Striving for sustainability in Scotland’s capital

Councillor Lesley Hinds, City of Edinburgh Council’s Transport and Environment Convener, discusses the city’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan and other energy saving measures in Edinburgh

Achieving a sustainable energy future is central to our ambition to improve the quality of life for people here in Edinburgh. We know how much energy matters, particularly to those who struggle with its rising costs, and we’re also well aware of the impact carbon emissions have on the environment – on both a local and an international scale.

As a signatory to the Covenant of Mayors, which involves thousands of authorities across Europe, we have committed to increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy in the capital, in partnership with our fellow signatories. We aim to achieve this through our Sustainable Energy Action Plan (SEAP), which has set one of the most ambitious targets in the UK - to reduce carbon emissions by 42 per cent by 2020. We are already making progress - emissions have fallen by more than 26 per cent since 2005.

By targeting five key areas – energy efficiency, district heating, renewables, resource efficiency and sustainable transport – the SEAP aspires to transform energy use in Edinburgh by reducing demand, improving efficiency and encouraging local generation. We have a range of new and innovative projects underway centring on sustainable energy, including district heating programmes, water sourced heat pumps, renewable energy schemes and sustainable transport initiatives.

Our own energy services company (ESCO), Energy for Edinburgh – an arms-length council organisation of which I am a director - is unique amongst ESCOs across the UK in that it will focus on sustainable energy, driving projects in energy efficiency, renewables or district heating. Set up to deliver the SEAP, it will have four principal objectives – to reduce carbon emissions, deliver affordable energy, generate income and encourage wider community benefits. Already the company is engaging with a range of key stakeholders in the city, including those in the private sector.

Addressing energy output
While the SEAP is our strategic energy plan and involves the city as a whole, encouraging businesses, voluntary organisations, communities and individuals to lower carbon and increase energy efficiency, we are also addressing our own energy and carbon footprint.

Towards the end of last year we signed a contract with E.ON’s energy efficiency business, Matrix, to provide upgrades to nine of our buildings including schools, the Usher Hall and the City Chambers. Changes involve the upgrade of Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS), enabling better control of heating and ventilation and new, efficient LED lighting, amongst other improvements. Not only will these cut energy costs in the buildings by around 24 per cent, efficiencies will help reduce carbon emissions by around 1,500 tonnes a year.

On a larger scale our ongoing organisation-wide BEMS upgrade will enable us to better monitor and support energy systems, as well as delivering energy efficiencies where possible across our property portfolio. The four year, £3.2 million programme, which began last year, will upgrade or replace the computer systems used to control mechanical and electrical services in buildings like schools. As part of this we will be creating a communication network between individual BEMS in buildings, enabling a central overview to identify faults and monitor performance. This will let us pinpoint areas where efficiencies can be made.

Our buildings have also benefited from the launch of the Edinburgh Community Solar Co-operative, believed to be the largest community-owned urban renewable energy project in the UK. In October the co-operative completed a project to install energy-saving solar panels on 24 council properties, including schools and leisure centres, resulting in cheaper electricity for all those involved and supplying up to one million units of zero-carbon energy a year. It is this kind of collaborative, community-focused working that will enable us to make real progress toward a low carbon, efficient energy future.

This drive toward renewable and sustainable energy includes energy from waste, which has been very much a part of a major joint project with Midlothian Council to build a state-of-the-art food and residual waste treatment plants serving both councils. The two facilities at Millerhill in Midlothian will reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill while recovering energy from its treatment – enough to power up to 35,000 households a year - as well as heat produced as a by-product of food waste treatment.

Another key energy saving project about to get underway in the capital is the large scale upgrade of street lights to energy-efficient LEDs. Our electricity bill for street lighting is currently around £3 million a year, but by converting 54,000 lanterns we’re set to save an estimated £77 million in energy and maintenance costs over the next 20 years. With energy bills expected to rise significantly over the next decade too this project makes total sense, in addition to the fact it will mitigate the amount of carbon tax we currently pay on street lighting, which is currently around £250,000 a year.

Setting an example in efficiency
As a council we want to lead the way in setting an example and providing the resources needed to improve energy efficiency, but we do need the whole city to come together to help us achieve this. From large organisations and businesses to communities and individuals, we want to effect a change in behaviour when it comes to energy use – whether it’s about efficiency improvements in the workplace, promotion of active travel or just thinking about the number of lights you have on at home.

Helping to achieve this, the Carbon Literacy Programme, being taken forward by the Edinburgh Sustainable Development Partnership, aims to develop citizens’ and other stakeholders’ awareness, knowledge and engagement with sustainability through a dedicated course available to organisations. Delivered by peers, it will focus on carbon reduction, as well as developing the skill set of all those who participate.

There are, of course, a number of challenges to achieving our target. Edinburgh’s population is growing at a faster rate than the rest of the country, requiring more homes and infrastructure and, as a result, increased use of energy and carbon emissions. As a historic city, our existing mix of housing, tenements and listed buildings may not all be suited to standard energy efficiency improvements, and there is no doubt a challenge in changing the mindsets of consumers and employees when it comes to energy use and sustainable travel choices.

But as a city we will take this on together. And this is about so much more than just our city. In December 2016, as part of the Edinburgh Sustainable Development Partnership, we helped launch Edinburgh Adapts, the capital’s first climate change adaptation plan. This aims to help us build resilience to and prepare for the effects of a changing climate. While it focuses on areas such as wildlife protection and awareness-raising amongst the community, it is closely aligned with Sustainable Edinburgh 2020, the council’s framework for the sustainable development of the city.

Under Sustainable Edinburgh 2020, we want to address climate change both by adapting to its inevitable impacts but also by reducing carbon emissions to minimise its effects. As well as lowering carbon emissions by more than 40 per cent, the framework targets a 12 per cent increase in the use of energy from efficient sources across all sectors, renewable energy technologies contributing to at least 40 per cent of energy consumed in the city and a 10 per cent rise in microgeneration capacity.

There is no doubt this kind of step-change will take time and effort. But implementing plans and strategies like these has the potential to provide more affordable energy, create new jobs and generate significant investment for the city, as well as other social and environmental benefits.

We can’t do this alone though. We rely on the co-operation of fellow organisations and businesses, volunteer groups and individuals, enabling local communities to have a greater role in energy generation and use across the city. Edinburgh is a beautiful city, popular with people who want to live, work, study or visit. I want to see an Edinburgh which can develop sustainably and efficiently whilst maintaining the quality of life we all value.

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