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Peterborough’s smart energy future with project lead Elliot Smith

9 min

c. Flickr, sean_hickin

One of the UK’s four future city demonstrators, Peterborough City Council’s latest project seeks to meet surging energy demand in the city with a new smart energy hub. But with net-zero targets looming, and previous energy projects in the city being scrapped, how will the council ensure the project is delivered on time and answers pressing demand issues in the area? Cityscape sits down with Elliot Smith, PIRI programme lead, Peterborough City Council, to find out more

Could you tell us a little bit about how this smart energy grid came about, and the challenges unique to Peterborough’s current energy system that led to the decision to unveil this scheme now?

ES: We were one of the four future city demonstrators, and awarded Smart City of the Year in 2015. We’ve got a leading circular economy programme and we are aiming to be a circular city by 2050.  The Peterborough Integrated Renewables Infrastructure (PIRI) is a natural progression of some of the thinking and work that had previously been undertaken.

Peterborough is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK, which can mean that infrastructure needs to catch up with the demand and the strains of the city. A lot of the smart activities that we’ve done in previous years have been focussed around how we support communities and develop the city, as well as digital infrastructure. At the moment there’s huge regeneration investment into the city and these are really exciting times for Peterborough. We have a new university coming, the station quarter is being redeveloped, we’ve got ambitious plans for the city centre; with that level of growth, we also need to consider supporting infrastructure, specifically sustainable, low carbon energy requirements.

Elliot Smith, project lead, PIRI project

In terms of why this has come about now, we’ve been considering option for a little while; we have an energy from waste plant that converts waste into energy, which can produce both electricity and heat. We considered how this could potentially be maximised and delivered to the city in a smart way. We thought about how that might happen, what else might be required and started identifying potential routes.

Then we had a masterplan study funded by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which considered the viability of a heat network for Peterborough which concluded in June 2019, around about the same time the council declared a climate emergency.

That was a catalyst and helped develop some of the thinking around what PIRI might look like, and, actually what the project would seek to deliver.  PIRI is focused on low-carbon heat sources, electrification for power and electric vehicles, and supporting mobility in the city.

We’re assessing various different ways that can be provided, but the crux of the project is looking at how you integrate those three separate vectors with their individual business cases and their individual structures, and how, using technology, you can integrate those in ways that will save users of the scheme money and produce low-carbon sustainable energy.

You’ve received public funding from UKR&I’s Prospering from the Energy Revolution Challenge; as well as private investment from a consortium of firms in the energy sector for the next two years. What does the roadmap look like for a project such as this over the next 24 months?

ES: It’s a two-year design project with the time spent designing what this will look like. The result will be an investment-ready business case, a package where we can go out and procure delivery.

We’re not even six months into the programme yet, but we have made significant progress, spending a lot of time working on data gathering, the design concept and how this will work.  We have developed a number of scheme options and the approach that we will be taking is to assess the viability and suitability of the various options across all vectors.

What we’re trying to do is identify what is deliverable, replicable and scalable

The initial stages of the project, which are in progress, are data collection and stakeholder engagement.  Accurate data will be the foundation for the concept development and will inform the later technical design stage.  The commercial development stage will create the business case that will work with the technical design and deliver the final stage; an investor ready model that will create a preferred option for commercialisation with the full business model, design and commercial structure developed.

What we’re trying to do is identify what is deliverable, replicable and scalable – and to understand the learning that we get from this process, so we can share with other authorities, as well as consuming and incorporating knowledge from others.

Are any challenges unique to this project for Peterborough? Is it simply a case of soaring demand?

ES: At the moment, some of the constraints are possibly more around putting renewable energy back into the grid; we’re working with our DNO to identify where there are grid constraints.

The challenges we face are similar to other cities in the UK, but this is magnified because of the growth of the city.  When we’re looking forward, things like electric vehicles and some of the likely impacts (and opportunities) for the electric network – those are areas where we need to develop thinking and understand the effect this will have on future energy requirements.

c. SSE

Obviously a local network removes some of the potential capacity problems – if there are new and additional connections, that removes some of that potential future constraints.  But another key driver is of course decarbonisation and the development of local, sustainable low carbon generation that is affordable for users of the scheme.

There will be challenges as we progress through the programme, some will be specific to Peterborough and technical challenges that will be faced from this project, with integration and delivery.  Others may be common to other projects.  We will be sharing information so others can learn from what we are doing and likewise, we have been engaging with other projects around the Country.  There are some really exciting projects underway and we are learning all the time.

And the project consortium itself? How does that relationship work?

ES: As a consortium, we communicate almost daily, with a variety of scheduled meetings every week. The programme is very intense and there is a lot of work being undertaken. The relationship between all partners works really well, as we all share a clear vision and common objective.

We’ve worked with Cranfield before on Circular Economy projects; so we’ve got a good relationship with them and have also worked together with the other partners in a number of different ways.  We all bring specific skills and knowledge to our roles within the programme, which is also supported by strong project governance.  This also bringing different perspectives to the conversations and I believe that all the partners are the real strength of PIRI.

We have continued to develop our relationships with wider stakeholders, such as BEIS, InnovateUK and the Energy Catapult, through the ERIS programme, all of whom have been very supportive and have also engaged with a number of other projects and local authorities.

There’s a lot of activity, from setting up the project in terms of project governance and making sure that activities are properly planned, through to the conceptual workshops. There is a lot of focus on getting accurate information to help build the design models and technical stages.  We are also engaging others and sharing what we are doing.

In the past ambitious schemes have been put forward, such as that of the 900-acre Fens farmland solar project, before it was scrapped, costing £3m of taxpayer resources. What lessons has the council learnt since that scheme, and how do you ensure value for money is delivered on this scheme?

ES: UKRI funds this programme, and the rest is private sector investment. PIRI is a design programme, so there’s going to be a tremendous amount of learning that comes out from this which will be shared and disseminated. It’s innovative and ground-breaking, designed to progress the conversation around low carbon infrastructure. The government has pledged to build back stronger, build back greener and PIRI completely aligns with this ambition. It builds on work that has previously taken place in the city and which is planned for the future.

I think these are key points, because there will be other authorities and private companies that will be very interested in PIRI and equally, we can learn from previous and current projects. The scale of the global challenge and need for change is great and it isn’t something that can be dealt with in isolation – this is where the value from learning is so critical.

The scale of the global challenge and need for change is great and it isn’t something that can be dealt with in isolation

From the city’s point of view, this is bringing together private sector knowledge, with a range of partners and stakeholders coming together to look at a challenge that all cities will have – and trying to find a solution to that problem. The aim is to reduce the cost of energy and develop a local resilient energy system for the benefit of the city.

We’re all confident that through this project we’ll be able to deliver that. The fact that we’ve got such a range of partners that have come on board and private companies that have invested their time, resources, and finance into delivering this project is really a testament to the fact that they have the strong belief that this will be deliverable and ground breaking. We are developing the largest smart city energy regeneration project in the UK.

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