A greener future: uniting research and business

Together, academic and industrial programmes are building the UK's low carbon economy. The Minister

David Willetts

The transition to a low carbon economy is a priority for the Government, and we recognise the vital role that research and innovation play in helping meet our ambitious green targets. 

Through organisations like Research Councils UK (RCUK), Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) and Met Office we are supporting excellent climate and energy research, as well as ensuring that industry is a key player in the effort. UK capability in low carbon technologies continues to be a strong growth area.

The RCUK Energy Programme, led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is investing £540 million over the next three years in research across a full spectrum of energy areas – from land-based renewables and marine sources of energy to carbon capture and storage.

It brings together a range of industry partners, such as E.ON who jointly funded a £14 million project to develop low energy solutions, and EDF who worked with the programme to reduce energy demand in buildings.

Established in 2007 as a 10-year partnership between DECC, BIS, EPSRC and TSB with six of the biggest companies in the UK (Shell, BP, E.ON, EDF, Caterpillar and Rolls Royce), the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) is spearheading the development of low carbon technologies that are both sustainable and renewable. It has jointly invested over £130 million in projects to help accelerate development and deployment of large scale engineering technologies key to producing clean, reliable and more affordable solutions. Only last month the Prime Minister announced ETI’s £100 million Smart Systems and Heat Programme, with Hitachi as a key delivery partner.

Together, these programmes support postgraduate training, through industry collaborations, to ensure we have the knowledge and expertise to support a greener future. This includes a £6.5 million investment with ETI in the new Industrial Doctorate Centre in Offshore Renewable Energy. Working at the heart of industry, alongside global leaders like EDF Energy, Shell and Rolls-Royce, the students will be trained in the most innovative future technologies from designing cost-efficient new windmill blades to testing the latest wave energy technology at leading facilities like Edinburgh University.

We are also bringing energy leaders from the research and business worlds together through the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult Centre. With state of the art facilities and sites in Glasgow and Northumberland, the centre will focus on technologies applicable to offshore wind, tidal and wave power – an increasingly valuable market expected to exceed £64 billion by 2050. It will also build strong links with centres of excellence, such as the European Marine Energy Centre, Wave Hub, and marine energy park in the South West of England.

Universities are already successfully working with businesses to commercialise their research. Imperial College used EPSRC-funded research to establish the award winning green energy company Ceres Power specialising in fuel cell technology, and Novacem, a company producing the world’s first carbon negative cement.

Our academic community is also working across national borders, with major international research collaborations including Europe, India, Japan and China. The RCUK-funded ‘Bridging the Urban Rural Divide’ programme brings together researchers in UK and India to explore how to make rural living more sustainable. One of the projects in the programme led by University of Nottingham will look at harnessing solar power, whilst another project will address the dependence of rural communities on fossil fuel.

All of this work is of course underpinned by the UK’s world leading research into climate change. This is going on at universities across the country, but also in Antarctica - one of the most rapidly changing environments on Earth – which I had a chance to see first-hand on a recent trip to the continent. 

Only last week the first map to show changes in the thickness of Arctic sea ice through an entire winter season was presented at the Royal Society by a team from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London. It was produced by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded scientists using data from the European Space Agency's CryoSat-2 satellite. It covers a huge swathe of the Arctic, right up to 88 degrees north – closer to the North Pole than any other satellite can reach. 

The Met Office Hadley Centre is also carrying out world renowned climate science, providing scientific evidence to Government to supporting mitigation and adaptation policy, as well as cost-effective deployment of renewable energy. To build on this, we have recently announced an investment of nearly £50 million in a programme of climate research and modelling at the centre, together with £11 million additional funding for high performance computing capacity.

Energy and climate insecurity is a global issue, but the UK is absolutely committed to contributing to that agenda. We already have the academic and industrial expertise, and through Government support we can bring the very best people and organisations together to develop the skills and technologies needed to tackle the challenge head on.

David Willetts MP is the Minister of State for Universities and Science.

This article was written as part of the New Statesman Perspectives on Energy brochure. To see further information on the leading research that UK Institutions are making in meeting the energy challenge, click here.