It’s time to pick up the pace when it comes to the net zero transition

As lead consultant for the Mayor of London’s Local Energy Accelerator - a funding programme that supports the development and delivery of local energy projects across the capital – Buro Happold knows all too well the need to pick up the pace in the climate change race. 

Alasdair Young, partner and global energy transition lead at Buro Happold

The LEA  - a programme to accelerate the transition to net zero in the capital - has been extended until spring 2024. 

A further £3m of funding from the Mayor of London is supporting more organisations to deliver clean and flexible local energy projects and help to meet London’s ambition of being net zero carbon by 2030 – a full two decades ahead of the UK’s 2050 deadline.

The programme is on track to deliver 95,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent reduction by 2030 – this will also include 80-90 MW of renewable energy.

Alasdair Young, partner and global energy transition lead at Buro Happold, said: “There’s huge appetite for the services and that’s reflected in it being extended to end of March, with the Greater London Authority (GLA) looking to procure a follow-on scheme.

“Some of these schemes we’re seeing may never happen without that support – that’s the acceleration part. 

“Many public sector organisations have set ambitious goals around climate change and net zero, but to do that is a major undertaking.

“With the state of the public finances there’s limited capacity of capability to deliver these programmes, often you need quite specialist skills – technical skills or commercial project management, sometimes it’s about communication. 

“We’re helping those beneficiaries develop projects, get to a stage where they are fundable and feed them into the major green finance funds so they can get the money to do it as well and start delivering on net zero targets.”

Working closely with partners Turner & Townsend and communications consultancy Camargue, Buro Happold is helping guide organisations across London to benefit from low carbon, low-cost energy solutions that are suited to the challenges faced because of climate change.  

Projects supported to date have included district energy networks that use renewable heat sources (including heat from the ground and waste heat), and energy technologies such as heat pumps, solar panels and energy storage.

But are targets for carbon reduction achievable?

“It’s clearly an ambitious target,” added Young, “but London has always sought to lead in this area and it needs to be backed up with support in national policy particularly around the transition from using natural gas to cleaner sources or energy.

“Heating buildings accounts for around a third of our emissions, and that’s much higher in London – so that transition in the built environment is probably the biggest challenge. 

“We have the technology to do it, and it’s proven technology. Heat pumps, heat networks, energy efficiency - these aren’t new things. 

“We don’t need to wait for new technology to be developed we need to get better at making the business case stack up and scale up the delivery.”

He says many companies and organisations have grasped the nettle on net zero in recent years. 

“Even in the last three or four years there’s been a really big change in the commitment in organisations to this agenda. Instead of having a conversation with the facilities or energy manager, it’s something board-level people are taking a real interest in

“That’s driving organisations more quickly than some of the government policies.”

Construction industry leaders raised serious concerns recently following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s announcement on the country’s net zero ambitions. 

He said the government was now taking a more “pragmatic” and “realistic” path to reach net zero by 2050.

Measures announced included delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by five years to 2035 and scrapping new policies forcing landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties. 

More positively the government raised the Boiler Upgrade Grant by 50% to £7,500 to help households who want to replace their gas boilers with a low-carbon alternative like a heat pump. 

Young said: “There were some good things in there and it’s right that we understand what the net zero transition means to people and the impact it’ll have on their day-to-day lives. 

“Unfortunately, in the tone it set out transition to net zero as a big cost, but actually it’s a huge opportunity. 

“Last year the government spent £40bn effectively subsiding gas bills, from the cost of buying gas on international markets.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to rely on importing gas from around the world and we could rely on our own great British energy.

“And extra funding for heat pumps in the boiler upgrade scheme is good news.

“A blocker to net zero is there being enough grid connections – there’s a huge queue of solar, wind and battery development waiting for grid connection. The government committed to addressing that which is really positive.”

But Young said it was a “missed opportunity” that there wasn’t action taken on minimum energy efficient standards. 

He said: “The UK has the oldest and therefore the least thermally efficient building stock in Europe - insulating and draughtproofing are not glamorous things to do but they do reduce bills and drive down emissions.

“We’ve had about 10 years where use of energy for heating has remained the same, we need to reduce that. The UK Green Building Council is lobbying hard to bring that in.”

But while there is much work still to be done, Young said we have also come a long way. 

“At Buro Happold we were once doing feasibility studies to put solar panels on a school, and they were £10,000 a KW, now they’re a tenth of that. 

“There’s been a huge change in the costs of technology and the appetite of clients to install it – now I think it’s incumbent on us as engineers to accelerate that transition.

“The level of ambition has stepped up in the last few years – and people want to be involved. 

“We have 500 applicants for every graduate energy engineering job – it’s the most popular choice for graduates along with sustainability. 

“For engineers of the future, and the ones already here, it’s what excites them. 

“This is an opportunity to attract a whole new generation because they can see the impact it can have on this agenda.”

He added: “There is appetite from investors and we need private sector capital. We need to have an attractive market for infrastructure investment. 

“We’ve got much of the technology now, so we need to be cracking on with the job of making things happen. 

“I’m confident it will happen. I’d like to be retired by 2050 but be able to say to my daughters that the engineers did everything they could to mitigate climate change so they can have the future they deserve.”

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