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£22 million funding boost for world-class energy research

The drive towards the UK’s net-zero carbon emissions target has received a £22 million funding boost for social scientists, engineers and natural scientists working as part of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).

The fourth phase of UKERC will see funds allocated to partner institutions – including Strathclyde – to undertake research on the decarbonisation of key sectors such as industry, transport and heat, and explore the role of local, national and global changes in energy systems.

With a central office hosted by University College London, UKERC encompasses 17 universities, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Chatham House and the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and is funded through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Energy Programme by UKRI’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council.

UKRI is providing £18 million support for the fourth phase of UKERC, with partner universities contributing £4 million.

Major change

Professor Keith Bell of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, leads the Energy Infrastructures Transitions theme within UKERC.

Strathclyde is also involved in the Energy Mobility and Local and Regional Energy Systems themes, led by Leeds and Edinburgh universities respectively.

Professor Bell said: “Use of energy depends on the infrastructure to access it. As we decarbonise, major change to the energy system’s infrastructure will be needed, to expand what’s already there, such as the electricity network for heat pumps or electric vehicle charging, to ‘re-purpose’ it, such as the natural gas network being used for hydrogen, or to develop new networks such as for heat in urban areas or for CO2 in carbon capture and storage schemes.

The energy system’s infrastructure is expensive and takes many years to develop, so we really should get started now. However, it’s not yet clear exactly how many electric vehicles there will be or how much use will be made of hydrogen.

“As a nation, we need to make choices about the energy system’s infrastructure soon if we’re going to meet legislated net-zero targets. The processes and governance around those choices need to be defined in a way that takes proper account of societal preferences in terms of access to energy and its resilience. They must also be ‘investable’ if the necessary infrastructure is actually going to be built.”

Professor Sir Mark Walport, UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, said: “Moving the UK to a sustainable, resilient energy system that delivers on our net zero ambitions requires collaboration, better data and expertise across the research and innovation ecosystem.

“UKERC plays an important role in supporting this transition, delivering world-class research, facilitating national and international collaboration and generating evidence that informs real-world decisions.”

Inform decisions

UKERC’s research programme will build evidence to inform decisions that shape the UK's transition towards a net zero energy system and economy. It will explore the potential economic, political, social and environmental costs and benefits of energy system change, and consider how these impacts can be distributed equitably.

UKERC will also host and curate energy data, map and monitor public engagement, carry out systematic evidence reviews and improve the transparency and understanding of energy models.

The Centre has also announced that Dr Robert Gross, from Imperial College London, has been appointed as its new director. Dr Gross, who is one of UKERC’s co-directors, succeeds Professor Jim Watson, who has been UKERC director since 2015.

Dr Robert Gross, UK Energy Research Centre Director, said: “The UK’s net zero emissions target for 2050 requires urgent and ambitious action now, particularly by government.

“UKERC already has a strong international reputation for ground breaking interdisciplinary research on the transformation of energy systems. This new phase of funding will enable us to implement an exciting new agenda of research and engagement, and to inform the decisions that need to be made over the next five years.”

UKERC will also continue to support the wider energy research community by facilitating engagement with other stakeholders, supporting career development and capacity building, and enhancing international collaboration.