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Project Spotlight – Bringing sustainable heat to the citizens

26/08/2021

Solar Panels in Field

David Bourguignon and Jonathan Selman2An interview with SunPeople project partners: David Bourguignon, Project Manager at Agence locale de l'énergie et du climat de Bretagne Sud (ALOEN), and Jonathan Selman, Project Manager at Plymouth City Council. 

Tell us about the SUNPEOPLE project and its creation? 

David: In 2018, the Department for Environment at the City of Lorient (Brittany, France) encouraged the development of an Interreg project around energy. Very quickly, it appeared that the only way to address the issue of decarbonising energy in the building sector in a satisfactory manner was to focus on heat. In France, electricity is already very low-carbon. However, residential and commercial heat is a sector that is not well-addressed in energy transition policies and the way it is currently operated by market players is not compatible with the Paris Agreement. We therefore focused on the feasibility of an energy service based on sustainable heat, using solar energy captured by traditional panels or heat pumps. I have been convinced for a long time that delivering products that do most of the work without asking the users for much is the way to go. Project SunPeople is all about that. 

Lorient and Plymouth were put in contact through the Energy Cities network. Following an enthusiastic response from Plymouth, we managed to quickly set up a consortium with ALOEN - the local energy agency in Lorient, Plymouth City Council, Plymouth Energy Community and an innovative SME from Brittany called Aezeo. 

Jonathan: When we were approached about the project, it seemed very relevant to us. Like many cities in the United Kingdom, Plymouth declared a climate emergency which means working with partners to accelerate measures mitigating climate change. Here, electricity decarbonisation is addressed at national level. 

When it comes to transport, we all know what the solutions look like, and they can prove quite attractive to many people, with the right measures. Heat, on the other hand, is one of those very difficult areas that we struggled with for many years, because it involves more interaction with building owners and occupants. You cannot force them to adopt measures and you have got to make them really attractive in order to achieve our carbon targets. Decarbonising heat does need national leadership but it also needs solutions on the ground. 

Why does it matter to offer a sustainable energy service to citizens? 

David: The service-oriented economy has been growing stronger and stronger for many years. It seems in fact inevitable to move into that direction as the complexity of the systems we are now selling to people is increasing every day. 

Customers, who are in general inexperienced with energy installations, are facing two major hurdles when they want to shift from conventional systems – a gas boiler from instance – to a sustainable heating system. The first hurdle is the upfront costs. Homeowners have probably made a long-term investment. Regarding additional installations, most people have the price tag in mind and prefer a gas boiler over solar panels or a heat pump. However, most people don’t know how much they will have to pay each year for fuel. The second problem is people’s lack of experience regarding these systems. Customers could have a hard time finding the right suppliers, installers, they might have heard stories about other people having a bad experience in the matter. We would like to see customers avoiding that by developing a service that matches their needs. 

Jonathan: Every house is different and likewise, there are many different heat pumps on the market.

It can be very difficult for an owner to know what to ask for and how to get the best solution for that building. Very often, we are concerned about bad advice out there and what might be a cheaper solution might be less efficient in the long term. If you are bundling up a service, you are making it easier for a consumer, many of whom at the moment do not even perhaps realise they need to change their boilers in the next 20 years. 

Could you share with us your key results and outputs? 

Jonathan: Our mission relied on testing the market and engaging with stakeholders – individuals, building owners, supply chains and organisations that could take the energy service role. We were also able to look at a range of different sites under the SunPeople banner and explore some quite challenging buildings to retrofit. We looked at the technical piece, what sorts of solutions are best for these constructions – from historic buildings, office blocks to village halls – and how they would work. We developed case studies based on technical best practice, in terms of the right design, the best maintenance. 

We also worked on legal and commercial arrangements, resulting in the development of a blueprint. We can say we left a legacy, by producing many resources for others to use in the future. 

David: We explored the question in France slightly differently. We focused on a more theoretical understanding of what we could achieve with a service. We built a model, a business case from scratch. 

We also decided to focus on individual houses. We organised « Solar Kafe » events which were some kind of procurement exercises for apartments and individual homes. We recruited people in Lorient and basically applied our model on their existing data to see what that would lead to. In the very end, we were able to develop an energy service for them, at a price we could specify, with a contract duration. 

We had two major outputs, the first one being the development of a cost-competitive energy service model ready to be implemented and adopted – which is something we achieved. The second one regarded the number of participants involved in our activities – improving the service value proposition and disseminating project results. We ended up reaching nearly 200% of our initial goal, engaging around 180 energy service participants. 

Also, our specific objective was articulated around our indicator of the number of tonnes of CO2 we could save through the sites we focused on. When it comes to potential total carbon savings per year, we reached 528% of our project target, with predicted savings of 331,5 tonnes compared to our original estimate of 62,8. 

What remains to be done for an energy service to see the light? 

David: A key aspect of delivering a successful service is to have a well-managed energy service company, also known as an ESCo. 

In the current market situation, you have so many traditional players that customers can be lost and might not know who to turn to, from manufacturers, installers, to energy providers. With our model, you only have one company to deal with and one contract to sign. That also means that as a customer, you have only one company to complain to. The ESCo therefore has to be very effective at delivering this service. If they want to compete with other players, they would need to integrate all skills, and perhaps be manufacturers of equipment themselves. Currently, none of the big players in Europe are going that way as they lack incentives to do so. However, we have seen in our interviews that local authorities, community energy groups, even small companies, and in particular manufacturers are considering that option. I personally believe this might emerge from the ground, through entrepreneurs with the courage to disrupt the market. 

We proved with the information from the sample of houses we integrated in our refined model, that the price of our service would be cheaper than the current price of owning a gas boiler. According to our model, over a 20-year period, the monthly price of the service would be more than 10% lower than for the gas reference, while we would save around 80% in CO2 emissions. This goes against what is commonly said about the price of sustainable energy. The key element being that we would not need to pay for fuel anymore. 

Jonathan: Technically, we know that the solutions are feasible. Currently, we have got a challenge in the United Kingdom with the economics. We lack incentives and financial instruments as gas is very little taxed in comparison to electricity. Solutions would need to be adopted at national level, which is also why we have talked to government departments during the time of our project. 

How do you reflect on this project being cross-border? 

Jonathan: Although Plymouth has been involved in other Interreg initiatives, this was our first Interreg France (Channel) England project. SunPeople has helped us stretch our thinking. Although Lorient and Plymouth have multiple similarities – both are coastal cities, commercial and fishing harbours, which have been impacted by the Second World War – we had access to a range of different insights from across the Channel. This has added a substantial amount to the project and made it particularly dynamic. 

David: I am very pleased to see we have made it. I can also say that we have been stimulated by different approaches from the English side. With the pandemic, we also had to move many of our activities online, which has probably been beneficial for all partners in terms of tools and ways of working. 

To mark the end of the project, we wished to organise a meal between all project partners. As we can not visit each other in the current circumstances, we decided to send each other food over the Channel and have an online meal altogether. We thought of it as a pleasant way of holding a final, cross-border event! 

SunPeople is a €499,266 micro-project set up to demonstrate the feasibility of a decarbonised heat energy service in Plymouth and Lorient. The project ran from August 2019 to July 2021. All project tools and guidance will be made available to the public on a specific website at mid-October 2021. Please fill in this online form if you want to receive more information about it. 

More information about the project partners: