Platform. The everyday portal for sharing knowledge and intelligence on sustainability across Greater Manchester.

Neil Swannick at the Committee of the Regions, Brussels

Q&A: Neil Swannick, Greater Manchester Low Carbon Hub Energy Group


As Chair of the GM Energy Group, what are your most pressing priorities?

The original brief for the Greater Manchester Energy Group [which predates the Low Carbon Hub] was to come up with an energy strategy for Greater Manchester, which is available online. It sets out the issues facing GM in terms of energy for the future. There was a recognition that energy forms a large part of an individuals’ budgets; a lot of our more deprived residents find it very difficult to pay for heating and electricity. And businesses’ ability to operate profitably is very much connected with energy costs. The future of the whole conurbation depends on affordable energy.

The strategy also assessed our risks, which are of course that energy costs continue to rise. At the moment we have energy bills across the conurbation of £5bn,  a very large sum. If we could reduce those bills, then this could be invested elsewhere. We also have a lack of energy generation within the conurbation, so encouraging new renewable energy generation [locally] is very important, whether that be wind, solar, hydro or other options.

In the future people will need to think carefully about their use of electricity

We’re currently working on heat pumps and restructuring the distribution network because, in the not too distant future, we’ll be concerned with energy demand management. Instead of what we’ve done for the last 50 years – just plug into a socket or switch on a light – in the future people will need to think carefully about their use of electricity. It will be similar to how behaviour around waste has been changed; now people think about what bin they put things in. If we’re going to move forwards on energy then people need to be conscious of what appliances to use, whether their homes are heated adequately, whether their insulation is good enough to retain heat, and what time of the day or week they’re using energy.

The Low Carbon Hub has detailed objectives for 2015, including generating power locally. How on track are you towards meeting these targets?

As far as change to renewables is concerned, it’s fair to say that progress is fairly slow. There’s a long lead-time for most major infrastructure projects. For example, the heat network project being developed in Manchester takes a long time to bring into operation. We’re working on that. I think one of the problems is the lack of resources that’s prevalent throughout the public sector now. It’s meant that development work on a lot of these major projects has been a difficulty.

However we are optimistic about two substantial pieces of work which would provide support from other sources. These are firstly the New Energy Development Organisation (NEDO) funded smart communities project, a new venture that we’re working on with the Japanese government. And secondly, we have made a bid to the Energy Technology Institute, which has around £50m to spend on new energy projects. If successful those two projects would be game changers in our ability to meet the 2020 targets.

What is the role of Greater Manchester’s universities in the energy agenda?

There is a considerable amount of energy research going on in the universities; they’re all taking part in one way or another. One major focus is the national grid has its central research and development hub here at Manchester University.

We’ve also played a role in hydrogen research at Manchester Metropolitan University. That’s absolutely critical because hydrogen can be used as storage; you can convert water into hydrogen with electricity. So if you’ve got renewable electricity available when the sun is shining, but no immediate need for it, you can convert it into hydrogen and store it. The sceptics of renewable energy always say, what happens when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? So if you could bridge that gap with storage, that’s crucial. Hydrogen is one possible way.

You recently spoke at a conference in Lisbon that addressed growth and energy. What came out of that?

Yes, I spoke on the invitation of the mayor of Lisbon. The theme was Growing with Energy, the idea that growth is critical to providing jobs and getting our economic moving again. The crux of the question is how do you get that growth, which is necessary to increase prosperity and create jobs, without increasing our carbon emissions and increasing the energy we’re using. That was the debate.

How does what we’re doing here compare to other parts of the world?

Portugal is in a much stronger position than us in terms of renewable energy. Around 60% of their electricity comes from renewable sources, whereas in the UK we’re currently at about 15%. There are places that are doing better than Portugal. In Burgenland in Austria, they are celebrating reaching 100% of their electricity generated from renewable sources, mostly wind. There are wind turbines all over the country. The Austrian government is hugely positive about onshore wind farms, which is not the case with our present government, which seems to be doing everything it can to stop that.

Clearly we’re quite behind compared with a lot of countries but on the other hand, Europe is now 28 member states and there are some countries doing much worse than us, mostly new entrants from Eastern Europe. I personally think the lesson is that the German strategy of Energiewende [the transition], moving from coal and nuclear to renewables, is something we should be doing in the UK.


Main image of Neil Swannick via the European Union's Committee of the Regions where he is a member and also a Rapporteur for the Commission for the environment, climate change and energy.