Sustainable Energy

LEAP, the Long range Energy Alternatives Planning System, is a software tool for energy policy analysis and climate change mitigation assessment. This article is the result of an e-mail interview & exchange with Charlie Heaps, LEAP Developer and COMMEND Manager at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

Energy planning with LEAP

LEAP is an integrated modeling tool that can be used to track energy consumption, production and resource extraction in all sectors of an economy. It can be used to account for both energy sector and non-energy sector greenhouse gas (GHG) emission sources and sinks. In addition to tracking GHGs, LEAP can also be used to analyze emissions of local and regional air pollutants, making it well-suited to studies of the climate co-benefits of local air pollution reduction.

LEAP is fast becoming the de facto standard for countries undertaking integrated resource planning and greenhouse gas mitigation assessments, especially in the developing world. With the issue of climate change rising on the international agenda, LEAP also serves as a powerful tool for Greenhouse Gas (GHG) mitigation assessments. Many countries use LEAP for their national communications to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC). LEAP has now been adopted by hundreds of organizations in more than 150 countries worldwide. Its users include government agencies, academics, non-governmental organizations, consulting companies, and energy utilities. It has been used at many different scales ranging from cities and states to national, regional and global applications.

The history behind LEAP

LEAP was originally created in 1980 for the Beijer Institute’s Kenya Fuelwood Project, to provide a flexible tool for long-range integrated energy planning. The early 1990s saw a broadening of LEAP’s user-base. In 1991, the first major LEAP-based study in an OECD country was conducted by Tellus Institute entitlesd “America’s Energy Choices: an analysis of the potential for energy efficiency and renewables in the USA”. In 1992, the first global energy study using LEAP was published by SEI, “Towards a Fossil Free Energy Future” (a report to Greenpeace). Meanwhile, studies continued throughout the developing world, including a World Bank sponsored project to integrate LEAP with an emission dispersion model for studying air quality in Beijing.

The spread of the Internet in the mid-1990s allowed for much wider dissemination of LEAP. By the late 1990s, a new Windows-based version of LEAP was created, allowing the original goal of a highly user-friendly energy and environment planning tool to be more fully realized. The first version of the new tool was made public in early 2001.

By 2003, with the number of LEAP users approaching 500 with most in the developing world, a new project was launched to upgrade the support provided to these users and to foster a community among Southern energy analysts working on sustainability issues. A new web-based community called COMMEND ( was created, with the number of LEAP users growing to over 1500 in more than 130 countries by early 2006 and reaching over 3000 in 160 countries by late 2007.

Exploring energy scenario’s

LEAP is a general purpose model-building, not a model with a particular world view. For example, it does not necessarily assume a world of perfectly competitive markets. Instead it is a modeling tool founded on basic non-controversial physical concepts such as conservation of energy, mass balances, physical tracking of emissions, etc. It is up to the user to create scenarios and these can be based on anything ranging from expert judgment, trend projections or more complex simulation or econometric modeling approaches. Here the universal concept of “garbage in/garbage out” of course applies, so the burden of plausibility in scenarios rests predominantly on the shoulders of the users of LEAP rather than on the software itself.

In practical applications, LEAP’s scenarios tend to be “highly policy-relevant reality based”. This is because the scenarios normally start out from a physical accounting of base year and/or historical trends. So while future projections are almost by definition going to be inaccurate, the user is at least encouraged to view these projections in the context of what happened in the past.

Perhaps more importantly, as a software tool LEAP is designed to bring much greater transparency to the relatively complex topic of energy planning. The basic idea is to take the assumptions and models that planners are already using in complex black box models and present them in an easy-to-use tool that encourages much wider scrutiny and debate.

This transparency and relative simplicity is one of the key reasons that LEAP has been adopted in real-world planning and policy making processes. LEAP is not a theoretical or purely academic model. Instead it serves as a bridge between analysts, policy makers and the public: it is sufficiently detailed to be usable in real-world analytical exercises but due to its emphasis on ease-of use and data visualization techniques it is also a tool that can be readily understood by decision makers and other stakeholders in energy policy and climate mitigation policy processes.

A list of selected real-world applications is available from the COMMEND website.

LEAP and its alternatives

LEAP is methodologically simpler than alternatives such as MARKAL or ENPEP but also significantly easier to use. These other packages have fairly rudimentary user interfaces. LEAP, by contrast is a full decision support system.

Users find LEAP to be a very good organizational framework for their analyses. Apart from helping conduct the basic tasks they have to perform as planners and analysts, the structured environment in LEAP provides significant support in helping users think about how to sensibly conduct and structure their studies.
For SEI, LEAP is a key tool in helping the institute advance its mission of encouraging a more rational, more open, more democratic and more environmentally responsible approaches to energy policy.

The effort to develop LEAP, and its long-term sustainability

Today’s LEAP is the product of more than 20 person-years of development efforts. SEI plans to continue its development in the future. Development has been supported by grants from various funders over the years including the US, Swedish and Dutch Governments.

Development is also supported by sales of the software to for-profit and OECD based organizations, but LEAP is made available at no charge to non-profit, governmental and academic organizations based developing countries.

What’s next for LEAP?

Current developments plans include the following:

  • The creation of “starter” national level data sets for most countries based on IEA and other data sources to help users get started much more easily with their LEAP analyses. This is funded and underway – results expected this year.
  • Translation of LEAP and the supporting reference and materials. We currently have volunteers working on translations into 20 different languages: an indication of the enthusiasm of LEAP users!
  • The addition of more sophisticated optional methodologies such as LP optimization for electric supply capacity expansion planning: whilst being careful to avoid adding complexity to the tool for users who don’t want these features.
  • The creation of a web-based LEAP “browser” so that LEAP data sets can be uploaded and viewed on the web site – making results accessible to a much wider audience.
  • Redevelopment of the TED energy technology database, replacing the current system with a new internet based tool that encourages sharing and review of data quality.

A word about COMMEND

COMMEND (COMMunity for ENergy environment & Development) is an international initiative designed to foster a community among energy analysts working on energy for sustainable development. COMMEND is managed by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in collaboration with four leading international institutions and has initially been funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS).

A premise of COMMEND is that institutional and human capacity for energy and environmental analysis is in acutely short supply, and that Southern analysts are isolated from their colleagues in other institutions and from sources of institutional support in both the North and South. In short, there is a pressing need for initiatives that can professionalize sustainable energy analysis in the South and increase its role in decision-making.

COMMEND has been designed in part to provide technical support, training, and the exchange of knowledge needed by this new worldwide community of energy analysts. Support for LEAP users is a key component of LEAP, although experience of using LEAP is not required to participate in the COMMEND community.

The COMMEND web site has recently undergone a significant upgrade. This is part of a wider effort to better foster a community by developing the site as an energy-environment focused social networking tool.

We certainly wish Charlie Heaps and his team good luck with their further development of LEAP and COMMEND.

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