Q & A with Paul Spencer at Oxford City Council

Oxford City Council opened their Recycling Fund in 2008. This same year the Council also began implementing its first ambitious Carbon Management Plan to tackle environmentally damaging carbon emissions across the city.  The Council is now working on its third Carbon Management Plan (2017-2022) and on track to delivering a 5% per year CO2 reduction across its estate and operations through a range of carbon reduction measures.

Since the start of its fund, the Council has financed an impressive £1,701,422 of projects. The 74 projects undertaken are projected to achieve more than £433,233 of annual savings and £6,697,769 of lifetime savings for the Council.  Carbon savings are projected to be approximately 2,038 tonnes per year.  Popular technologies include LED and lighting upgrades and boiler replacements which have been installed across the Council’s estate including sheltered housing, leisure centres, community centres, offices, and depots. The Council is now in the process of developing an ISO50001:2018 energy management system for its flagship buildings.

Paul Spencer is the Energy and Carbon Manager at the Council and has been managing Oxford City Council’s Recycling Fund. He has been at the Council for 12 years.

What is your background in relation to energy efficiency and how did you get into the sector?

​I initially took on the role of Climate Change Officer at Oxford City Council managing the Climate Change Action Plan back in 2006. The role developed over the years into more of a hands-on energy management role as we built capacity in this area towards meeting our ambitious internal and external (i.e. city-wide) carbon reduction targets.

I developed professional qualifications in energy management along the way – I am a Certified Energy Manager (Association of Energy Engineers) and have CMVP accreditation as well as being a DEC assessor. I am a founding member of the UK Association of Energy Engineers and have a committee role as technical editing and publications officer.

Prior to working for the Council, I worked in publishing as Editor-in-Chief of a portfolio of international renewable energy publications. I was active in developing green/sustainability networks at work as well as establishing a grass-roots community sustainability group outside of work in Oxford where I lived. This has since culminated in the construction of a community funded run of river hydroelectric installation - Osney Lock Hydro which is a 49kWp Archimedes screw hydro scheme. I am currently an independent director of the Hydro. This really is a hands-on role including taking part in weekly trash-screen clearances. Branches, logs and other debris from the river can accumulate on the screen of the hydro reducing the potential output so it’s important to keep the channel clear in the peak generation season (the winter months) as well as use the opportunity to keep an eye out for maintenance issues. 

Could you tell us a bit about your role within your organisation?

I am the Energy and Carbon Manager at Oxford City Council. This entails managing and procuring the Council’s £2m+ energy/water contracts. I am also responsible for the overall energy management function, including managing the utilities bureau service and day-to-day energy management activities, such as energy audits and identifying and implementing energy conservation measures. I manage the Salix recycling fund, as well as developing and managing the pipeline of projects to delivery, including meeting any legislative requirements in this area. I monitor and report on GHG reduction progress, identify and develop renewable energy projects, and work to increase the Council’s onsite generation capacity. The role also entails providing support and input to city-wide initiatives as well as shaping the environmental aspects of the design of new developments and refurbishments within the Council estate.

Across the council there is a team of four who focus on energy efficiency across different areas of the estate, operations and the wider community. This team, Energy & Natural Resources, sits within the Council’s Environmental Sustainability team who engage with the wider community and with funders to drive the city-wide focus on reducing CO2, improving air quality, reducing fuel poverty, and reducing the impacts of flooding to name a few areas of work. In addition, we are carrying out feasibility studies on the scope for district heating networks towards decarbonising heat across the city.

Could you give a quick overview of the Oxford City Estate such as number/ type of buildings and energy spend? And how has this changed over the time you’ve been with your organisation?

There are over 700 energy and water supplies in the estate generating around 5000+ invoices per year and a spend of over £2m. The range of sites includes leisure centres, offices, depots, community centres, and pavilions. Within the housing stock the council is also the bill payer for sheltered accommodation, housing block communal areas, temporary accommodation, public conveniences and pathway lighting.

There has been some rationalisation of the estate over the time I’ve been in the organisation with, for example, a major office rationalisation project leading to three offices becoming one and a move towards more flexible working and hot-desking. We have reduced the number of leisure centres from 7 to 5 – although one centre was closed to fund a major swimming pool extension at one dry centre.

How do you identify new projects? 

New projects are identified primarily through energy audits, and energy monitoring & targeting approaches. We are currently conducting an audit of all the buildings in our estate, with a focus on high-energy-use buildings. This audit helps identify projects and to develop our Salix pipeline. We also make sure that smaller buildings are audited thoroughly as there are often opportunities to further add to the pipeline of projects.

Projects ideas also emerge through regular discussions with building managers and engineers across the estate – including monthly review meetings to assess refurbishment and new building projects in development and identify where there may be Salix funding opportunities.

Previously there was relatively low awareness of the Salix fund across the council departments. However, we have been engaging with the key players in these departments and explaining how Salix funding could benefit their departments and are increasingly seeing more projects from other departments coming to us to use the recycling fund financing option. We also have good buy-in from our senior management team who, along with the elected members are very supportive of the energy efficiency and wider sustainability programme.

How do you procure for consultants and suppliers?

First point of call is to assess if our direct labour operations team can deliver the projects, if they cannot then due procurement process will be followed. We ensure all procurement meets constitutional rules via the SE procurement portal for all projects over £10k. for example projects over £100k go to full OJEU level tender.

What project have you taken the most pride in?

I don’t think there’s one project that stands out but it’s pleasing to see a series of projects develop in a building where you’ve worked up the energy hierarchy using Salix funding to deliver real and visible reductions in site consumption. For example, a depot site initially benefitted from Salix funding to install Cavity Wall insulation, followed by LED and controls upgrades, and finally Solar PV. It has been pleasing to see the site consumption profiles on our smart metering system step down over the years of the projects (See Figure 1). This also helps develop confidence across the estate that the energy management work is delivering real results (real carbon and financial savings). The typical annual electricity consumption in the main building of the depot before energy conservation measures were implemented was around 190,000kWh per year. Since installing LEDs and controls throughout the building in 2014 and then PV in 2016, annual consumption is now typically just over 100,000kWh per year.  This is against a backdrop of increased activity at the depots as this is a main hub for the Council’s direct labour operations trading arm.

A stand out recent project also includes our largest Solar PV installation to date at another depot (125kWp) using an innovative inverter optimiser system to improve system performance and safety. The project was quite challenging, and we came up across several obstacles along the way, including an asbestos clear up operation, so it was particularly satisfying to see this project completed and watch the site load dramatically reduce.  It was great too, following recent developments at Salix, to be able to mainly fund this using our Salix recycling loan fund.

Learning from these experiences it’s been great to develop further large-scale Solar PV installations. We are currently building a solar PV carport project at a leisure centre without subsidy. This project demonstrates how PV can stand on its own without the need for FIT revenues. The funding now available via Salix makes the investment case a little easier too.

What is your biggest challenge to delivering and identifying projects?

Getting technical buy-in with building engineers where we are pushing the boundaries beyond their comfort zone. Building engineers can sometimes prioritise keeping buildings running rather than the energy consumption involved in running the buildings. Working with the engineering team over time has helped them to understand the fund and the related benefits that can arise from implementing energy efficiency projects – such as reduced maintenance requirements of LED lighting. They are now more proactively helping us to identify new potential projects and support us in delivery.

Constantly changing priorities across the council can mean that some building’s futures are uncertain meaning that it’s not always possible to quickly advance projects even though you know they would benefit quickly with reduced energy spend and for reasonable pay backs.

What technologies do you have the most expertise?

LED lighting and controls, and Solar PV.

You have consistently used the funding available in your RF, what key advice would you give to other fund managers wanting to follow in your success? 

Patience, resilience and presenting a clear and understandable case to stakeholders that need convincing that the energy conservation project proposed is worthwhile. Also start small and trial technologies to gain confidence and arrange site visits or present case studies evidencing where successful installations have happened (i.e. outside of the Council’s estate). Lastly build a large pipeline of projects, some will inevitably be delayed due to circumstances beyond your control.

What technologies do you see as the big players for hitting the future carbon reduction targets of Oxford City Council?

Technologies that can deliver the challenge of decarbonising heat across the estate, particularly leisure facilities will be a big help to the Council’s targets. Also extending scope of Salix to cover fleet vehicles – going beyond building energy consumption. Fleet fuel accounts for around 20% of the Council’s carbon emissions and has a spend of nearly £750k. Being able to unlock the potential of Salix on fleet fuel reduction approaches would be beneficial to continuing the council’s progress on reducing its carbon emissions and associated energy/fuel spend. Lastly, battery storage projects collocated with existing PV installations to maximise onsite usage at night-time.

 

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