Time to get more ambitious

Today (15 Feb) the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) considers its energy strategy. The discussion was originally scheduled for a meeting a couple of weeks back, which was snowed off. A very brief consultation window meant that Zero West wasn’t able to comment corporately, but one of our Steering Group, Andy O’Brien, also a founder and director of Bristol Energy Co-op, managed to get through the papers in time to submit a personal critique. An edited version of his comments appears below. In short, the WECA strategy is a bit of a damp squib. It holds back from most meaningful targets – especially the ones in the detailed report on regional possibilities which was commissioned from the Centre for Sustainable Energy, and which it supposedly draws on. Over to Andy…

I believe the WECA energy strategy doesn’t fully reflect the urgency of the climate crisis or the need to adopt a war- footing approach in response to this challenge. It is also unclear how many of the excellent recommendations in CSE’s thorough report have been accepted.

The strategy also doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t promote the great opportunity we have here to transform people’s lives for the better. It doesn’t shout about the amazing world-wide renewable energy revolution that’s well underway.


Not long ago, England got its power from 50 large power stations. Now, there are a million renewable energy installations across the country, and the UK now has more renewable generation capacity than fossil fuel generation capacity (41.9 GW versus 41.2 GW, in Q3 2018). Solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels. In parallel, rapid developments in energy storage and smart integrated technologies are transforming the way renewables can be stored and used to balance supply and demand. Local companies are playing a leading role in this.

Seismic changes are also underway in the decarbonisation of transport and heat. All the major vehicle manufacturers are now putting their focus on electric cars, vans and trucks. The Chinese city of Shenzhen has fully electrified its bus fleet, with 16,000 e-buses for its population of almost 13 million people. The latest generation of electric cars can put electricity onto the grid as well as charge from it.

Wales and West Utilities (the gas distribution system operator for our region) and Western Power Distribution (the electricity distribution operator for our region) have recently completed a ground- breaking pilot of smart hybrid heating systems. These combine an air source heat pump and high-efficiency boiler with smart optimising controls to provide flexible switching between renewable power and green gas. Imperial College analysis of the pilot concluded this could be the lowest cost pathway to fully decarbonise residential heat.

We can also dramatically improve our energy efficiency through working with people like Energiesprong. This is a revolutionary approach to whole-house, whole street, deep retrofit done at scale using a model developed in the Netherlands. Its schemes use the very best energy efficiency standards, and the money saved on future energy bills and maintenance is used to pay for the initial works. The retrofits are quick to install: a complete house makeover is usually done in a week andresidents don’t need to move out. Energiesprong is now active in the UK.

All the above technologies can be used in our region, and Zero West is currently working with partners on a number of them. These include Energiesprong, smart-grids, electric buses and local energy supply.

Another key project is offshore wind, where Zero West has established an expert coalition to develop schemes in the region. It’s estimated that 3GW of offshore wind capacity can be developed in the South-West.

This would produce approximately 11 TWh of energy per year. In comparison, the annual combined electricity and gas consumption in the West of England area (comprising Bristol, BANES, North Somerset and South Glos) is approximately 11.5 TWh.

The sea off the South-West coast is particularly suitable for floating wind turbines, which can be deployed in depths greater than 60m. Although this technology is less well developed than the fixed-foundation turbines used in other UK offshore regions, it has the potential to rapidly reach cost parity with them. The technology also represents a potential international market 4 times that of fixed offshore wind. Zero West is supporting an initiative led by the Cornwall & Isles of Scillies LEP to secure revenue funding and project leases for pilot floating turbine schemes in the South West. The aim is to roll-out 1GW of commercial- sized schemes in the region by 2030, and through developing the corresponding on-shore supply chain, to become a world-leader in the technology.

Data modelling

Zero West is currently working with Wales and West Utilities on a West of England-specific zero-carbon model. This takes data for the current heat and power demand of homes and businesses, then adds projected new demand such as that for electric vehicles. It then compares this total demand with a simulated range of low-carbon supply options. The team is aiming to have a first version of the model completed in March. It will then share it for peer review with the local authorities, WECA and the wider energy community.


The low-carbon infrastructure we urgently need will cost money of course, but it’s there – from institutional investors, the private sector, the public sector and the community sector. The good news is that, paradoxically, the bigger the scheme, the easier it often is to fund. Institutional investment is key, but it only funds at scale. But when it does, the rates are very attractive, eg:

  • Transport for London 10-year bond, 2.25%, £400m fully subscribed.
  • City of Gothenburg 6-year, 1.455%, 1050 million Swedish Krona raised.

I believe the current WECA energy strategy needs a greater focus on bringing finance providers together. This is probably best done by helping Bristol’s innovative City Leap project support a wider geographical area.


As described above, we know the money to decarbonise is there, but it’s currently in the wrong place. Despite supportive council motions about divestment from fossil fuels, the Avon Pension Fund currently has an estimated 2.45% of its £4.3 billion fund invested in fracking. This beggars belief.

Meanwhile, national energy policy is supporting fracking while killing off support for the solar industry. There was no mention of climate change in the recent budget, but there was a £3bn tax break for oil and gas companies in the North Sea.

If we’re to be successful in meeting our zero carbon targets we need local leaders to join local people in strongly opposing negative national policy, to actively promote the better alternatives, and to implement supportive local policies that will enable change to occur.

Working together

No one entity can keep us below 1.5°C by 2030. It needs collaboration.

My key message is that the West of England Joint Committee and the LEP cannot and shouldn’t lead on all this. It should focus on enabling it. Our region is a centre of excellence in low-carbon technologies and finance. We know what has to be done, and we are blessed locally with the companies, organisations and people who can, and are, making it happen. We just need to join it all up.

Author: Jon Turney