Leeds as a case study to represent typical local city government in the UK. They conducted in-depth interviews with senior Leeds City Council managers and other stakeholders involved in energy-related projects across Leeds to find out if there was a will – and a way – to think strategically about energy use, from street lighting to the fuel consumption of waste collection vehicles.
They found that key stakeholders across Leeds recognised the benefits of thinking strategically about energy and showed a strong desire to realise these benefits. But the study also revealed that like so many city councils across the UK, Leeds is struggling to turn its vision into reality. This is largely because the local authority is lacking the human resources and the start-up funds needed for such a strategic effort.
Study co-author Professor William Gale from the University of Leeds’ Centre for Integrated Energy Research and the Faculty of Engineering’s Energy Research Institute said: “Leeds City Council has provided us with a real insight into how energy sustainability is viewed in local government. The good news is that none of the barriers to a strategic approach to energy are insurmountable, even in a challenging financial climate. But cities do need help; it seems dangerous to assume that local action in support of UK energy sustainability targets will happen, without at least some level of national guidance or support from central government.”
The researchers suggest that although strategic approaches to energy can become self sustaining in time, there is a limited - but important - need for start-up financial support. Local authorities also need help from central government, the study suggests, if they are to help the country achieve national and European targets on energy sustainability. For example, it could be cost-effective for central government to create some ‘how to’ guidance which shares best practice among local authorities to prevent any duplication of effort.
"Local authorities need support because energy touches on every aspect of a council’s responsibilities; they are not used to this role and it will require quite a cultural change,” adds first author Dr Catherine Bale. “Receiving revenue from energy generation, for example, is quite new and a little beyond their ‘comfort zone’.”
Councillor Mark Dobson, executive member for the environment in Leeds City Council said: “The findings of the study will reflect the experiences of authorities up and down the country. Although energy generation and security isn’t the main responsibility of any local authority, it is integral to the way we operate and how our residents live their lives. Working with the University as we develop our approach to sustainable energy has helped us understand the way forward as we strive to make Leeds a cleaner, greener, sustainable city.”
The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council under grant EP/G059780/1 ‘Future Energy Decision-Making for Cities—Can Complexity Science Rise to the Challenge?’
Study co-authors Professor William Gale and Dr Catherine Bale are available for interview. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: 0113 343 2796.
The research “Strategic energy planning within local authorities in the UK: A study of the city of Leeds” is published in the journal Energy Policy (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2012.05.019).