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How Newham can lead the way on net zero 

A variety of stakeholders, technologies and initiatives must come together to speed up the energy transition.

The London borough of Newham is firmly committed to the net-zero transition. Having first declared a climate emergency in 2019, it has targeted carbon zero across council operations by 2030 and carbon zero for the borough area by 2045 – five years ahead of the UK’s national net-zero target.

But intent alone will not be enough. Even by inner-city standards, Newham boasts a remarkably diverse range of demographics, industries and infrastructure. From private residents to international airports, all have a part to play in hitting a target that requires significant investment, innovation, collaboration and behavioural change.  

E.ON is closely involved in Newham’s efforts to tackle the energy transition. The sustainable energy company provides renewable electricity to more than 17,500 homes and businesses across the borough, as well as operating four district heating networks providing heat and hot water to another 4,000 properties. It is engaged with the council, local enterprises and homeowners in driving greater efficiencies and decarbonisation across its building stock. 

These form major components of the pathway to net zero, but, for Chris Lovatt, chief operating officer of energy infrastructure services at E.ON, a major challenge remains in consolidating this patchwork of efforts into “an integrated, holistic whole”. 

“Local authorities declare a climate emergency but may not have the necessary tools within their organisations to identify and make the appropriate changes,” Lovatt begins. 

“Those are conversations we’re incredibly keen to have and we already offer a number of the key components, from how you insulate and decarbonise residential homes through to heat distribution networks and renewable electricity production. With this track record, we hopefully bring credibility to the argument. We’ve had a number of really rich, rewarding conversations – conversations I hope can serve as a blueprint for how cities and boroughs seek to engage with experts.”

Getting the message right in Newham

While E.ON can bring the expertise, a relationship with local government is vital, ensuring that both parties share not only a common purpose but also a common voice. 

“There are groups who will trust a message from their local council far more readily than if it is being articulated by an energy company,” Lovatt acknowledges. “We must be mindful of that; help identify priorities and requirements, but not necessarily run the communications. By working together, this actually helps in making this feel like a shared mission.” 

Among the actors who are mission-critical in decarbonising a region, is the plethora of large-scale industries operating in its vicinity. Lovatt sees this as a significant opportunity for making strong decarbonisation gains – particularly when it comes to harnessing and reusing waste heat – but such a journey requires long-term, seismic operational transformation. 

London City Airport is perhaps the most high-profile case in point for Newham. As the biggest private employer in the borough, it holds a hugely influential role in defining wider success, but also faces unique industry-specific challenges, particularly given the current carbon intensity of air travel.

It has set the target of becoming the first net-zero airport in London, developing a roadmap to achieve net-zero carbon by 2030. For those emissions that the airport can directly control (scopes 1 and 2), the main focus areas are typical of most other industry players: ensuring efficiencies, driving the use of renewables, on-site energy generation, a review of how buildings are heated, and growing electric vehicle use. Advances have already been made, significantly reducing carbon emissions per passenger. 

Blue sky thinking 

To scale up those reductions, however, opportunities to leverage the airport’s unique geographical advantages and partner with local businesses and community organisations are being explored. “In terms of heating, we absolutely need to pivot away from gas, so it then comes down to investigating what might work for a space-constrained airport such as ourselves,” says Liam McKay, director of corporate affairs at London City Airport. 

“District heating is certainly a very interesting option in our locality – with Tate & Lyle, for example [Western Europe’s largest sugar refinery sits in the shadow of the airport], exploring solutions to reuse excess heat, which could benefit not only ourselves but other stakeholders in the area.”

This idea of creating mutual wins is a concept McKay turns to time and again when discussing decarbonisation opportunities. He points to developments within the Royal Docks, London’s only ‘Enterprise Zone’, forecast to create 60,000 jobs and 25,500 homes in the area; the ExCeL exhibition centre, boasting a capacity of close to 70,000; and the 25-acre Albert Island, which will be home to London’s first new shipyard in more than 200 years, as offering an incredible opportunity for the joint endeavour. 

He also cites the airport’s commitment to be a leader in the use of sustainable and zero-emission fuels, with a recent study finding that London City Airport could potentially operate an entirely hydrogen-fuelled domestic network between 2035 and 2040. Such efforts, he argues, could make the wider area an R&D hub for alternative fuel research and innovation.   

“You accelerate the transition by finding real economies of scale and that’s something we can offer,” McKay enthuses. “By identifying areas where we can work together, be that around waste heat, or new developments in the clean energy space such as hydrogen, Newham – and East London more generally – can be at the forefront of these changes.”

But establishing and managing such relationships is not always straightforward. The sharing of best practices and common goals requires an appreciation of the larger decarbonisation picture and incubating such behavioural transformation necessitates the creation of forums where local authorities, energy companies and industry leaders can demonstrate real commitment. 

Relationships take work

“Everyone starts off with the right intent, but this is a long-term process and you’ve got to keep all parties edging forward together. That’s the challenge,” says E.ON’s Lovatt. “There needs to be a shared will and vision, alongside partners who recognise what is needed and what is attainable. There’s also regulation coming online that gives these industries little choice but to take the matter really seriously and necessitates collaboration, but it doesn’t happen overnight.” 

McKay agrees: “We all have our day jobs and as much as we aspire and dare to think and do differently, the collaboration stuff can be difficult. Sometimes you need an actor to bring you together and rally around. That sort of facilitatory role could be really valuable.”

It is a role E.ON is trying to play across a number of interconnected initiatives. Lovatt points to investments being made in solar generation, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, heat pumps and smart metering across the borough. 

Growing heat network participation is also a huge area of focus. Despite delays in signing regulations into law, there remains confidence that local government will soon have the power to designate heat network zones and mandate relevant buildings to connect. E.ON already operates networks in the Newham areas of Barrier Park and Canning Town (both operational since 2012), Royal Albert Wharf (2016) and Upton Gardens (2019). They currently serve nearly 4,000 homes and businesses, with the potential to connect to around 8,000.     

“They are a really significant cornerstone to build out from,” Lovatt says of E.ON’s efforts to help drive the wider decarbonisation of Newham. “If we can connect up to some of Newham’s bigger producers of waste heat, getting it into consumers’ homes, that could make a huge impact.”

There are grants and funding options available to homes and businesses looking to obtain these renewable solutions.  “Accessing that funding is an area that we’re strong in,” says Lovatt. “Whether it’s local authority delivery grants, the workplace charging scheme, heat networks funding, ECO (Energy Company Obligation) – there are a number of pots that people can access. Sometimes they don’t actually believe that it really is free money, so education has a big role to play.” 

Community involvement

Growing heat network participation also requires extensive retrofitting of existing housing stock. systems perform more efficiently the more users are connected to them, but only if those participants have lowered their heating requirements first. E.ON is engaged in extensive efforts with local authorities and private tenants to improve insulation and integrate technologies such as rooftop solar

“Retrofitting is harder than building it in from the start,” the COO acknowledges. “It’s therefore essential we crack the new-build market, which will help deliver that scale and critical mass and drive some of the cost out of retrofit.”

The enhancement of existing building stock also has benefits that are more difficult to gauge. Newham is a borough of great diversity and contrasts but suffers from a poverty rate significantly higher than the London average. “We often find ourselves deploying these solutions and technologies in areas that have historically been quite deprived,” Lovatt says. “Once residents see this sort of investment going in, it helps raise standards of everything – people take a little bit more pride in their homes and area. This also helps with winning hearts and minds, because there is a big behavioural change component in this decarbonisation journey, which society needs to buy into.”

Back at London City Airport, McKay acknowledges that efforts to decarbonise housing stock across Newham have relevance to what is taking place on his site. “Heating a council building is going to be a similar sort of challenge as heating an airport terminal, so we need to track and engage with what is working elsewhere,” he says. “Society as a whole is starting to recognise the scale of the transition ahead. We must get better at finding the solutions that work for all of us – 2030 should not just apply to that industry or this group. We will get there much more quickly if we travel together.”

For details on decarbonising your organisation, go to eonenergy.com/decarbonising-newham.

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