Arc Universities

Dr Andy Gilchrist from The Energy Systems Accelerator (TESA) at Oxford University, is responsible for developing links in the energy sector; anything from finding fossil fuels, to how we use and generate electricity. Here he shares how the region has the potential to deliver UK Global Leadership in Net Zero Carbon Energy Systems.

The urgency and scale of the climate change challenge remains, despite Coronavirus and the economic devastation it has wrought.  The UK is in many aspects a global leader in responding to the challenges and our hosting of COP26 is a major opportunity to underpin this leadership.

Sitting at the western end of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc, I am encouraged by how quickly the region has galvanised an infrastructure that can attract and produce, develop, finance, and commercialise new low carbon technologies at speed: and in numbers.   Companies such as Mixergy (efficient, intelligent hot water tanks), Yasa (lightweight electric motors), Oxford PV (silicon-perovskite tandem solar cells) and Arrival (electric vans and buses manufactured at micro-scale plants) will provide the ‘building bricks’ of a new low carbon energy system: some have the potential to be £Billion global companies.

Of course, further ‘building bricks’ are evolving across the UK.  Additionally, the Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution will invest £12 billion in new technologies and will boost the innovation effort considerably.    

However, developing building bricks is not enough: we have not yet designed the house of the new energy system!  Crudely we need to move from three separate command and control energy systems (oil for mobility, gas for heat and electricity) to a single integrated, decentralised energy system, powered by intermittent renewable energy, that delivers mobility, heat, and electricity to consumers.  Energy storage is an important challenge to solve but actually comprises at least three separate challenges covering different timescales (micro-second, day and seasonal): it is highly probable that the technology and business solutions will be different across the timescales.  

The current energy systems have worked well for decades: change will thus require a seismic cultural shift and at breakneck speed.  As someone who has spent their career at the interface of Government, Industry and Academia delivering changes in the real world, I know how hard this is to achieve.  We urgently need answers to questions like where will new technologies and services add value? how will the system meet conflicting demands? and how can all users have a symbiotic relationship with the system?   Answers will help define the specification for individual bricks: this is turn will influence the business models for individual suppliers.  Answering these questions early will help smooth the path to the energy transition and minimise wasted effort on commercially non-viable innovation. 

The Government’s Prospering from the Energy Revolution (PFER) Challenge is starting to tackle these big questions.  The core of this programme is 3 large-scale demonstrators to improve our understanding of how markets will develop towards a smarter, flexible electricity system and how households, businesses and communities can realise its benefits:  they are Energy Superhub Oxford (ESO), Reflex Orkney and Project LEO (Local Energy Oxfordshire).  At a recent visit to ESO, the BBC sent their business correspondent Simon Jack, not the technology or environment correspondents:  a good sign that the project is positioning well, as its primary purpose is to assist new markets develop!  In addition to the large-scale demonstrators, PFER recently announced 10 projects that will design a smart local energy system and in addition PFER is supported by both an academic consortium and the Energy Systems Catapult.   There is a long way to go, but the first steps are underway.

The two demonstrators in Oxford represent an investment of almost £100M and growing.  Why Oxford?  I am convinced one key reason is that, over the last 10 years and over a huge number of projects, we have focussed on breaking down traditional innovation silos: silos between disciplines, silos between organisational profit centres, and silos between organisations.    These projects have encompassed engineers, scientists, digital and AI specialists, policy advisors, economists, and behavioural specialists.  They have also brought together academia, industry, public sector organisations and community interest companies.  To further speed up innovation, we are bringing these into a single building, The Energy Systems Accelerator (TESA).  A 100-person pilot will open this autumn where we will trial novel innovation methods, including how to take advantage of serendipitous innovation (and how to do this in a Covid-safe manner).  The ambition is for TESA to encompass 800 people, encompassing research, innovation, knowledge exchange and learning, and be a portal for UK global leadership.

To achieve UK global leadership, it is not enough to be the at the forefront of innovation: you also need scale to compete with Silicon Valley.  The Oxford-Cambridge Arc can provide this scale to compete, establishing a portal to UK innovation in low carbon energy systems.   With its Universities (including 2 of the top 7 globally), the Arc can also provide an established international brand for learning in net zero carbon energy systems.  To achieve this, the Arc needs to come together to trial new markets, technologies, planning and procurement methods, even standards, in all activity (both large-scale spatial plan developments and local initiatives) and find innovative ways of focussing innovation across the UK.   

If we can do this quickly, we can both underpin a fast UK and global transition to a low carbon global economy and position the UK as a global leader in achieving this, so delivering both UK political ambitions and economic benefits across the UK.“

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