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ANALYSIS - LOCAL ANSWERS WILL KEEP THE LIGHTS ON

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>> Ministers are reviewing the UK's energy supplies amid fears of over-reliance on gas and oil imports...
>> Ministers are reviewing the UK's energy supplies amid fears of over-reliance on gas and oil imports

>> Councils fear this will see a push for large scale power plants that could spark local protests

>> Instead they want to get ministers to use local expertise on smaller scale plants

By Nina Lovelace

Lenin once said the success of communism would rely on Russia developing a national electrical network. Leaving aside his political ideology, few would argue with his point that power is vital to support any society.

Which is why the government's energy consultation, launched last week, can be expected to generate a great deal of debate across

local government and beyond. Ministers are seeking ways the UK can create greener, sustainable, secure and affordable energy, amid concerns the country is too quickly becoming reliant on fuel imports.

Although the UK is one of the global top 10 producers of oil and gas, it is estimated that by 2010 it will import up to 40% of its gas demand, rising to 90% by 2020. Put those figures against a background of rising fears about the security of imported supplies, and that many existing UK's power plants are coming of to their end of their lives, and there is palpable concern that without a shift away from imported fossil fuels the lights could suddenly flicker and die.

Local government is one of the UK's largest buyers of electricity. This fact alone reveals the importance of energy supply to councils. However, council involvement in the energy debate is likely to be much wider than

protecting itself and residents from fuel poverty, if, as feared, the energy review recommends the need for widespread building of large power plants that come with safety or environmental concerns.

Chair of the Local Government Association environment board, David Sparks (Lab), says councils are likely to be caught up in a 'maelstrom of controversy' with local communities, environmental groups and central government on what kind of plants should be built, and where.

Voicing the fears of many an environment officer, he also predicts there will be 'a national inquiry into at least one nuclear power station, and the consequent debate on dumping of nuclear waste'.

However, it could be that much of the more negative debate could be avoided if ministers recognise that local government can offer an alterative to large-scale projects such as nuclear plants and wind farms, which all create controversy.

The consultation paper Our energy challenge makes not one mention of local authorities. This is despite the fact that, in some areas, there are councils who have already significantly reduced their and their residents' reliance on the national grid by using small-scale schemes.

For example, Woking town centre gets its electricity and heating from gas-powered combined heat and power plants. These plants still rely on natural gas, but the system uses the fuel much more efficiently.

Some councils are also investigating how they can createtheir own gas from waste, rather than buy in fuel.

Merton LBC is working with private sector engineers to develop pyrolysis technology to treat waste. 'In a nutshell, it is a thermal treatment - although it is not incineration,' says principal environment officer Adrian Hewitt. The process involves heating biodegradable waste to very high temperatures without the presence of oxygen. The waste mass is reduced by about 95%, turning to ash and a gas by-product that is basically methane and can be burned.

Using new technology is not the only area in which local government is working to help create secure, green and affordable energy supplies. Local authorities are also major players in supporting energy conservation, both in terms of what they do individually and by educating residents.

Councils already work together to bulk-buy electricity to cut costs, and some also buy green energy, including electricity from renewable sources such as wind farms.

Planning departments are getting in on the act too. More and more are demanding that any new buildings must be able to generate a proportion of their energy from renewables.

Councils are also working to cut reliance on oil imports, which mainly support UK transport, by trying to develop and use biofuels made from crops or household waste.

All this reveals that there is already a great deal of knowledge, experience and innovation available in local government, which could give ministers at the very least an option to reduce future reliance on large scale power plants that come with significant safety or environmental concerns. But this knowledge is, it appears, largely untapped.

Mr Hewitt says there is much 'arm-waving' at ministers from local government and other experts to convince central government of this. 'There is concern that some of the central government advisers are not up to speed on what the options are,' he says. 'We are worried that our views won't be taken seriously in this energy review.'

Arm-waving may not be enough in this vital debate. Councils need to create a platform to argue their case for getting more involved in the energy review, perhaps via the Local Government Association. The LGA is considering its response to the review.

Providing evidence of best practice going will be crucial. In many cases local government will be best placed to lead on discussions, because of the impact supply decisions will have locally.

Councils not only best know their local geography, but are also more likely to be figures of trust to local people on the pros and cons of different types of power plants, especially if communities and local government minister David Milibands's vision of neighbourhoods comes to fruition.

Afterall, the public is far more likely to listen to the advice of someone who will also be living next to that new power plant, rather than someone safely ensconced at Whitehall.

Pioneer spirit delivers clean, green energy, writes Adrian Hewitt

Merton LBC is committed to developing a sustainable and secure low carbon future for its residents and businesses. Its first move to achieving this was to become the first borough in the country to adopt a local planning policy that compels new buildings to cut CO2 emissions by 10% by using renewable energy equipment.

Over 100 boroughs are now adopting a similar policy, which has triggered an exponential rise in the renewable energy economy nationwide.

However, this doesn't help with existing houses - or does it?

The second development forced to meet Merton's 10% policy was a new B&Q superstore.

Rather than complain about the extra cost it intends to install micro-wind turbines and solar panels across the roof. It is also going to build a renewable energy exhibition centre that customers will walk through on their way to the cafeteria.

It is doing this because the boom in the micro-renewable industry created by the Merton 10% policy means the cost of the devices will soon be low enough for DIY stores to sell them.

The second Merton initiative is a district heat and power network similar to that pioneered in Woking, with combined heat and power units generating electricity and hot water for local buildings.

The unique aspect of Merton's scheme will be that the gas used to drive the plants will be produced by processing and anaerobically digesting its residents domestic waste.

This elegant relationship between waste disposal and energy generation points the way to a sustainable urban future where waste no longer needs to go to landfill or incineration and low carbon energy can be generated for the borough.

Domestic renewables and local heat and power schemes will remove the need to build more nuclear power stations. Innovation thrives on the frontier - it may be that the answer to the UK's energy needs is to be found among pioneering local authorities, innovative firms and residents simply wanting to insulate themselves from the endless rise in energy prices.

Adrian Hewitt Principal environment officer,

Merton LBC

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