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Forward steps to an electric future


WSP’s report Powering ahead – fast track to an all-electric city suggests that a London which is all electric – for power, heating and travel – by 2035 is a practical answer to an increasingly lethal urban atmosphere.  We suggest some practical ways to make it happen. 

Given the power of the evidence, we believe that most UK cities will be all electric by the end of the century. The challenge is to make this happen faster, solving air pollution from traffic, building a quieter society and – using renewable energy – dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions. 

By 2035, much will have changed from today. Almost every bus, taxi and car on the road will be new. The vast majority of existing boilers will have reached the end of their life and been replaced. Renewable energy will already be delivering much of our electricity and most cities’ electricity infrastructure will have been upgraded in line with plans that are already on the drawing board.

The building blocks are in place; the opportunity is to complete the job.  Here are eight practical ideas to help London deliver the all-electric city by 2035. 

For buildings

1.      All new houses and offices to be all-electric from 2018

Build a new house today and gas will usually power the heating. In the future heat pumps will provide the lowest CO2 emissions heating at the same operating price as a gas boiler. Heat pumps can also provide cooling as well as heating – something not usually needed today in London, but which will be an absolute necessity as cities become warmer. This is already an issue in some flats.  

2.      Replace gas boilers with heat pumps when they reach the end of their life

The all-electric city will be delivered by replacing gas boilers with heat pumps when they reach the end of their lives. We don’t suggest this is mandatory – just a progressive replacement as existing boilers wear out and need changing. 

 3.      Create greater energy efficiency, faster

Heat pumps work well in energy efficient buildings so getting on with insulating buildings and blocking up the draughts is key for the all-electric city.  Few cities are really grasping the nettle today. London has a modest commitment to ‘have a plan’ for retrofitting buildings – by 2020.  However, to be an all-electric city by 2035, faster action is required.  London needs more funding for the existing energy efficiency schemes (RE:FIT and RE:NEW) or a new financial model.

Currently, the government’s minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) already require buildings being let to have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of E or better from 2018.  This will undoubtedly help improve energy efficiency in homes, but to make a more significant impact we suggest amending the target to make all buildings C-rated or better by the 2030s and retrofitted with heat pumps. Cities should heed UK Green Building Council’s call for energy efficiency to be an infrastructure priority.

4.      Put measures in place to support electric heating

For many, the economic case for heat pumps already adds up with the Renewable Heat Incentive, which pays participants that generate and use renewable energy to heat their buildings. For those without upfront funding, investors can already use the Renewable Heat Incentive to reduce the up-front cost of installations to no more than that of standard boilers. To make London an all-electric city we will also need to:

 Upgrade the existing London Plan’s energy policies to provide local standards.

  • Train London’s workforce, from architects to plumbers and engineers to electricians, to provide the necessary new skills. In London, this could be delivered through the GLA’s Strategic Labour Needs and Training (SLNT) programme, supported by the Skills Funding Agency, the National Careers Service and entry-level training programmes such as City and Guilds. 
  • Financially, it’s possible that the initial higher capital cost of installing heat pumps could be offset by grants or loans from Green Investment Bank.

For transport

5.       Create large-scale electric vehicle hire schemes

It is fair to assume that by 2030 electric vehicles will be much more cost effective than today, but most likely they’ll still need to be charged. To avoid having to string a network of cables across the pavement or bury them into every parking space, we’ll need an electric vehicle hire scheme. This can be similar to the Boris bike scheme, but covering the whole of Greater London, making it easy to pick up a car and go when you need it. To do this, our leading cities need to act now by using existing trials as stepping stones to larger scale schemes. 

6.       Larger ultra-low emission zones for drivers coming into the city

London is one of a number of cities to have committed to implementing ultra-low emission zones that could be dominated by electric vehicles.  A zone extending out from the Square Mile and central London would provide the incentive to drive electric in our electric cities.  As a starting point, leading cities could set up a series of demonstration ‘Electric Only Areas’ in the suburbs; giving Air Quality Management Areas added teeth and addressing the areas with the worst air quality or noise.

7.       Taxis and buses take the lead 

Stockholm has led the way on clean vehicle fleets since 2006.  A key part of this has been demonstrating new technologies in buses, taxis and lorries that the city runs. Today only low emission taxis can serve Arlanda airport.

London could provide a similar example by setting minimum standards for taxi licences and making all-electric a requirement for bus concessions from 2021. This will deliver a virtually all-electric fleet by 2035 on natural vehicle turnover. Cities could accelerate this phase-out by running a taxi scrappage scheme – similar to that already proposed in London for private cars but more widely targeted. This could start in 2018, when all new taxis applying for licensing in London will have to be zero emissions capable.


8.      A bold vision

The all-electric city will be achieved by clear signposting, by policy decisions and leadership.  It’s an optimistic vision, which needs current and future leaders to grasp the opportunity, to be bold, and to set commitments. 

Take a look at the full report here and read the rest of our electric cities research using the headings below:

Powering ahead – fast track to an all-electric city

Electric cities – vision and necessity

Fighting climate change – reducing CO2 emissions

Reducing noise

Taking the city air – the current situation

Read the press release

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