Oxford’s ‘Energy Superhub’ is a blueprint for sustainable transformation in local government

The Oxford Energy Superhub (ESO), delivered by Oxford City Council and a number of private partners, is providing sustainably sourced energy to millions of residents.

In its first year since being fully launched the project has charged 32,000 cars, preventing over 730 tonnes of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. The success of the 'Superhub' is a blueprint for sustainable transformation in local government.

Anna Railton, Cabinet Member for Zero Carbon Oxford and Climate Justice at OxfordCllr Anna Railton 3-1 City Council, spoke to Government Transformation Magazine about the project, describing it as "a bit of a joy" to work on. Railton explained how she sees local government as the "perfect level" to deliver sustainability programmes due to its unique proximity with local businesses and residents, who it is vital are involved.    

The project involves creating Europe’s most powerful electric vehicle charging hub, the launch of a battery storage site to power the chargers (including smart batteries which adapt to supply and demand) and fitting sixty housing association properties with heat pump technology. 

It has also supported the decarbonisation of Oxford's fleet, with the council procuring forty electric vehicles including cars, vans and the city’s first all-electric bin lorry. In addition, housing association residents who had heat pumps fitted have seen their energy bills halve.  

The project is a step towards the council meeting its wider targets of being a Net Zero city by 2040 and having 100% of cars in Oxford be electric by 2035.

The value of partnerships 

The ESO project involved funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and partnering with companies who are focused on sustainable energy including EDF, Fastned, Tesla Superchargers and Wenea. She emphasised how it is “not about the city council doing everything themselves” and that involving businesses in their transformation to sustainable solutions prevents backlash. 

On working with the private sector to deliver public sector targets, Railton said this project had helped her see ‘‘that it’s possible - and it’s possible to do it well”.  She highlighted the importance of strong communication with external partners: “It is about building relationships with people and showing that you’re all pulling in the right direction”.  

Initiating behavioural change 

Railton emphasised two facets of successfully catalysing the changes in resident’s behaviour; a necessary step for local government to encourage people to switch to more sustainable solutions. 

The first is simply “clarity of messaging and clarity of objective”. Railton described the importance of communicating to residents exactly what a project is and why it had been put in place, as well as the progress it makes towards targets. 

Secondly, “soft interventions are really important” according to Railton. Actually teaching people how to use the new technology involved in sustainable transformation is key to its success; “you have to make it easier for people," she notes.

Railton described, for example, how residents needed to be taught how to heat their homes differently with heat pumps compared to electric heaters as they cannot be used to provide short heating bursts.  

Handling controversy 

Railton acknowledged that sustainability projects can be controversial. She noted, however, that the ESO project has faced very little push back since its initiation.

She suggested this was partly due to residents being generally committed to reaching Net Zero and having a clear understanding of the benefits of the project, as well as the technology proving to be highly effective.  

However, local authorities in general, and Oxford in particular, have faced backlash against some of their climate policies with Railton describing how campaigning against the government and big businesses is “morphing into pushback against very specific local policies”, presenting a new challenge for local government officials. 

For Railton the key is to communicate well with residents and local businesses to get them onboard. She suggests a tougher, persistent approach may be needed at times: “You have to hold the line a bit."

She explained that it is important to stay committed to council climate goals in order to get people to overcome the difficulty of facing necessary changes.

A blueprint for other cities 

Railton said the ESO is the tip of the iceberg; with new sustainable infrastructure set to be provided for Oxford residents.

In addition to the superchargers used in the project - already being rolled out in other towns - Oxford has spearheaded a number of sustainable projects which could provide other councils with inspiration including: 

  • Creating a Dynamic Purchasing System for procuring EV charging infrastructure and services which is now being sold to other councils. 
  • Running Project LEO, a community energy project which provided evidence on how to supply green energy fairly. 
  • Introducing a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) in parts of the city centre. 

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