Working in partnership to tackle the challenges of climate change

Offshore wind turbines at sunset

From COP26 negotiations to practical actions and solutions, the importance of research and innovation in energy has never been clearer.

It is only through the solutions developed by scientists, engineers, and innovators that we will truly:

  • address the challenges posed by climate change
  • develop resilient and sustainable energy supply solutions
  • deliver prosperity through new and emerging technologies and industries.

As part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is at the forefront of efforts to deliver on these ambitions.

Net zero ambitions

EPSRC are working alongside our fellow UKRI councils in support of the government’s net zero ambitions.

Our aim is to work in partnership to catalyse the discovery-led research and innovation needed to make these aspirations a reality. In doing so, we build on a strong track record of achievement, with EPSRC’s investments having delivered innovations and impacted policy in, for example:

  • whole energy systems methodology
  • energy demand reduction
  • energy networks.

Offshore wind

A great example of EPSRC-funded research and innovation in the energy sector is in offshore wind. In 2006, EPSRC support sparked renewed impetus in offshore wind energy research which has subsequently underpinned the UK’s leading role in this field today.

The UK now has the highest level of installed wind capacity in the world, amounting to more than a third of global capacity.

Leading EPSRC-funded research groups have contributed to anchoring in the UK research and development capabilities of some of the world’s leading offshore wind businesses. The research groups include those at the universities of:

  • Strathclyde
  • Sheffield
  • Bristol
  • Exeter
  • Manchester.

Another example is the work of the Supergen Offshore Renewable Energy Hub, led by the University of Plymouth and involving 10 universities across the UK. The hub leads on the convergence of offshore wind, marine and tidal energy technologies.

Working with business partners

EPSRC works with business partners in many ways. Particularly fruitful partnerships are forged through EPSRC’s Prosperity Partnerships. These are business-led collaborations between business and academia to support discovery research that is essential to addressing the challenges faced by the business partner.

Again, taking the theme of offshore wind, an example of a Prosperity Partnership in action is a £7.6 million programme with Ørsted. It has brought Ørsted, the world’s largest offshore wind developer, into collaboration with researchers at the University of Sheffield.

They are developing more efficient and affordable offshore wind technologies to meet global energy needs.

Another quite different example of a Prosperity Partnership in the energy space is built on the discovery of the most efficient solar cells. The cells, which utilise perovskite technology, generate a third more electricity than traditional solar cells. This work is based at the University of Oxford and formed the basis of the spin-out Oxford PV.

Oxford PV and the University of Oxford are now benefitting from Prosperity Partnership funding and the team is currently focused on commercialising and manufacturing the technology for global markets.

Reducing energy demand and carbon production

EPSRC’s partnerships with business takes many forms and in November seven feasibility studies, funded by EPSRC in partnership with Siemens, were announced. The studies will explore how digital technologies, business model innovation and analysis can reduce energy demand and carbon production.

Building a sustainable future also requires us to make better use of what we already have. A major research programme encompassing 34 universities and 200 industry partners has been launched to support the UK’s shift to a circular economy.

The National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy programme is supported with a £30 million UKRI investment. It aims to deliver environmental and economic benefits by helping industry and society use fewer resources, and reuse and recover products and materials instead of disposing of them after use.

£1.1 billion investment since 2004

The success of the UK’s researchers and innovators is a result of sustained investment across the system.

Since 2004, EPSRC has invested £1.1 billion in energy and related areas of research through over 1,200 grants. Much of this investment has been in discovery-led, high risk research, acting as a catalyst for further funding from both the public and private sectors.

To date, EPSRC grants have secured follow-on funding of around £2 billion from a range of academic, charity, public and private contributors.

This ability to leverage EPSRC investment highlights the growing economic importance of the energy and related sectors to the UK. In 2005, project partners for EPSRC grants generated over £230 billion in UK revenues and employed around 1.1 million people.

By 2018 revenues had increased to around £500 billion and employment had almost doubled.

Driving growth

These are just a few examples which I hope demonstrate the scale of the opportunity we are presented with. The new technologies and approaches which emerge from the UK’s engineers and scientists really will drive growth in both existing and new industries and sectors, creating high-skilled jobs.

To address the challenges we face and seize the opportunities of a net zero future, ingenuity, expertise, partnership and sustained support are required.

At EPSRC, working in partnership with councils across UKRI, we are committed to delivering what is needed to build a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

Top image:  Credit: imaginima, Getty Images

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