Blog: Energy obstacles and expertise remain perennial challenges

The National Infrastructure Commission’s latest fact-finding mission underlines the biggest problems facing the UK market today

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As part of its research ahead of the development of its second National Infrastructure Assessment later this autumn, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has been travelling the country to find out more about the big issues facing authorities up and down the land.

In its latest venture - to Truro - two roadblocks were highlighted that are major issues that go far beyond Cornwall’s boundaries and threaten to beset the entire country’s efforts to deliver good, sustainable and reliable infrastructure.

According to a report of the trip, a key concern for those in Cornwall at present is some of the major stumbling blocks to achieving Net Zero carbon emissions. A major difficulty that was raised related to the housing stock - specifically, how to provide green energy heating to old properties that are difficult or impossible to effectively retrofit.

Heating is a huge producer of carbon - the vast majority of the country’s housing stock relies on gas boilers and so finding ways to replace that with alternatives (whether that be ground or air-source heat pumps or using green hydrogen) should be a key ambition for the government.

However, it is far from a straightforward replacement process, potentially requiring new transmission infrastructure - not to mention the invasive nature of having to go into each and every house in the land to carry out the replacement work. Partnerships with the private sector, including the companies that can deliver the change but also with investors who can provide the capital necessary for such a vast overhaul, must surely be at least part of the answer here.

Retrofit has so far proved the poor relation when it comes to Net Zero investment, but it has potential to significantly move the dial on emissions, and there are some positive examples of the public and private sectors working together. Most notably, the London Energy Efficiency Fund (LEEF) and its successor, the Mayor of London’s Energy Efficiency Fund (MEEF), have been decarbonising the capital for almost a decade now, managed by Amber Infrastructure.

Away from London, Bristol’s City Leap project has recently got off the ground with a similar aim to cut emissions across the city’s built environment, while work has been ongoing in Glasgow to establish a similar initiative. There needs to be more effort put into these areas, especially as the signs are that private investors are willing to put money into such projects where there is clear political will behind them.

This is, perhaps, an area where the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) could play a greater role - potentially marrying up its function to provide support to local councils with its mandate to invest in efforts to meet the Net Zero goals of the government.

Another topic raised by those at the Truro meeting was one that will be familiar to the UK’s PFI industry: a lack of sufficient skills in the region to meet the demands it is facing.

While this was discussed in the context of a lack of green expertise, a dearth of infrastructure specialists in general is something that the industry across the country is facing at present. Over the past decade, the scale of infrastructure programmes being delivered in the UK has reduced - particularly in the area of major public-private initiatives - and as we look to ramp up to meet the needs of the planned energy transition, there needs to be a significant increase in the number of people available to do these jobs.

Earlier this year, we featured an article by recruitment consultants 300 North, pointing to the need for more expertise to deal with the handback of PFI contracts. It struck a chord with many of our readers and underlined what many were already experiencing: a fear that there simply aren’t enough people with the right skills to go around.

Government investment in skills is therefore essential. And while it may be tricky to encourage bright young things to begin a career in something termed ‘expiry and handback’, getting them involved in the energy transition should be somewhat easier. This will have important knock-on effects for the long-term delivery of infrastructure, too. It was pointed out during our recent Handback to the Future event with Addleshaw Goddard that while there may be any number of people in an area available to repair a broken gas boiler, those who can deal with a ground source heat pump are few and far between. This means extra costs, and longer lead times to get things fixed when they go wrong.

The issue is the same, in some ways, as the heating point: there needs to be an investment in ‘retrofitting’: in this case, ‘retrofitting’ people with the skills to deliver and maintain a new generation of infrastructure.

The government often talks of the jobs opportunity that the energy transition can provide - this will only become a reality if it invests in people to ensure they have the skills to take advantage of it.