Blog: Local energy systems – the radical change we need

At Cullinan Studio, our vision is of an energy system built on foundations that avoid the pitfalls of the current one. We believe communities can be at the heart of this new and radical approach, one that is sustainable, local and equitable. And we know this works – we’re currently collaborating with partners London South Bank University and London Borough of Islington and local communities to bring this vision to life on GreenSCIES, a Government funded project for a Smart Local Energy System. Here’s an insight into what’s happening and where it could go next…

At the moment it seems that when crises come, as Shakespeare would have it, ‘they come not single spies, but in battalions’. The climate crisis is being joined by a global crisis in energy affordability, security and supply. And as every week goes by, it’s becoming more evident that the status quo isn’t sustainable – and not just because of climate change.

There are acute issues with where we get our energy, how we use it, and what we pay for it. The problems are systemic: they arise from the sourcing and infrastructure of our energy supply. We use too much imported fossil fuel and we’re not maximising the benefit of what we generate locally.

Our energy problems require systemic solutions

Imagine if we generated power where it’s used, avoiding the loss of energy in transmission from distant generators to high density populations. Sharing the waste heat from the local sources – perhaps to heat a swimming pool at the local leisure centre.

Imagine if everything new was built to a standard that resulted in zero energy loss and existing buildings were retrofitted to reduce energy demand. 

And imagine if we could turn the heat from the tube network (or hundreds of computer servers, or industrial processes, or sewers ) into heat for our homes.

This is not utopia: we have worked on projects that have these goals, notably the world-first Bunhill 2 and the GreenSCIES project.

We've engaged with local tenants in Islington

In our experience, the key to success is to collaborate with the local community. Only this way can you make the connections that reduce carbon emissions: between generation and wastage, on the one hand, and energy use where it is most needed, on the other. And we see opportunities to extend community involvement beyond the use of energy.

However, achieving net zero will require us to reimagine both sides of the energy balance of demand and supply. Reducing the demand by designing all new buildings to be ready for a zero-carbon future can be achieved by designing to Passive House standards. Passive House is not passive and is not just for houses. It is a building standard and is considered one of the most rigorous energy-based standards in the design and construction industry today. It is a proven method to achieve exceptional energy efficient and superior thermally comfortable buildings. By designing to Passive House standards the demand is reduced to low enough levels that onsite energy generation from renewable sources like PVs can be balanced.

Meanwhile, our greatest challenge is the fabric upgrading of our existing buildings to reduce the energy demand but this has to go hand-in-hand.

By significantly reducing demand, reduces energy costs, these buildings will be resilient to the likely increase in energy pricing, providing a long-term assurance of affordability.

Local communities could literally turn themselves greener and cleaner, creating local jobs and new skills along the way. These will be the communities that lead us to net zero. And this may be the best route to get us there – the most efficient, equitable and healthy.

If you would like to talk to us about  local energy systems please contact Kristina Roszynsky (kristina.roszynski@cullinanstudio.com)  and to talk about Passive House standards please contact Lara Michael (lara.michael@cullinanstudio.com).