Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Energy theme

The vision for the Energy theme is for the research we sponsor to help solve some of the most serious challenges facing the UK today and in the future.

Partners involved:
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

The scope and what we're doing

The Energy theme aims to position the UK to meet its energy and environmental targets and policy goals through world-class research and training.

Led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Energy theme brings together the work of EPSRC and that of the:

  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Energy theme

The vision for the Energy theme is for the research we sponsor to help solve some of the most serious challenges facing the UK today and in the future.

EPSRC leads the Energy theme on behalf of all research councils, bringing strategy to UK energy research in support of government targets.

The overarching goal of the Energy theme is to sponsor research and PhD training to secure a low-carbon future, through the creation of reliable, economically viable energy systems while protecting the natural environment, resources and quality of life.

Our aims are to realise the benefits from past research and to focus our resources and build our portfolio in areas with the potential to meet the UK’s 2050 climate change targets.

We will work with partners across government, including the Energy Research Partnership and the Low Carbon Innovation Group, to produce a comprehensive roadmap of UK research and PhD training needs to meet UK carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction targets.

In addition, working in partnership with industry, our UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) partners the Carbon Trust and the Energy Technologies Institute, we will support the research required to develop energy technologies to address UK and global energy challenges and so realise the maximum return from our previous investments.

We will continue to work with the energy research community to provide research and postgraduate training in line with the research and PhD training roadmap, supporting internationally leading individuals, teams and consortia as well as building capacity – from early career researchers to current and future research leaders.

Focusing on speculative research through core disciplines such as engineering, physics, chemistry and mathematics, we will prioritise transformative, creative and potentially disruptive research in areas such as new materials, as we help define the UK’s future energy options and accelerate levels of technology readiness. We will continue to support UK research to develop fusion for energy, which is potentially transformative, but a long-term international endeavour.

The October 2010 International Review of Energy found that UKRI’s portfolio has a leading edge in world-ranked energy science and is having a huge impact on the UK’s 2050 climate targets. We will work across the research councils to achieve targets arising from the Energy International Review, recommendations from which will also be used to inform the Energy theme’s plans and priorities.

Our portfolio will be developed to address specific recommendations of the International Review of Energy’s action plan, working in partnership with industry and other public sector funders as appropriate.

The Energy theme promotes multidisciplinary partnerships between researchers, industry, funders and government departments and has a current portfolio in excess of £0.5 billion.

Research areas

You can find out more about:

Our approach

Energy theme strategy

The Energy programme has been actively managing its portfolio since 2004 to enhance the UK’s international standing in energy research.

An overview of the current portfolio was generated from a detailed analysis of the grants held in all energy research areas and was considered against the importance of the area in supporting the future energy commitments of the UK.

Our decisions have considered the UK’s energy policy and user landscape. Working with the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) we have updated the programme’s priorities, from which the EPSRC Energy theme priorities follow. Our inputs included the UK government’s Clean Growth Strategy, the work of the Net Zero Innovation Board and wider feedback on strengths and future priorities following a series of university visits undertaken by the EPSRC’s Energy team.

Key engagement activities

Using the Energy programme priorities to commence discussions, the Energy theme engaged with a variety of stakeholders via a series of activities including:

  • formal, structured activities – for example, workshops, regular meetings of the SAC and the cross-research council Programme Coordination Group
  • less formal discussions with academic and industrial stakeholders, Innovate UK and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

We met regularly with the SAC to review research areas directly associated with energy research, as well as those from across EPSRC’s portfolio that may potentially have some bearing on energy research. The SAC have been pivotal in formulating recommendations for the future direction of the programme.

We also routinely engage with a number of key stakeholders in energy, including the:

  • Energy Research Partnership
  • Energy Technologies Institute
  • Innovate UK
  • Low Carbon Innovation Co-ordination Group
  • Energy Catapults
  • BEIS
  • Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board.

We drew heavily on these relationships to ensure the national research priorities for energy in the UK are well supported.

Conventional and unconventional power generation

Around 80% of the world’s power still comes from burning fossil fuels and the use of fossil fuels is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. There is a clear need to make this process more efficient, to maximise the energy output, decrease carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the environmental impact.

One method of doing this is through carbon capture and storage, a process that captures the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated from fossil fuel power stations and other energy intensive industrial processes and stores it underground, stopping it from entering the atmosphere. We are also supporting research to consider alternative uses for the CO2 and in improving the combustion process to aid the extraction of CO2 from exhaust gases.

A long term CO2-free alternative to fossil-based power generation has yet to be established. The depleting reserves of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases emitted from burning them make this a vital area for research. By funding further research into this area we aim to make conventional power generation more efficient and reduce its environmental impact.

Find out more about EPSRC’s carbon capture and storage research area that is related to energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency

Over the next few decades, making better use of energy resources will be just as important as finding alternative sources of supply.

For example, in industry this could mean developing more energy efficient processes, while in our homes it could involve better insulation or smart systems for saving energy from domestic lighting and appliances. In this area it is especially important to address the social and economic issues that influence how we use technology and how much we are prepared to pay for energy-saving products.

By continuing our work in this area we aim to both better understand influences on energy demand and provide mechanisms by which it can be reduced. As a result the UK demand for energy can then be reduced through the development of both policy and new technologies.

Find out more about EPSRC’s end use energy demand (energy efficiency) research area that is related to energy efficiency.

Nuclear fusion

Nuclear fusion has the potential to offer an almost limitless source of energy with minimal environmental impact. While the timeline for delivery is beyond the 2050 emission target, fusion is an attractive technology that needs to be developed.

The fusion process involves the fusing of several atoms such as deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and tritium (super heavy hydrogen) at very high temperatures, more than 100 million degrees Celsius, to produce energy. Similar to the process that powers the sun and other stars, fusion gives off no greenhouse gases or harmful emissions.

There are still great challenges to overcome before fusion becomes a viable source of energy for the future, but continued funding will not only provide the facilities and research base necessary for progression but also the skilled scientists and engineers needed to continue to work in this area.

The UK Fusion Programme is centred around magnetic confinement fusion at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE), one of the world’s leading centres for fusion research.

In addition, we are collaborating with the EURATOM directorate of the European Commission to fund the Joint European Torus (JET), the largest and most powerful magnetic fusion device in the world. JET is also based at Culham and is a precursor to the next generation fusion facility ITER, which is now being built in Cadarache, France.

There is a £164 million investment currently for fusion-related activity in CCFE.

Find out more about EPSRC’s research areas related to nuclear fusion:

Nuclear power

Nuclear fission currently provides 20% of UK electricity and is widely seen as a key part of the ‘trinity’ of future fuel options for the UK, alongside renewables and clean coal.

Research challenges in this area include:

  • legacy waste clean-up
  • decommissioning and disposal
  • technological challenges for the current planned new nuclear build
  • future (generation IV) technologies.

These challenges include not only science and engineering but also the environmental, social and economic aspects and how these influence regulation and policy. A further challenge is ensuring the sufficient capacity of highly trained researchers.

Continuing support in this area is critical to the continued development of new nuclear build and its potential as a key component in delivering the UK’s low carbon economy.

Find out about EPSRC’s nuclear fission research area that is related to nuclear fusion.

Renewable energy

Renewable energy technologies are those that generate electricity from resources that are not depleted as a consequence of being accessed. These include:

  • bioenergy
  • wind energy
  • solar energy
  • marine energy.
Bioenergy

Bioenergy is the energy derived from harvesting biomass such as crops, trees or agricultural waste and using it to generate heat, electricity or transport fuels. Biomass can be burned directly to generate heat and power either on its own or co-fired alongside conventional fuels such as coal.

Alternatively, biomass can be treated to create gaseous or liquid biofuels which can be used on their own or in conjunction with conventional fuels such as coal or natural gas.

Continuing support in this area will aim to ensure that bioenergy has a role to play alongside fossil fuels. The generation of energy in this way could help to reduce the UK’s dependence on fossil fuels, and could be especially attractive to developing countries.

Wind

The use of wind as a renewable energy resource is already well established in the UK and the UK has the greatest wind energy potential in Europe. However, it still contributes a relatively small amount of energy to our overall needs.

There remain a number of issues that need to be addressed in this area including improving efficiencies, improving reliability, handling intermittency of supply and environmental issues together with public perception and acceptability.

Future research in wind energy will help ensure that the UK’s future renewable energy targets are met, specifically addressing the challenges of installing and operating offshore wind farms.

Solar technologies

Solar energy is the only renewable energy technology that, in theory, could meet all of the world’s energy needs. The use of solar energy as a viable large-scale energy source to date has been limited by the cost and efficiency of the available technology.

Research we support in solar energy addresses the current issues surrounding solar efficiencies, materials use and availability. We also aim to develop novel light harvesting technologies such as artificial photosynthesis that offer the potential for innovative low cost alternatives.

Marine energy

The marine environment offers some of the greatest potential for renewable energy generation in the UK. Wave-energy devices and tidal power installations add to the potential for offshore wind which is already being exploited.

The British Isles are at the edge of the Atlantic and are exposed to some of the most energetic waves and tidal currents in the world. This makes us well placed to utilise marine technology to maximum effect and subsequently exploit wider international markets.

Find out more about EPSRC’s research areas related to renewable energy:

Socio-economic and policy

Policy developments are vitally important to developing a low carbon future. In order to successfully implement new technologies and solutions we need to look at energy in a holistic fashion. We need to better understand what influences habits and practices and the impacts of the design of market and regulatory frameworks on energy production supply and use. This evidence will then be used to generate effective public policy and other solutions. We seek to ensure that relevant knowledge generated through our projects is fed through to policymakers and regulators.

A systems-level understanding of energy, informed not only by the technology but also by the economics, user behaviour and the policy environment, is needed to inform policy on the future shape of the UK energy sector as a whole. We support the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), which takes an independent whole-systems approach, drawing in engineering, economics and the physical, environmental and social sciences. UKERC is looking at how the UK can move towards a resilient low-carbon energy system. It also encourages collaboration between national and international business and research communities and supports early career researchers.

Public engagement is an integral part of our programme. Energy is a key focus for promoting science and for encouraging young people into science. Activities we support include research into engaging pupils, teachers and governors in science, engineering and technology.

A combined effort in this area should enable us to look at the challenges in a holistic fashion, incorporating new technology developments as well as the public perception of future changes. This ‘whole systems’ approach should enable the delivery of effective policy and ensure that the changes occur to provide maximum social and economic benefit.

Find out about EPSRC’s whole energy systems research area that is related to socio-economic and policy.

Alternate fuels and fuel cells

One method of reducing fossil fuel consumption is to look at alternative methods of storing and transporting energy. Sustainable energy vectors are energy carriers that are renewable and that could be used to replace current fossil energy carriers (coal, oil and gas). Examples of sustainable vectors are:

  • hydrogen
  • ethanol
  • formic acid
  • ammonia.

The EPSRC portfolio focuses mostly on the use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen research is focusing on:

  • reducing the cost of the generation of hydrogen
  • safe transport of hydrogen
  • efficient and safe storage of hydrogen – for example, in car fuel tanks
  • conversion of hydrogen in fuel cells to produce an electric current
  • economics of a hydrogen energy system.

Fuel cells are the most efficient devices known for converting a range of fuels into electricity and, in some cases, heat. They also enable the efficient use of alternative fuels such as hydrogen and bio-fuels. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy to electrical energy without combustion. Likewise other fuels such as hydrogen could be used as a direct replacement for petrol and diesel in our vehicles. However, many technical obstacles need to be overcome if these technologies are to enter widespread use.

Our funding will allow us to continue and further build on the strong UK research base in this area. This will help deliver future transport technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, and high efficiency combined heat and power units using stationary fuel cells.

Find out more about EPSRC’s research areas related to alternate fuels and fuel cells:

The Energy programme

The Energy programme’s mission is to position the UK to meet its energy and environmental targets and policy goals through high quality research and postgraduate training.

Objectives

The objectives are to:

  • support a full spectrum of energy research to help the UK meet the objectives and targets set out in the 2007 energy white paper
  • work in partnership to contribute to the research and postgraduate training needs of energy-related businesses and other key stakeholders
  • increase the international visibility and level of international collaboration within the UK energy research portfolio
  • expand UK research capacity in energy-related areas.

Working in partnership

The Energy programme works closely with both public and private sector organisations. Major partnerships include the following.

We are the largest public funder of the Energy Technologies Institute, a public-private partnership of up to £1 billion to accelerate the deployment of new energy technologies.

The Energy programme is informed by a range of different sources. We are involved in ongoing dialogue with the research community, through our visits to universities, energy-related businesses and other stakeholders.

Current priorities

Our current priorities are:

  • taking a whole systems approach to energy options, supply and usage
  • ensuring a rapid exploitation through collaboration with the Energy Technologies Institute
  • growing our portfolio in demand reduction and transport
  • focusing our postgraduate training through the Energy theme
  • continuing to support research in sustainable power generation and supply and alternative sources.

Priorities for the future

Securing energy supply

We aim to fund world-class, speculative research to define future energy supply options, including nuclear fusion, hydrogen and renewables.

Low carbon innovation

We will work with the Energy Technologies Institute, Innovate UK, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Carbon Trust through the Net Zero Innovation Board to ensure deployment of alternative energy technologies is informed by physical, economic, social and natural sciences research.

Enhance understanding

We aim to enhance understanding of the social, environmental and economic implications of future energy options such as the sustainability of carbon capture and storage.

Reduce energy consumption

We aim to help to reduce energy consumption and demand through the development of behavioural, governance, market and technological advances informed by a whole system understanding.

Generate new skills

We aim to build the capacity of skilled people to deliver new energy futures through training and development of new researchers, policymakers and business leaders.

Build international partnerships

We will continue to build and sustain international links with key countries.

Workshops

We hold workshops to identify research and training challenges and priorities, scope specific activities, and consult and engage with a wide range of stakeholders.

Impact of energy research and capacity building

There are major economic opportunities through investing in energy research. Global energy markets are worth over a trillion dollars and set to grow. The Energy programme builds on existing research councils’ investment to create new industries, new jobs, and greater commercial opportunities for the UK.

What the Energy programme funds

The research councils fund a wide spectrum of energy research and training, bringing together investments across the research councils. Our portfolio is developed in partnership with industry and public sector organisations to provide an innovation chain with routes for development of our outputs.

Our research is funded through activities that provide a managed approach to developing the portfolio, often with the formation of multidisciplinary consortia.

Storage

Energy storage was highlighted as one of the eight great technologies, which will enable the UK to gain from the global transition to new energy storage sources. We need better ways to store electricity, with the need at three distinct levels:

  • small – batteries in personal electronic devices
  • medium – better energy storage for vehicles
  • large – energy storage for power generation, grid-level storage.

As we move towards 2050 the use of low carbon energy generation is likely to increase as part of efforts to meet the UK government’s targets to reduce CO2 emissions. This will result in significant differences in the supply and demand patterns and will therefore present challenges to the energy system. Energy storage has been recognised as one method of managing these differences.

The Energy programme’s support for this area includes electrical and heat storage as well as other forms such as kinetic energy storage. Synthesis, characterisation and production of new and existing energy storage materials and devices together with their subsequent applications and any socio-economic implications of their use is also included. We are seeking to grow our support for energy storage research and capacity building, strengthen links between energy storage and energy systems and increase engagement with industry.

We fund a Supergen energy storage consortium and in the summer of 2014 a Supergen energy storage hub was established. The Supergen Energy Storage Network brings together researchers from academic, industrial and policy domains with an interest in energy storage and its application to future low carbon energy systems.

We have supported £30 million of capital projects in grid-scale energy projects. Other major energy storage investments include the following consortia projects:

  • electrochemical energy storage with graphene-enabled materials, £2.2 million
  • energy storage for low carbon grids, £5.6 million
  • integrated, market-fit and affordable grid-scale energy storage, £3 million.

Find out more about the Energy Storage Research Network on its website.

Bioenergy

Bioenergy is the energy derived from biomass feedstocks, such as dedicated energy crops, forestry and municipal wastes, algae, or agricultural residues, and the utilisation of a biological process, such as the conversion of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas to alkanes using microbes. These feedstocks and processes can be used to generate heat, electricity or transport biofuels.

Replacing fossil fuels with advanced biofuels will support the emerging bioeconomy and could deliver significant economic and environmental benefits with impacts felt in employment and economic growth, human health and in a range of ecosystems covering improvements in air, soil, water and biodiversity.

Biomass can be burned directly to generate heat and power either on its own or co-fired alongside conventional fuels such as coal. Alternatively, biomass can be converted into gaseous or liquid biofuels via biochemical or thermochemical processes. Advanced biofuels have the advantage that they can be used as drop-in fuels alongside conventional fossil fuels.

We are currently supporting research in this area with a large portfolio. Many projects include collaborations with industrial partners, which helps to attract further funding and potential inward investment.

Our bioenergy portfolio

Within our portfolio we have allocated funds for a SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub. We are also supporting a number of other major centres such as The TSEC-BIOSYS Consortium, which focuses on the technical, economic, environmental and social issues related to the development of bioenergy in the UK.

Other centres include the BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre (BSBEC) and The Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme. BSBEC was launched in 2009 and remains the largest single UK investment in bioenergy research (£20 million) and was coupled to an additional £4 million of business investment through its six research hubs. Each with a different focus, the six research hubs brought together research spanning biomass growth, deconstruction and biological conversion. The BSBEC was funded as part of the Energy programme. The RELU programme studied the social, economic and environmental implications of increased land use for energy crops.

As part of the Energy programme, BBSRC has released a bioenergy position statement. The statement highlights current activities and future challenges within bioenergy research. The BBSRC also conducted a public dialogue around bioenergy. BBSRC also chaired the Bioenergy Strategic Coordination Group (BSCG), a subgroup bringing the relevant research councils together to discuss the complex issues specific to bioenergy.

The Energy programme and TSB jointly organised the International Bioenergy Conference 2014. Researchers from all over the world attended the event from 11 to 13 March 2014 to hear about some of the latest developments in bioenergy science and consider questions relating to the field, including policy, commercialisation and international collaboration.

Continuing support in this area will ensure that bioenergy has a role to play alongside fossil fuels. Research will continue to address important sustainability issues including crop yields, water dependence and the availability of land for energy and food crops. The successful translation of research underpinning the production of advanced fuels will help the UK meet its commitments for 2050 under the Climate Change Act and the 2020 Renewable Energy Directive targets. The commercialisation of advanced fuels should encourage increased sustainability, energy security and economic growth.

Conventional and unconventional power generation

Around 80% of the world’s power still comes from burning fossil fuels and the use of fossil fuels is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. There is a clear need to make this process more efficient, to maximise the energy output, decrease carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the environmental impact.

One method of doing this is through carbon capture and storage, a process that captures the carbon dioxide generated from fossil fuel power stations and other energy intensive industrial processes and stores it underground, stopping it from entering the atmosphere.

Support in this area includes the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre, a national research hub for carbon capture and storage. We also support training in this area through a Centre for Doctoral Training in carbon capture and storage and cleaner fossil energy.

We are also supporting research to improve the combustion process and improve the extraction of oil and gas, with our research portfolios. Furthermore we are investing in conventional energy generation including two future conventional power research consortia.

A long term carbon dioxide free alternative to fossil based power generation has yet to be established. The depleting reserves of fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases emitted from burning them make this a vital area for research. By funding further research into this area we aim to make conventional power generation more efficient and reduce its environmental impact.

Energy efficiency

Over the next few decades making better use of energy resources will be just as important as finding alternative sources of supply. Energy efficiency research is subsumed into end use energy demand (EUED) which is concerned with reducing the amount of energy required to maintain economic activity and to achieve sustainable lifestyles. EUED can be subdivided in several ways, for example by:

  • sector – industry, buildings and transport
  • services – passenger and freight transport, structural materials, sustenance, hygiene (household and personal cleanliness), thermal comfort, communication and lighting
  • end uses – food, entertainment, health, education, heating, cooling and refrigeration and travel.

These various divisions can be more or less useful for different purposes, but EUED involves complex systems for which it is difficult to define appropriate boundaries. Traditional, sector-based approaches to EUED research typically fail to capture this complexity.

The Energy programme (in collaboration with the Manufacturing the Future programme) has committed over £30 million to the establishment of six EUED centres, and a further £13 million has been committed by industrial partners. The centres will run for five years initially and will work collaboratively to conduct research to help better understand the UK’s future energy needs.

In collaboration with the Digital Economy programme the Energy programme established the TEDDI (Transforming Energy Demand through Digital Innovation) programme. It funded more than 20 projects with a total value of over £20 million.

We have also established a doctoral training centre to create highly skilled workers for universities, industry and commerce. For demand reduction in building a doctoral training centre, which is a collaboration between the UCL Energy Institute and Loughborough University, has been funded. By continuing our work in this area we aim to both better understand influences on energy demand and provide mechanisms by which it can be reduced. As a result the UK demand for energy can then be reduced through the development of both policy and new technologies.

Fusion

Once mastered, nuclear fusion has the potential to offer an almost limitless source of energy with minimal environmental impact.

The fusion process involves the fusing of several atoms such as deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and tritium (super heavy hydrogen) at very high temperatures (more than 100 million degrees Celsius) to produce energy. Similar to the process that powers the sun and other stars, fusion gives off no greenhouse gases or harmful emissions.

There are still great challenges to overcome before fusion becomes a viable source of energy for the future but continued funding will not only provide the facilities and research base necessary for progression but also the skilled scientists and engineers needed to continue to work in this area.

There are two main routes to fusion energy:

  • magnetic confinement fusion
  • inertial confinement fusion.

The UK Magnetic Confinement Fusion Programme is based at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxfordshire, one of the world’s leading centres for fusion research. In addition, we are collaborating with the EURATOM directorate of the European Commission to fund the Joint European Torus (JET), the largest and most powerful magnetic fusion device in the world.

JET is also based at Culham and is a precursor to the next generation fusion facility ITER, which is now being built in Cadarache, France.

The UK contribution to inertial confinement fusion takes place at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and AWE as well as universities co-ordinated through an inertial fusion network.

The leading world activity in inertial confinement fusion is taking place at the National Ignition Facility, in the US, with whom a number of collaborations with Imperial College London and the University of Oxford were recently funded.

We also support centres of excellence in fusion plasma physics at the University of Warwick and the University of York.

In order to sustain the UK skills base in fusion research, the programme has awarded several studentships in this area and supports a fusion doctoral training network based at the University of York.

A strategic review of UK fusion energy took place in 2009 and current activities are overseen by the UK Fusion Advisory Board.

Fusion features in the government’s industrial strategy for nuclear energy, which includes a £15 million award for a new world-class National Nuclear Users Facility for universities and companies carrying out research into nuclear technology. The facility has centres at the National Nuclear Laboratory at Sellafield, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire and the University of Manchester’s Dalton Cumbrian Facility.

Many synergies exist between fission and fusion nuclear research and it is important that these synergies are exploited in order to make the best of UK capability.

Hydrogen and fuel cell technology

One method of reducing fossil fuel consumption is to look at alternative methods of storing and transporting energy.

Fuel cells are the most efficient devices known for converting a range of fuels into electricity and, in some cases, heat. They also enable the efficient use of alternative fuels such as hydrogen and biofuels.

Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy to electrical energy without combustion. Likewise other fuels such as hydrogen could be used as a direct replacement for petrol and diesel in our vehicles. However, many technical obstacles need to be overcome if these technologies are to enter widespread use.

We have allocated funding for a doctoral training centre in hydrogen and fuel cells at the University of Birmingham.

Our funding will allow us to continue and further build on the strong UK research base in this area. This will help deliver future transport technologies such as hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, and high efficiency combined heat and power units using stationary fuel cells.

Marine

The marine environment offers some of the greatest potential for renewable energy generation in the UK. Wave energy devices and tidal power installations add to the potential for offshore wind which is already being exploited.

The British Isles are at the edge of the Atlantic and are exposed to some of the most energetic waves and tidal currents in the world. This makes us well placed to utilise marine technology to maximum effect and subsequently exploit wider international markets.

The UK Energy programme has been key in this, with a large investment focused through the SUPERGEN Marine Energy Hub, the UK Centre for Marine Energy Research. We also have a training investment through the Industrial Doctoral Centre for Offshore Renewable Energy co-funded with the Energy Technologies Institute.

We are also supporting projects that are working in collaboration with a number of industrial partners such as CD Adapco and Pelamis Wave Power Ltd. We are collaborating with other funding agencies such as the Energy Technologies Institute and the Technology Strategy Board in order to push marine technology through to deployment.

Networks

The use of renewables as an energy source in the UK is on the rise, and the government has ambitious targets for the use of renewable energy in the UK. Electricity generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar differs from conventional power generation in that the power comes from a large number of smaller sites spread over many locations.

Furthermore many renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind energy, are more intermittent in nature. Generally, energy cannot be stored in the grid, as such energy demand and supply have to be matched in order to keep the lights on.

As more micro-generation and intermittent supply from solar and wind farms comes online, managing this will require a modern grid that can respond to these changes. The future electricity network will be integrated with communication technologies and may contain elements of demand management in order to balance supply and demand.

This raises a number of issues for the current power networks which are not built for this purpose. The development of smarter electricity networks are needed to accommodate larger quantities of renewable energy efficiently. An efficient buffer or storage mechanism would also help to regulate supply.

To address the issues surrounding the current power networks, we have built up a portfolio of projects. We have invested in Supergen HubNet to coordinate and build capacity in power networks with associated challenge calls to boost research effort.

Our projects in sustainable energy networks are involved in industrial collaboration which helps leverage funds in this area. This includes collaboration with China on sustainable electricity supply. Addressing the issue of energy storage has meant we are funding various projects including the Supergen Energy Storage Consortium.

Nuclear fission

Nuclear fission currently provides 20% of UK electricity and is widely seen as a key part of the trinity of future fuel options for the UK, alongside renewables and carbon capture and storage-enabled fossil fuels.

Research challenges in this area include:

  • legacy waste clean up
  • decommissioning and disposal
  • technological challenges for the current planned new nuclear build
  • future (generation IV) technologies.

These challenges include not only science and engineering but also the environmental, social and economic aspects and how these influence regulation and policy. A further challenge is ensuring the sufficient capacity of highly trained researchers.

We are currently supporting research in this area that includes collaboration with industrial partners, and with other funding agencies both in the UK and overseas.

Key past investments include:

  • Keeping the Nuclear Option Open (KNOO) – a research programme focusing on new reactor technology, waste disposal and materials as well as providing significant levels of training
  • Decommissioning Immobilisation And Management Of Nuclear wastes for Disposal (DIAMOND) project
  • Sustainability assessment of nuclear power (SPRing) project.

Current investments include:

  • Radioactivity and the Environment Programme
  • Performance and reliability of metallic materials for nuclear fission
  • REFINE.

Recent significant funded activities include:

  • National Nuclear Users Facility
  • involvement with the TSB-led nuclear supply chain programme
  • a programme of research into the nuclear fuel cycle (PACIFIC)
  • a new programme on decommissioning and waste treatment research (DISTINCTIVE) that replaces the DIAMOND project.

Additionally two doctoral training centres, Nuclear FiRST and the Nuclear Engineering Industrial Doctoral Centre, trained doctoral students from 2009 and had their final intake in 2013. The latest supported Centres for Doctoral Training, Next Generation Nuclear and Civil Nuclear Skills for Global Markets, began operating in 2014 and had their final intake in 2018.

Continuing support in this area is critical to the decommissioning of the existing nuclear generating power stations and the development of new nuclear build and its potential as a key component in delivering the UK’s low carbon economy.

Whole energy systems

The Energy programme takes a whole-systems approach to energy research, examining the social, environmental, and economic impacts of energy pathways and choices, as well as the challenges surrounding technological innovation in these areas. Better understanding of the effects of the design of market and regulatory frameworks on energy production, supply and use can inform the development of effective public policy, as can better understanding of consumer demand.

The Energy programme seeks to ensure that the work that we fund engages with policy makers, regulators, industry, civil society and the public. The Energy programme supports the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) which takes an independent whole-systems approach, drawing in physical, environmental and social sciences.

UKERC is looking at how the UK can move towards a sustainable and resilient energy system. It also encourages collaboration between user and research communities at both a national and international level and supports early career researchers.

The Energy and Communities Collaborative Venture consists of seven grants that work directly with communities to examine how individuals and communities use, understand and manage energy, and help them find ways to reduce energy demand. The grants are expected to have significant impact within the communities they are working with and beyond in terms of addressing energy demand reduction in the context of increasing challenges to energy security and equity.

The Realising Transition Pathways project explores what needs to be done to achieve a transition to a low carbon economy that successfully addresses the energy policy trilemma of simultaneous delivery of low carbon, secure and affordable energy systems.

The Whole Systems Energy Modelling consortium (wholeSEM) is a major project working to develop, integrate and apply state-of-the-art energy models. Energy models provide essential quantitative insights into the 21st century challenges of decarbonisation, energy security, energy equity and cost effectiveness.

IGov (Innovation, Governance and Affordability for a Sustainable Secure Economy) was a four-year project aiming at understanding and explaining the nature of sustainable change within the energy system, focusing on the complex inter-relationships between governance and innovation.

UKRI energy strategy fellow Jim Skea is researching the effectiveness of systems of energy innovation. In this project the research team will compare the effectiveness of different approaches to energy innovation systems in a number of leading countries with a view to learning lessons for successful energy research and innovation policy.

Major centres in policy funded by us include the Sussex Energy Group and the Electricity Policy Research Group in Cambridge.

The Energy programme considers it important to look at the challenges facing energy in a holistic way, from energy demand to incorporating new technology developments where appropriate, as well as the public perception of future changes.

This whole-systems approach should enable the delivery of effective policy and practice to the benefit of the UK society and the economy.

Solar

Solar energy is the only renewable energy technology that, in theory, could meet all of the world’s energy needs. The use of solar energy as a viable large-scale energy source to date has been limited by the cost and efficiency of the available technology.

To address this, we are supporting a large portfolio of research with many multiple partners.

One of the major investments in our portfolio is in SUPERGEN SuperSolar, a five-year project that will see the creation of a research programme that aims to improve the efficiency of next generation photovoltaic devices. Many of the projects are collaborative with industry, attracting additional contributions. Additionally, we have established a collaborative research call in solar energy with India, through the Indian Department for Sciences and Technology.

By implementing this research we aim to address the current issues surrounding solar efficiencies, materials use and availability. Furthermore, we also aim to develop novel light harvesting technologies such as artificial photosynthesis that offer the potential for innovative low cost alternatives.

Wind

The use of wind as a renewable energy resource is already well established in the UK and the UK has the greatest wind energy potential in Europe. However, it still contributes a relatively small amount of energy to our overall needs.

There are still a number of issues that need to be addressed in this area including improving efficiencies, improving reliability, handling intermittency of supply and environmental issues together with public perception and acceptability.

We are supporting research in this area with various projects including the SUPERGEN Wind Hub and a doctoral training centre at the University of Strathclyde. There is also an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Wind and Marine Energy Systems based at the University of Strathclyde.

A number of the projects are collaborative with industry and other institutes such as:

  • Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory
  • Scottish Association for Marine Science.

Research highlights include the highly regarded report by UKERC on the costs and impacts of intermittency, dealing largely with the intermittency inherent in wind generators. The report was targeted at non-specialists and policymakers, but also provided new information for the expert community.

Future research in wind energy will help ensure that the government’s future renewable energy targets are met, specifically addressing the challenges of installing and operating offshore wind farms.

Centres for Doctoral Training

The Energy programme provides focused support for postgraduate training through a number of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), with the goal of securing the future supply of world-leading energy researchers.

Supergen programme

The Supergen programme was set up in 2001 to deliver sustained and coordinated research on sustainable power generation (Supergen) and supply, focusing on several key research areas, including:

  • bioenergy
  • energy networks
  • energy storage
  • fuel cells
  • hydrogen and other vectors
  • marine, wave and tidal
  • solar technology
  • wind power.

For phase 3, EPSRC supported seven Supergen hubs with £150 million of investment over a five year period (including a series challenge calls and CDTs).

It is one of the UK government’s largest single investments in fundamental research on low-carbon energy generation and sustainable distribution.

The Supergen programme was reviewed over the summer 2016 by an independent panel. The review report highlighted the scale of the programme, which now represents one of the UK government’s largest single investments in fundamental research on low-carbon energy generation and sustainable distribution. The review also recognised that the programme has had high academic, socio-economic, environmental and international impact.

As part of this process, EPSRC requested that the existing hubs should work together to co-create a Supergen programme strategy. This will be a living document which the hubs can update over time and use to define the future of the Supergen programme.

Visit the Supergen website for more information, background and history of the programme including details of the Supergen hubs.

Supergen phase four (2017 onwards)

Following the review of the Supergen programme in the summer of 2016, it was agreed that the next phase should carry out and commission research within a coordinated strategic framework and focus on a community-led programme of fundamental to applied research, of national importance.

The programme should use research to address high impact user, industrial and government inspired problems whilst also covering adventurous discovery-led investigations. However, it is recognised that the position a Supergen hub adopts will depend on the area which it covers, for example, wind power is in a different adoption space to storage.

The Supergen review report in 2016 recommended that in the next phase each Supergen hub should feature an enhanced management structure including a director and co-directors.

These would be responsible for, amongst other activities, supporting cross-hub activities and engagement outside of the core universities and ensure a balance of funding distribution that maximises high quality research outputs.

In order to identify hub directors with the right balance of skills, EPSRC will commission the next phase of Supergen using a two stage process. The first of these stages will be a Supergen leader call, to identify the best hub director. The winner of this competition will then receive six months of funding to build a consortium, plan a community led programme of research and prepare a full application for the second stage.

UK Energy Research Centre

Funded by the Energy programme, the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) carries out world-class research into sustainable future energy systems. It is the hub of UK energy research and the gateway between the UK and the international energy research communities.

The centre’s interdisciplinary, whole systems research informs UK policy development and research strategy.

UKERC was established in 2004, following a recommendation from the energy review in 2002 initiated by Sir David King, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor. UKERC was funded for an initial five years and in May 2009 was awarded a further round of funding for another five years.

UKERC organises its networking and research activity under five related themes and four functions.

Technology and policy assessment theme

The technology and policy assessment (TPA) theme was established to meet demand from policymakers, industry and other stakeholders for independent, policy-relevant assessments that address key issues and controversies in the energy field. The TPA team draws on existing energy research to develop accessible, credible and authoritative reports relevant to policymakers, other stakeholders and wider public debate.

Energy and environment theme

UKERC is developing strategies for marine and land-based energy production and greenhouse gas mitigation technologies which limit environmental impacts while safeguarding or even restoring the ecosystem. The centre is also looking at ways to integrate the socio-economic valuations of ecosystem goods and services into technology evaluation. This will allow UKERC to see the impact of energy production and greenhouse gas mitigation technologies on the UK’s carbon footprint.

Energy supply theme

Researchers are investigating UK energy supply to 2050, taking into account radical developments being put in place from 2020 onwards. They are analysing options for longer term decarbonisation, while recognising the long lifetime of energy assets and the need for a smooth trajectory of change.

Energy demand theme

The demand for energy is the driver of the whole energy system, influencing not only the total amount of energy used, but also the location, type of fuel and characteristics of the end use technology. The objective of the theme is to research how socio-economic and technical change affect energy demand in the UK and to apply this to the need for more radical change to respond to climate and energy security challenges.

Energy Systems theme

The primary goal of the Energy Systems theme is to bring together the best modelling expertise in the UK and integrate it into a world-class modelling research effort. The UK energy-economic system is extremely complex and hence requires sophisticated tools: approaches designed to investigate different aspects of the integrated system.

Research Atlas function

UKERC has created tools to assist policymakers and researchers to review the current status of UK energy research and development and identify the key research challenges. This includes ‘landscape’ documents which detail current energy-related research activities and capabilities in the UK and roadmaps which identify the sequence of research (and other) problems to be overcome before new technologies can be commercially viable.

The Energy Data Centre

The Energy Data Centre provides an outward-facing energy data service to the UK energy research community and long-term data curation facilities for data generated by current and future research council funded projects. It aims to add value to existing data sets by, for example, establishing and supporting long-term data sets, or hosting scenario models and supporting data sets.

National Energy Research Network

UKERC’s National Energy Research Network (NERN) aims to network energy researchers from all disciplines, giving members visibility of a wide and multifaceted area and providing opportunities through information and through interaction with other members. NERN membership is free and is open to organisations and individuals involved in energy research who can make a contribution towards energy research and development in the UK.

Why we're doing it

Energy programme

The Energy programme aims to position the UK to meet its energy and environmental targets and policy goals through world-class research and training. The Energy programme is investing more than £625 million in research and skills to pioneer a low carbon future. This builds on an investment of £839 million over the past eight years (December 2011).

Led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Energy programme brings together the work of EPSRC and the:

  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Why energy research matters

Research is the key to achieving an affordable low carbon energy system whilst conserving our natural resources, the environment and our quality of life.

Key drivers

To help combat climate change the UK has a target to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, an enormous task requiring changes to every sector of energy generation, supply, use and regulation. These reductions need to be delivered while creating a secure energy system for the UK, providing affordable energy, enabling continued economic growth and limiting impact on scarce natural resources and the environment.

Challenges

The key short term challenge is to rapidly accelerate the deployment of green energy technologies that decarbonise our energy supply and increase energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport sectors. There is also an opportunity to develop existing networks and infrastructure to support the changing energy landscape, such as through carbon capture and storage and large scale deployment of renewables.

Research for our future

It is only through fundamental research focused on addressing these challenges that truly transformative changes to our energy future beyond 2050 can occur. The energy programme is uniquely positioned to provide policymakers with guidance about the development of potential energy scenarios and their impact on citizens, the economy and the environment. This demands understanding of behaviour change, environmental systems analysis and technological innovation.

View evidence sources used to inform our research strategies.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Funding opportunities

You can apply for funding to support an EPSRC research proposal in the area of energy at any time under any open EPSRC scheme, including standard mode, programme grants and fellowships.

Standard (sometimes known as ‘responsive’) funding opportunities are open to a wide range of research and approaches within EPSRC’s remit.

Resources and support

Centres for Doctoral Training

The Energy programme provides focused support for postgraduate training through a number of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs), with the goal of securing the future supply of world-leading energy researchers. The CDTs provide students with a better whole systems understanding and improved learning environment in priority areas for the Energy programme. Students carry out a PhD-level research project together with taught coursework in a supportive and exciting environment.

Thirteen centres in energy were sponsored by EPSRC following a funding opportunity in 2013, some of which were continuations of existing initiatives. In addition, NERC supported a new CDT in oil and gas. The current centres are:

  • EPSRC CDT in Bioenergy – University of Leeds
  • EPSRC CDT in Carbon Capture and Storage and Cleaner Fossil Energy – Universities of Nottingham, Loughborough, Birmingham, Leeds and the British Geological Survey
  • EPSRC CDT in Energy Demand – University College London and Loughborough University, continuation of existing centre (LoLo)
  • EPSRC CDT in Energy Storage and its Applications – Universities of Sheffield and Southampton
  • EPSRC CDT in Fuel Cells and their Fuels, Clean Power for the 21st Century – Universities of Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham
  • EPSRC CDT in Nuclear Energy, Building UK Civil Nuclear Skills for Global Markets – Imperial College London, University of Cambridge and Open University
  • EPSRC CDT in Nuclear Fission, Next Generation Nuclear – Universities of Manchester, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield, continuation of existing centre (Nuclear FiRST)
  • EPSRC CDT in the Science and Technology of Fusion Energy – consortium of universities and research organisations led by the University of York, continuation of Fusion Doctoral Training Network
  • EPSRC CDT in Power Networks – University of Manchester
  • EPSRC CDT in Future Power Networks and Smart Grids –  University of Strathclyde and Imperial College London
  • EPSRC CDT in New and Sustainable PV – consortium of seven universities led by the University of Liverpool
  • EPSRC CDT in Renewable Energy Marine Structures – Cranfield University and University of Oxford
  • EPSRC CDT in Wind and Marine Energy Systems – Universities of Strathclyde and Edinburgh, continuation of existing centre in wind energy systems as well as Industrial Doctorate Centre in Offshore Renewable Energy
  • NERC CDT in Oil and Gas – consortium of universities led by Heriot-Watt University.
Existing CDTs in energy sponsored by EPSRC as part of the Energy theme
  • Industrial Doctorate Centre for Nuclear Engineering – University of Manchester and Imperial College London
  • Industrial Doctoral Centre for Offshore Renewable Energy – Universities of Strathclyde, Edinburgh and Exeter, Scottish Association for Marine Science, and HR-Wallingford jointly funded with the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI)
  • Industrial Doctorate Centre for Sustainability for Engineering and Energy Systems – University of Surrey
  • CDT for E-Futures – University of Sheffield
  • CDT for Energy – Durham University
  • CDT for Energy Futures – Imperial College London
  • CDT for Low Carbon Technologies – University of Leeds.
Network of energy CDTs

The energy CDT network draws together the CDTs in energy to collaborate on training programmes and research projects, share best practice and communicate their work to the public. There is a large and varied research portfolio within the network, covering all areas of energy technology from wind power to nuclear energy, carbon capture to demand reduction and marine energy to alternative fuels. The training of these future leaders will help the UK to meet its CO2 emissions targets and fulfil its commitment to creating a low carbon economy.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Visualising our portfolio (VoP) is a tool for users to visually interact with the EPSRC portfolio and data relationships. Find out more about research theme connections and funding for energy.

Find previously funded projects in the Energy theme on Grants on the Web.

Key engagement activities

A range of activities were held in late 2015 and throughout 2016 to ensure engagement opportunities were available for the energy research community and industry, including but not limited to:

  • industrial carbon capture and storage workshop
  • independent review of nuclear fission and fusion
  • nuclear fission community meeting
  • nuclear academics meeting
  • hydrogen workshop
  • next generation carbon capture and storage technologies workshop
  • end use energy demand high level group and directors meetings
  • Supergen workshops.

Who to contact

Ask a question about the Energy theme

James Fleming, Head of Energy Theme

Email: james.fleming@epsrc.ukri.org

Ruqaiyah Patel, Head of Decarbonising Industry and the Environment

Email: ruqaiyah.patel@epsrc.ukri.org

Claire Spooner, Head of Decarbonising Transport

Email: claire.spooner@epsrc.ukri.org

Senior Portfolio Managers, EPSRC

Chris Carlton

  • Decarbonising Electricity Generation
  • National Nuclear User Facility
  • Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) co-convenor
  • Portfolios: Solar, Fusion

Email: Christopher.carlton@epsrc.ukri.org

Gerard Davies

  • decarbonising heat and cooling
  • ISCF Prospering From the Energy Revolution
  • Portfolios: Bioenergy

Email: gerard.davies@epsrc.ukri.org

Joanna Watt

  • Negative Emissions Technologies
  • Supergen
  • Portfolios: Carbon Capture Storage

Email: Joanna.watt@epsrc.ukri.org

Neil Bateman

  • Decarbonising Transport
  • ISCF Faraday Battery Challenge
  • Portfolios: Energy Storage
  • International Strategy

Email: neil.bateman@epsrc.ukri.org

James Tarver

  • Decarbonising Industry
  • Managing our Portfolio and Priorities
  • Portfolios: Hydrogen and Alternative Energy Vectors, Fuel Cells

Email: james.tarver@epsrc.ukri.org

Isabella Panovic

  • Decarbonisation of Heat and Cooling
  • EDI
  • Portfolios: Marine, Wave and Tidal, Wind Power

Email: Isabella.panovic@epsrc.ukri.org

Portfolio Managers, EPSRC

Andrew Eustace

  • Portfolios: Nuclear Fission
  • Programme Grants

Email: andrew.eustace@epsrc.ukri.org
Telephone: 01793 444426

Strachan McCormick, Portfolio Manager

  • portfolios: whole energy systems, energy networks
  • Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) convenor

Email: strachan.mccormick@epsrc.ukri.org
Telephone: 01793 444262

Vacancies, including

  • Portfolios: End Use Energy Demand
  • Energy Fellowships

Portfolio Support Managers, EPSRC

Zuzana Hlaskova

Email: Zuzana.Hlaskova@epsrc.ukri.org

Delivery Support Team, EPSRC

Kym Wheeler, Delivery Support Administrator

Email: kym.wheeler@epsrc.ukri.org

Michelle Todd, Delivery Support Manager

Email: michelle.todd@epsrc.ukri.org

Telephone: 01793 444384

Val Hibberd, Delivery Support Manager

Email: valerie.hibberd@epsrc.ukri.org

Telephone: 01793 444367

Lisa Woolford

Email: Lisa.Woolford@epsrc.ukri.org

General Enquiries, EPSRC

energy@epsrc.ukri.org

Ask other research councils about the Energy theme

Roderick Westrop, BBSRC

Email: roderick.westrop@bbsrc.ukri.org
Telephone: 01793 413332

ESRC

Susie Stevenson

Email: Susie.Stevenson@esrc.ukri.org

Tracey Dale

Email: Tracey.Dale@esrc.ukri.org

Alexandra Hughes-Johnson

Email: Alexandra.Hughes-Johnson@esrc.ukri.org

Beth House, NERC

Email: beod1@nerc.ukri.org
Telephone: 01793 442597

Oliver Knevitt

Email: oliver.knevitt@nerc.ukri.org

Stephen Loader, STFC

Email: stephen.loader@stfc.ac.uk
Telephone: 01793 442111

Governance, management and panels

The Energy theme will be shaped with advice from internal and external advisory bodies, including the Energy Scientific Advisory Committee, stakeholders and the academic community. The committee has representatives drawn from the providers and users of research who have an interest in ensuring that we have access to pertinent advice and comment to inform decision making. The committee is composed of member and observer representatives from diverse backgrounds in industry, academia, government and Innovate UK.

View a list of members of the Energy Scientific Advisory Committee.

This is the integrated website of the seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK.
Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help us test new developments.