Pioneering energy research for growth

Professor David Delpy on UK support for cutting-edge energy research.

New Statesman
Professor David Delpy is chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Science and engineering research is the key to achieving an affordable low-carbon energy future while preserving our natural resources, the environment and our quality of life.

EPSRC leads the RCUK Energy Programme on behalf of all UK Research Councils. Our £0.5 billion energy portfolio covers the gamut of speculative and user-led energy research, from carbon capture to biofuels, solar, tidal and wind energy to low-carbon transport.  
 
For example, University of Durham scientists led by Professor Janusz Bialek are using mathematical analysis to predict and prevent widespread electricity grid blackouts, and a team from the University of Cambridge, led by Neil Greenham and Professor Sir Richard Friend, have developed a new kind of solar cell that could increase the maximum efficiency of solar panels by over 25 per cent. 
 
Further afield, EPSRC is forging major international collaborations with countries such as India and China to address global energy challenges in renewable energy systems, cleaner use of fossil fuels and smart grids.
 

Informing energy policy

Working closely with our advisory bodies, we promote multidisciplinary partnerships between academic researchers, industry, funders and government departments. We have partnerships across government, such as the Energy Research Partnership and the Low Carbon Innovation Group, and also fund the UK Energy Research Centre. The Centre’s innovative interdisciplinary research programme plays a key role in informing UK policy development and research strategy.
 
Research funded through the RCUK Energy Programme has also informed the 2012 Carbon Capture & Storage Roadmap, the 2011 UK Renewable Energy Roadmap; the 2009 Low Carbon Industrial Strategy, the 2007 Energy White Paper, and the 2006 Stern Review. 
 
In contributing to the energy agenda, we cast our net wide, taking independent advice across sectors and continents. The October 2010 International Review of Energy found that the RCUK Energy portfolio has a leading-edge in world-ranked energy science and is having a huge impact on the UK’s 2050 climate targets. We are using recommendations from this review to inform future plans and priorities. 
 

Partnerships for growth

The working partnerships we develop with industry, and with organisations such as the Technology Strategy Board, the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) and the Carbon Trust, are at the heart of our mission, and form a platform from which we can co-develop long-term cross-sector research, leverage funding and share best practice.
 
EPSRC is now the largest public funder of the ETI, and Research Council representatives sit on its working groups, Programme Management Board, Technical Committee and Board.
 
Another key collaboration is SUPERGEN, a consortium bringing together world-leading academics, industry and other stakeholders to develop cutting-edge technologies and solutions in areas such as wind and marine, photovoltaic, hydrogen and bio-energy. 
 
Specific partnerships with industry include £14 million in joint funding with E.ON to develop low-carbon energy solutions, and with EDF to reduce energy demand in buildings. We are also working with the MoD, EDF, AWE and the National Nuclear Laboratory to sustain critical nuclear research and training capability. 
 
Across the RCUK Energy Programme portfolio, we work with more than 500 public and private sector organisations, including many SMEs and university spin-out companies set up to commercialise EPSRC-funded research. Presently there are over 1,000 active collaborative projects. 
 
For example, Encos, a company set up to commercialise EPSRC-funded research at the University of Leeds, is working with Yorkshire Water to produce carbon negative house bricks and other building materials made from sewage, ash and vegetable oil. 
 

Impact on training

A hugely important aspect of our work is to develop the energy researchers, policymakers and business leaders of tomorrow. EPSRC is the largest sponsor of postgraduate training in engineering and physical sciences in the UK. Through the RCUK Energy Programme, we support more than 900 PhD students engaged in energy-related research. Half of our PhD graduates enter either business or the public sector within a year of graduating.
 
To maximise the quality of the PhD, we concentrate much of our training around specialist centres. There are now 13 centres, providing doctoral and industrial training in energy systems, low carbon technology, nuclear, renewables and demand reduction.
 
One of our most recent investments is a £6.5 million Edinburgh-based Industrial Doctorate Centre in Offshore Renewable Energy, supported jointly with the ETI and hosted by three UK universities. Working with global leaders like EDF Energy, Shell and Rolls-Royce, students are taught business skills and entrepreneurship alongside their research and technical skills training. 
 

Priorities for the future 

The RCUK Energy Programme’s remit is to explore all future low carbon energy supply options – from nuclear fusion to hydrogen fuel cells – as well as their social, environmental and economic implications. Recent investments reflect this commitment.
 
Last month, in partnership with the DECC, we announced a £13 million investment to establish a UK CCS Research Centre that will enable academics, industry, regulators and others to co-develop improved carbon capture and storage technologies. And in March 2012, we funded a £4.5 million project between the universities of Manchester and Sheffield to research innovative manufacturing for the future of the UK’s nuclear power supply. 
 
We have also earmarked up to £30 million to establish a network of multidisciplinary research centres to explore ways to reduce carbon emissions across society – from industrial processes, materials and products to regulation and organisational and individual behaviour. 
 

Economic impact

Investment in energy research is already creating new industries, jobs and commercial opportunities for the UK. It is also vital to the future of our planet, and it’s satisfying to know that the EPSRC-led RCUK Energy Programme is leading from the front.
 
A recent example is Ceres Power, a company formed to commercialise EPSRC-funded fuel cell research, which has partnered with British Gas to install and maintain its revolutionary CHP boilers in UK homes. The boiler reduces household energy costs by up to 25 per cent as well as CO2 emissions. The group has created over 170 ‘green collar’ jobs, and in 2011 opened a new dedicated facility in Sussex.
 
Another company is University of Strathclyde spin-out Nautricity, one of several set up to commercialise world-leading EPSRC-funded research into tidal energy. In partnership with the Energy Invest Group, Nautricity has announced it is trialling a device based on its revolutionary tidal turbines that, if successful, will provide enough power for 35,000 UK homes. Intriguingly, this installation will not be made offshore, but on the River Thames, in the heart of London.
 
Professor David Delpy is chief executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)