London councils must unite to buy green energy, urges Hackney's eco chief Jon Burke - undeterred by low conference turnout
PUBLISHED: 09:31 07 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:35 07 February 2019
“The fact we aren’t totally overrun by enthusiastic councillors today doesn’t surprise me in the slightest,” said Cllr Jon Burke putting on a brave face despite the low turnout for his renewable energy procurement conference on the town hall.
Representatives and leaders from every single one of London’s 32 boroughs had been invited but, although email reminders were sent to “save the date”, just two councillors turned up.
Tory John Todd from Hounslow and Labour’s Jonathan Slater from Lewisham were outnumbered by the press.
Undeterred Jon likened the moment to the point at which Dumbledore’s Army meets up in the world of Harry Potter, when “a disparate group of ragtag kids come together”.
“At the start of any project like this, enthusiasm is low,” he conceded. “It’s about the select few individuals whose eyes it’s caught who go out and evangelise for what we outline today.”
Jon’s game plan is to kickstart a green energy revolution nationwide, emanating from London.
“If those cabinet members and local authority officers aren’t wiling to come to Hackney, then Hackney is going to come to them and have those conversations,” he vowed, setting out his intention to stage a “roadshow” to share Hackney Council’s three-pronged decarbonisation plan.
Firstly London’s boroughs need to procure green energy together, using their collective £500million annual spending power. Secondly energy consumption must reduce, resulting in efficiency savings. And finally the council is setting up its own energy company, generating electricity through solar panels on council-owned buildings to sell to residents.
Most boroughs are already signed up to the London Energy Project’s initiative to jointly procure energy, apart from Islington, Greenwich, Bexley and Sutton. But a large proportion currently comes from carbon and methane-intensive fossil fuels.
If more councils opted to buy green energy through the scheme, Jon believes the UK’s energy landscape could be transformed from brown to green.
Hackney has made a commitment to source 100pc clean renewable energy by 2050 – and wants other councils to follow suit. By April 1, 50pc of energy bought by the council will be renewable, and bio gas will be included in the energy mix for the first time.
“We are clear in Hackney that, to truly weaponise the consumption of wholesale energy, to achieve our social aims and a stretching environmental target, it needs to be a cross-party effort,” Jon told the delegates.
“When you are talking about sums in the region of half a billion pounds a year being spent on energy, it’s very clear there is huge opportunity out there to move markets. No political party owns the obligations that we have to ourselves, residents and future generations, to decarbonise the energy system. We recognise we will only achieve that goal on a transformative level by working collaboratively with other local authorities. The lesson today that we are going to take away is: scale matters.”
In the long term, Jon wants to get local institutions and public sector bodies like schools and CCGs on board as well as the GLA which is a huge electricity consumer through TfL.
“Without taking an overly interventionist approach local authorities can send use their existing spend to provide some certainty to markets,” said Jon. “By sending a strong signal to the marketplace that we are demanding this clean energy, the private sector can make commercial decisions with greater certainty.”
“That’s a big statement,” said Cllr Todd.
Since the invites were sent out, another sobering report from the IPCC had landed, concluding the world must reduce greenhouse gases by 45pc from 2010 levels within a decade.
“The reality of what we need to do is truly staggering and unprecedented in terms of the coordinated action that’s required – and that’s just to avoid 1.5C of post industrial warming,” said Jon.
“The evidence is clear that to failure to implement reductions will result in risks of droughts and heat waves, which will impact to a greater or lesser degree on a city like London which already suffers, as we saw last summer.
“There are real public health implications why we need to decarbonise.
“If Hackney can do this in four years, other local authorities can do the same and the impact will be profound. I am confident that’s a place we can get to, not just because we should but because we can and because we must.”
Hackney’s new energy company will build on the success of solar energy projects like Hackney Energy, which worked with Repower London to fit solar panels were installed on top of Banister House three years ago.
Now plans are afoot to cover up half of all council-owned residential roof space with solar panels, to generate energy to sell onto residents who don’t have the buying power to tap into the wholesale energy market.
Many council energy projects have already gone bust but Cllr Jon Burke is confident this project is low-risk because Hackney will be working with an energy company that is already in the marketplace.
“You might ask why don’t customers already go to that supplier already because it’s already out there, but they don’t, and if they did we wouldn’t need to set up this energy company,” he said. “We are using our reputation as a local authority to reduce the stickiness. Most consumers stick with the ‘Big Six’ even though it’s not in their financial interests to do that, and there are a multitude of factors why they don’t move on but one is they don’t have any company proactively coming to them with an alternative. Our prices won’t be rock bottom, but we believe we can have a value offer that insulates us from market fluctuations in supply.”