Winning the battle for hearts and minds is part of the strategy for Birmingham City Council as it makes progress towards its target of cutting carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2026.
Last week Birmingham played host to the UK’s first-ever week-long climate change festival, staged to highlight the major sustainability issues and challenges facing both the residents of Birmingham and city at large.
Played out against the Government’s recent announcement that all major cities should reduce their carbon footprint by 60per cent by 2050, Birmingham used the event to go one step beyond and pledge to make the savings by 2026.
While many may think this target is over ambitious, Birmingham’s drive to become one of the world’s most carbon-efficient cities is firmly rooted in the pragmatic and the possible.
Visionary concepts may underpin the radical long-term strategy, but the city council’s deputy leader, Coun Paul Tilsley, is well aware that words alone are cheap.
The energy efficiency programme which the veteran politician is driving forward demonstrates his determination to match thought to deed.
“Last October, we announced a 25-year partnership with the UK’s biggest provider of community energy projects, Utilicom, beginning with a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant inside the ICC,” he recalled.
“I’d seen the Ultilicom CHP plant in Southampton two years earlier, but it was essential that the project wasn’t launched until every aspect had been fully researched, and we could guarantee implementation.”
Coun Tilsley knew that the venture had to work from the start – not least to convince observers that the council’s carbon-efficient strategy represented a serious statement of intent.
“We wanted to give a lead to the private sector, because this programme can not be driven by ourselves alone, or indeed, by the public sector in general,” he admitted. “It was essential that people saw a council which was saying: ‘Do as we do, not just do as we say’. ”
The immediate benefit of the environmentally-friendly CHP plant was energy for buildings in the Broad Street area – including the ICC, the NIA, the Town Hall, the Council House, the REP theatre, Central Library and the Regency Hyatt – at rates below the previous tariff.
“We are guaranteed to receive our supplies at fiveper cent below the national average, which makes it good business for us all,” said Coun Tilsley. “We calculate that 2,800 tonnes of carbon will be saved in the first year, and that we will be able to reduce our city centre carbon footprint by 20 per cent by 2010.”
Since its launch, the plant has been visited by delegates from local authorities throughout the UK, eager to learn from Birmingham’s partnership approach to energy efficiency.
“Southampton was first, but there is a significant difference. Their water supplies come from an aquifer, which heats their water for free,” said CounTilsley.
Now the council has demonstrated that it can deliver the first CHP plant, it sees significant future opportunities for similar ventures.
This May, Utilicom signed its second partnership deal for a CHP plant in Birmingham, with Aston University.
Coun Tilsley has already identified scope for a third in the city’s newest and most ambitious regeneration zone, Eastside.
“We are being careful not to drive this programme too quickly, but our view is that as development of the city centre proceeds, we will be able to put in other such plants to provide heat, power and water,” he said.
As the Utilicom partnership expands, it will also generate a significant revenue stream for the council, as surplus power is sold, and pumped back into the National Grid.
“It’s impossible to be precise at this early stage, but in the medium-term, I’d expect about £5million of energy to be sold each year,” said Coun Tilsley.
“We will then not only be supplying green energy, and reducing our carbon footprint, but also receiving windfall profits, which can be used to subsidise improved services to the city’s residents.”
CHP strategy gives Birmingham the edge
Utilicom chief executive Simon Woodward reckons Birmingham’s hands-on approach to energy efficiency has seen it steal a march on its biggest city rivals.
“We’ve seen lots of talk in all the major high-density urban areas, about how local authorities can reduce their carbon footprint, but very little action,” he admitted.
“I’ve been to see what’s happening in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and to be honest, they are way behind Birmingham.”
In May 2008, negotiations were successfully concluded with Aston University for Birmingham’s second CHP plant, which will be delivered via the Utilicom-council venture.
Each of its two new CHP systems will generate 1.5MW of power – the same as the original ICC plant – and Mr Woodward expects them to come on stream in June 2009.
The same month should also see a third plant become operational, at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. This hat-trick of deals will further raise Birmingham’s profile as a leading carbon-efficient city.
Mr Woodward generously concedes that Coun Paul Tilsley's commitment to the cause has been critical.
"Paul's been behind us since we first spoke about the concept of district energy schemes, and was the driving force behind our initial feasibility study in Birmingham," he said.
"He has always championed what we are doing, and his belief in the importance of carbon-efficient energy strategies has been critical to our achievements."
Domestic energy efficiency a key target
The city council itself will become a driving force for change, as its sustainable energy strategy evolves.
Sandy Taylor, the authority's head of climate change and sustainability, admits the target of cutting carbon emissions by 60per cent by 2026 is "hugely ambitious". He believes, however, that it can be achieved - if the battle for both hearts and minds can be won.
"I think the argument has been accepted at the intellectual level, that global warming is damaging the planet and must be reversed," he said.
"Now we need to demonstrate to the people of Birmingham what can be achieved at the individual level. The Climate Change Festival was a beginning, but we know it is only the start of a long journey."
Mr Taylor sees domestic energy efficiency as a key area. "It is a paradox that many people will happily spend hundreds, and even thousands of pounds, on plasma TVs, hi-fi systems and other electronic kit, yet will not invest £150 to insulate their roof," he says.