Interview with Richard Bellingham

This is the second part in a series about Sustainable Glasgow (SG), the initiative that aims to convert Glasgow into one of the most sustainable cities in Europe in the next ten years (read part 1 here). Conaill Soraghan interviews Richard Bellingham, the academic responsible for drawing up the strategy which is now widely perceived as world leading.


Q: First of all, can you explain a bit about yourself and what was your inspiration for creating SG?

RB: I am currently based in the Fraser of Allander Institute in the University of Strathclyde and my background is in Government. I have given policy advice on a broad range of subjects and most recently I was working as head of energy policy in Scottish Government. As part of that work I was working with various universities to increase the amount of energy research money we have coming into Scotland. Through that I met Jim Macdonald (who wasn’t the principal of the University of Strathclyde at the time); he had this interesting idea about making Glasgow a more sustainable city and asked me if I’d like to be involved.

Q: What exactly is the gist of SG?

RB: Instead of setting big targets at the beginning then working out how we would fulfil them we did the opposite. We took a bottom up approach: looking at where the energy is being consumed, where the carbon emissions are coming from and where the big low carbon energy resources are. Then we also considered where major investments were going to happen in the city so that we could trigger extra things from those investments. For example, the Commonwealth Games Village may trigger a wider low carbon energy system in the east end of Glasgow. By amalgamating those different layers of information we can map out where the opportunities are and work towards a big carbon reduction target that we think we can achieve, not only technically but financially.

Energy Management, Efficiency and Policy

Q: How is the SG strategy helping to improve efficiency in buildings in Glasgow?

RB: There are particular issues in Glasgow because the densest area of emission is the city centre due to retail and business activity. The buildings are mainly leased and this creates a problem in terms of investment in energy efficiency measures – in that if the landlord invests in energy efficiency measures they are making the capital investment but they don’t see the savings. Likewise, the tenant may feel it makes no sense to invest in energy efficiency because they are investing capital that will need to be paid back over time by energy savings but are unsure if they will still be in that building in a few years time.

One of the opportunities is the CRC (carbon reduction commitment). This is catching a lot of medium sized organisations. The very large carbon emitting organisations already fall under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. They have to buy and sell carbon permits to cover their emissions. Now that has been extended to medium-sized organisations by the CRC.

Q: What is the role played by SG in this?

RB: The CRC provides a strong incentive for medium-sized organisations to act, but they may not know how to act. What SG aims to do is help them identify the opportunities and bring in investment funds which helps make energy efficiency and low carbon energy projects happen. SG tends to be more interested in additional joined-up projects which wouldn’t just happen anyway as a consequence of incentives such as the CRC. Projects such as district heating, anaerobic digestion biogas systems, and low carbon transport tend to be much more difficult to make happen because you need multiple actors and multiple customers to work together. You also need funding to deliver the linking infrastructure.

Renewables in the mix: Biogas

Q: Before we get onto district heating, let’s focus on biogas. Have there been any developments with the plan to build an anaerobic digester in Glasgow to generate biogas?

RB: Energy from waste is a major opportunity for most cities. Personally I would prefer a system that integrates a digestion plant with a sewage treatment works, however there are issues related to the existing contractual arrangements in Glasgow. Basically, there is a long-term contract between Scottish Power and Scottish Water whereby Scottish Power takes the sewage sludge and intends to burn it at a new high temperature treatment facility in the east of Scotland. I don’t see the trucking of dry sewage-sludge across Scotland as the best low carbon solution – but the contractual position appears difficult to change in the short term.

Q: Considering these contractual complications, are you confident that you will achieve your goal of creating a digestor in 3-5 years?

RB: The pressures are quite significant to improve waste treatment in the UK. For municipal solid waste – the waste that the council collects – they basically have to stop using landfill for waste in Glasgow very soon or else face fines of around £20 million per year. The majority of waste streams in the city are not collected by the council and similar pressures apply for them. The opportunity for waste to energy is increasing the price of waste – it used to be that they couldn’t give it away and now a market is opening up for it. A range of technologies that have been proven elsewhere in the world – including anaerobic digestion and gasification – are available. As long as you can get planning permission, a waste to energy plant will make money and reduce emissions. It prevents waste from rotting and producing methane – which as a greenhouse gas is twenty-times more active than CO2.

Glasgow City Council is currently in the middle of a procurement exercise to deliver a new waste treatment plant at Polmadie. The technical approach has not yet been chosen – but the plant may include waste to energy, and improved recycling.

District Heating

Q: A district heating system has to be one of the most radical changes suggested by SG. What kind of strategies or incentives are you proposing to help finance such a large scale project?

RB: We are looking at creating an investment fund that could cover all SG projects and deliver a reasonable rate of return for investors. We can package a whole series of projects together, not just the district heating, but everything from medium-scale wind to electric vehicles. There are significant opportunities for investment from the European Investment Bank, a range of commercial investors, and sovereign wealth funds.

Q: In what way will a district heating scheme generate a rate of return?

RB: The existing way that electricity is generated in thermal power stations has an efficiency ranging from 30 to 50%. You can therefore be losing two thirds of the energy produced. For example, if we could capture all the waste heat from Longannet power station in Fife and take it to where we needed it, we could actually deliver one third of Scotland’s heating needs. Combined Heat and Power facilities are small power stations that capture heat as well as generating electricity – and can be 85% efficient. They can therefore generate additional revenues from selling heat as well electricity. In a similar way to renewable energy generation they also benefit from government subsidies. These extra revenue streams mean that it may be possible to sell heat at a lower price than the equivalent price of gas.

Q: Two thirds of buildings in Denmark are already on a district heating system, what has constrained development here in the UK?

RB: One factor is the availability of cheap natural gas in the UK, however in recent years the price of natural gas has gone up significantly which incentivises delivery of more efficient heating systems. Another issue is the structure of the energy companies in the UK. They have a significant investment in existing systems and infrastructure. This can create inertia in investment in alternative methods of delivering energy – such as district heating. Development of district heating was also often successful on the continent because they were owned, run and sponsored by municipal authorities. Until last year it was actually against the law for a local government authority to own or run an electricity company in the UK. There is also an issue about governance of heat systems. Ofgem is the regulator for electricity and gas. It doesn’t regulate heat. There is no heat regulation act. Ofgem’s current position is that there is currently no heat market, so why would they regulate? This creates a risk for both customers and investors in that prices are not guaranteed to remain fair for the customers and investors may worry about what constraints would be imposed by future regulation. In Glasgow, part of our business model is therefore to create structures that provide regulatory certainty for both customers and investors.

Q: What is the timeline for rollout of a district heating system in Glasgow?

RB: We have made European funding bids for creating district heating zones in the area surrounding The University of Strathclyde and stretching out to Glasgow Caledonian, the Royal Infirmary and the Tennents brewery – as well as in the East of Glasgow. If we get the European funding agreed, which we should hear about by late summer, then I would say around four years is realistic for this proposal. Once we can confirm this to the organisations in this area, they can then start to influence their investment strategies; what energy systems should they be building now or planning for in four years time. We have these organisations around the table already and this is exactly what we talk about.

There is also the push for a district heating system in the East of Glasgow. This has the benefit of being linked with the Commonwealth Games – which have a fixed date. So I am confident that there will be a district heating system in parts of the East of Glasgow by 2014.


Q: The SG initiative recommends a levy on all public transport vehicles, with the collected pool of money shared out between the least polluting of these vehicles. How can you justify this when it naturally pushes prices up? Traffic in Glasgow is atrocious – shouldn’t the priority be on getting commuters out of their cars and onto public transport?

RB: It is important to say that was not the only measure we proposed – and that this measure is not intended for use in isolation, but alongside a range of other measures as a part of a wider strategy. Traffic is a significant problem; we have air quality issues in several parts of the city centre – and most of that is due to particulates from diesel engines in buses, lorries, vans and taxis.

A large number of people commute in and out of the city centre either for work or for shopping using both public transport and private cars. We did some survey work on why people don’t use public transport and price was not the main issue. For the people not using public transport other issues were far more important. The other main issues appear to be perceptions such as lack of suitable routes and concerns about the safety of public transport.

The University’s report did also propose congestion charging to increase the cost of driving into the centre of Glasgow – but this proposal is not supported by Glasgow City Council. We also proposed increasing the cost of parking in Glasgow. We are therefore looking to dis-incentivise the private use of cars simultaneously with public transport measures. There are a range of other measures like low-emission zones where the council has an existing power to charge vehicles with high emissions for entering certain parts of the city.

In a survey we asked people in Glasgow whether they were in favour of congestion charges and 2/3 of the sample were significantly in favour. Drivers were more in favour than non drivers – probably because they have to deal with the realities of congestion.

Q: Do you think some form of a charge on certain vehicles in Glasgow is inevitable? Furthermore can you comment on the timeframe?

RB: I do not think it is inevitable; it will depend on political decisions. One of the things that would make it much more likely is if other towns and cities in Scotland with traffic problems adopted similar schemes. The argument always brought forward is that a congestion charge would act to the economic disadvantage of Glasgow. To be honest it is arguable whether it would. The counter argument is that actually it would make Glasgow a more attractive place to visit and therefore you might actually increase the economic benefits to Glasgow.

Looking forward

Q: Could you comment on the long term ambitions of SG – do you have a vision for post 2020?

RB: Oh yes, we have to. What we can’t do in Glasgow is end up with a set of solutions that deliver our commitment to achieving a 30% reduction in carbon emissions in ten years, but lock us out of achieving even greater carbon emission reductions in the future. We need to have flexible systems that increase our opportunities to deliver those even larger carbon emission reductions in the future. Certain things will help Glasgow reduce its emissions, like a progressive decarbonisation of the UK electricity supply system. This may enable some of the technologies to make more sense than they currently do now, for example heat pumps – which make a lot more sense if the electricity supply is decarbonised.

One thing we are very conscious of (in fact we wrote it down on day one of this strategy) is that we must continuously revise the strategy. The world keeps changing; the city, the technologies, the regulatory environment, the subsidies. This changes the opportunities available – so we need to keep updating the strategy to reflect that.

By working with a broad range of partners – such as Glasgow City Council, energy companies, housing associations, transport companies and the NHS – we are focusing the energy, resources, and talents of Glasgow on delivering a common vision.


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