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Zero-carbon: finding the best investment returns for councils

A tool is being developed to help councils assemble projects that not only meet net zero targets but also make financial sense. Simon Wilson from the Future Highways Research Group talked to Lee Baker about the system

18 May 2021
Simon Wilson: Carbon reduction is not all about electric vehicles; it’s about thinking how you can make the biggest, fastest difference to emissions with the resources you’ve got
Simon Wilson: Carbon reduction is not all about electric vehicles; it’s about thinking how you can make the biggest, fastest difference to emissions with the resources you’ve got
Suffolk County Council has installed more than 100 smart sensors on street lighting columns
Suffolk County Council has installed more than 100 smart sensors on street lighting columns
The Innovation Portfolio Builder looks not only at the carbon and economic impact of emissions-based parking but also the social consequences
The Innovation Portfolio Builder looks not only at the carbon and economic impact of emissions-based parking but also the social consequences


Local government plans to deliver a less carbon-intensive highways and transport system was given an added urgency after Prime Minister Boris Johnson accelerated the timetable towards net zero, stating that emissions must shrink to 78% of their 1990 level by 2035. This is just shy of the Government’s original 2050 target, only now it is 15 years earlier.  

Councils face these targets at a time when the average carbon emissions per mile for new cars are rising as SUVs make up an ever-larger proportion of new cars, the DfT has said. Also, following the fall in traffic at the start of the pandemic, traffic in April 2021 was close to pre-Covid 19 levels, DfT figures suggest.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has called on local authorities to support a modal shift to active travel, a lasting societal shift to home-working, and a technological shift to electric cars, and hydrogen or electric vans, HGVs and buses.

Councils must facilitate these big shifts while dramatically reducing their own operational emissions to service the network. Zero-carbon would require, for example, making fully recycled roads the norm, and switching highways maintenance fleets to electric or hydrogen. Quicker wins rely on the greater use of biofuels, which have big question marks over their sustainability. Throwing down the gauntlet, the DfT said last spring: “For consumers, we will need to provide different travel options which meet their needs and improve mobility whilst reducing emissions.” So, can local authorities rise to the challenge?

Building on innovation

Most councils have told the Local Government Association (LGA) they lack the funding and regulatory framework to deliver on the zero-carbon ambitions. But Simon Wilson, research director for the Future Highways Research Group, strikes a more upbeat tone. “The good news is that while local authorities are cash-poor they are asset-rich. And it’s never been cheaper to borrow capital, which makes sense for investments that deliver future revenue while supporting the transition to a decarbonised economy.” 

Wilson is working with councils on the vexed question of where investment should go. The research group he supports provides a forum for the local authority highways sector to share good practice and deliver value-for-money. It includes councils that have introduced new delivery models, such as the London Borough of Barnet and Buckinghamshire County Council. Innovation is now imperative, says Wilson.

To support carbon cutting innovations, he has led the development of a new tool to allow councils to assemble a programme of projects that make sense for both their finances and carbon reduction commitments as well as being deliverable. The Innovation Portfolio Builder tool has been used to assess the potential implementation of a number of options to curb emissions in different areas put forward by the DfT, Friends of the Earth and local authorities.

The tool offers a way of looking beyond traditional cost-benefit ratios for transport or highways projects. “The extraordinary thing is that the majority of projects we’ve looked at so far show a very rapid carbon payback – meaning you save the carbon emissions that you produce in a matter of months.” The former Cranfield University academic says that the tool “shows the sector the value of embracing innovation”.

The prototype seen by LTT contains sample data from the members of the Future Highways Group to give an idea of what is possible. It includes dozens of options for a carbon-cutting portfolio, including a number that have been successfully tried by innovators, such as demand-responsive transport services, dimming street lights and freight consolidation centres for urban cargo bike deliveries. It also includes a few still on the drawing board, such as providing zones for e-scooters. This, says Wilson, would not only require changes to infrastructure – to road layouts and ensuring highway surfaces are smooth – but also to the law.

Emissions-based parking

The sample data figures for each project relate to only that council’s circumstances, and so they are not directly comparable with the figures for other projects. Nonetheless, the sample data “gives a flavour” of how different projects might perform against different indicators, Wilson says. Steps to manage demand and reduce carbon intensity per vehicle mile may be among the most promising of all potential carbon-curbing measures. 

Emissions-based parking permits, introduced by a handful of London boroughs, and workplace parking levies, now being considered by a number of councils, fall into this category. The point of the Innovation Portfolio Builder, however, is to not only look at one dimension, such as the carbon payback, or even the economic payback. It is to provide a way for local authorities to take into account a plethora of considerations and to demonstrate to their residents and campaigners “that they have considered all the strategic options from every possible angle,” Wilson says.

For example, a drawback of varying charges based on carbon emission is that they fall down on the tool’s ‘social value’ score, undermining their achievability, he cautions. “Some of the climate emergency responses undermine social value. Poorer people can’t afford newer cars. So, the correlation you will see is the biggest impact on carbon has a poor social impact, where the immediate impact on wellbeing is low.” 

The tool and its sample data suggests that providing – albeit at a higher cost for local authorities. For due instance, councils providing residents with local incentives to buy electric cars would see no economic return for more than four years. Providing electric buses on subsidised bus routes, or restricting taxi licences to electric vehicles, meanwhile, could make even less economic sense at present, according to the sample data scores.

However, the “toughest of all the calls,” according to Wilson, is for local highway authorities to work out how they will deliver sharp reductions in their own emissions to even more demanding timetables. 

Most councils responding to an LGA survey said they had targets to become zero-carbon well before their entire areas are required to. On this point, the tool calculates what is technologically possible given the UK’s current infrastructure.

The sample data suggests that replacing highways services vehicles is not currently technically nor commercially viable, even though the CCC said it would have long-term benefits for the sector as alternative fuels such as batteries or hydrogen are “more efficient than burning diesel”. 

Wilson says: “Most of the sector’s fleets are diesel. Only petrol engines can be converted; and there are lots and lots of issues with using biofuels.” He also refers to the supply issues for hydrogen and how the national grid is not currently geared up to serve a mostly electric vehicle fleet. 

Economic incentives

Wilson says the tool results can be updated to reflect emergent innovations, the experiences of members of the group, changes in regulations, and advances in methods and technology. The Government’s Decarbonising Transport plan is expected to be published this spring. The group provides standards on how to run the analysis based on the individual circumstances in each local area. Even before any funding or regulatory changes, the experience of innovation to date suggests that there are “many things you can already do, if you get creative and cherry-pick ideas,” says Wilson.

He cites the example of road building, which active travel campaigners say must be halted due to the carbon-intensity of its materials, as well as its impacts on travel behaviour (LTT, 10 Jul 2020). Researchers Karlsson et al have, however, suggested that such emissions could feasibly be halved, and zero-carbon road construction will become possible before 2050. “Innovation has shown that you can massively change the carbon profile of a road scheme – by using only the bare minimum of concrete, for instance.”

Other ideas that appear to offer local authorities most hope in the short-term, he says, are those that use highways to generate revenue whilst at the same time changing behaviour as the CCC says is necessary. A quicker win on some vehicle fleet emissions could be scaling back home-to-school operations, with investment to allow children to easily attend classes at home on some days of the week. Local authorities can also rise to the challenge set by the CCC to support high-speed broadband by offering their street lighting columns for partners to install 5G.

“This would respond to employer demands to better enable home working, reducing the need to travel while generating revenue,” says Wilson. The idea of using highways to generate electricity is another possible route to zero-carbon council operations being explored by the research group. But based on experiences to date, though the technology is ready, local authorities are not yet.

The extraordinary thing is that the majority of projects we’ve looked at so far show a very rapid carbon payback – meaning you save the carbon emissions that you produce in a matter of months

Simon Wilson

There is a bigger case for providing council land for solar farms, with some local authority-owned solar farms coming forward. There are issues with connecting such local generation to the national grid, says Wilson. Nonetheless, such schemes can offset significant energy consumption, such as street lighting, and thereby allow travel whilst councils move towards net zero highways and transport networks. Another possibility is for street lights to generate their own power (see panel right).

The Innovation Portfolio Builder tool will be made available to all members of the Association of Directors of Environment, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) as a web-based application. Wilson will be discussing it alongside other senior figures in the first of three South West Highway Alliance ‘Highway to Zero Carbon’ webinars on 25 May - headline sponsored by Atkins. The discussion will be led by Tony Meehan, director, Atkins. He will outline both the issues local authorities need to grapple with and the opportunities available to them as they play a key role in the transition to a zero-carbon economy. 

Wilson’s headline message is: “Assemble a portfolio, don’t put all your eggs into one basket. Carbon reduction is not all about electric vehicles; it’s about thinking how you can make the biggest, fastest difference to emissions with the resources you’ve got.” 

Join the discussion at the South West Highways Alliance conference: The Highway to Zero Carbon – A series of three webinars: https://bit.ly/3vKLijQ

Lighting the way to carbon and financial savings

A technology trial currently underway could stop councils needlessly pouring energy into highways services, according to the Future Highways Research Group. Its research director Simon Wilson says: “Often, roads in towns and cities do not freeze when a handful of local authority weather stations say council highway networks need winter maintenance to keep people moving. We still grit those roads anyway. If we could get localised temperature readings in urban centres, we could stop many, many miles being driven.” 

Suffolk’s £4.4m Live Labs project, 

A Smarter Suffolk, is investigating whether this ambition could become a reality. Under the trial, the authority has so far installed more than 100 sensors of seven different types on street lighting columns, including temperature and road surface temperature sensors.

The project has run for two years and has been extended until October due to the impact of Covid-19 on data collection. Suffolk County Council is in discussions with forecasters to understand how the live temperature data could be used to influence decision-making.

The authority is also exploring the use of lighting radars that can adapt lighting levels in relation to vehicle usage to reduce energy and carbon emissions. And it is testing wind and solar units installed both in an urban environment and near the coast to establish whether this could generate enough electricity to power the lights.

The project is part of the Association of Directors of Environment, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) SMART Places Live Labs programme, which has also seen cameras with radars installed to measure vehicle classifications as well as volumes, and localised air quality monitors. 

This data could provide “a complete picture of road use” to inform decision-making on cycling infrastructure and electric vehicle charging points. 

BT Adastral Park science campus is aggregating and analysing the data to provide actionable insights, supporting data collation with a bespoke dashboard. And the study of all the data is being undertaken by the University of Suffolk, whose research team is writing reports on the trial findings, which will be made available towards the end of the year. 

Richard Webster, project director for the Live Labs project, says: “Having such localised data means that we are in a stronger position to support with environmental aspects of council activity and decision-making.” 

The authority will share recommendations with other local authorities across the UK striving to bring down carbon emissions towards the end of the project “so that we can all learn lessons from this trial,” Webster adds.

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