The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s pre-election budget on Wednesday 17 March signalled a real statement of intent to unleash the expertise locked up in the Midlands linked to manufacturing and leadership in energy related research and innovation. It was also a signal that Government recognise the size of the challenge and opportunity connected with the transformation of the UK to a secure, low-carbon, energy economy.
The announcement of £60M of funding for the first phase of the Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) ignites the opportunity for the Universities of Birmingham, Nottingham, Warwick, Aston, Leicester and Loughborough together with the British Geological Survey to provide a game-changing environment for energy research and innovation.
ERA focusses on three thematic areas linked to Thermal and Geo related energy issues and the challenge of Integration of energy technologies; T-ERA, G-ERA and I-ERA. The ability to cover all aspects of energy under one umbrella activity will provide the UK with the much needed engine for change. The key is to ensure that this investment is to the benefit of UK industry, academic experts across the UK and aligns with the needs and ambitions of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Here broad collaboration is essential.
The simultaneous announcement that the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) will be making its home in Birmingham amplifies the opportunity for developing integrated solutions. The ESC will help shape much of the intelligent thinking about integration of energy technologies, drawing on the skills and expertise of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), also located in the Midlands. The strategic and modelling capability provided by the ESC and ETI coupled with a pan-region technology base (ERA) could not be better geographically constructed for delivering change.
ERA aims to deliver advanced research programmes at the Universities, demonstrator capability at scale through to energy technology manufacturing capability. This will be underpinned by an energy skills academy to create the skills base required to exploit the innovation investment for the benefit of UK business thereby creating jobs.
The University of Birmingham is taking a lead in T-ERA, in collaboration with the Universities of Aston, Loughborough and Warwick. The funding will create a regional science and engineering base in thermal energy technology which impacts on everything from domestic and district heating, combined heat and power, thermal storage and heat pumps, to the integration of thermal technologies with other energy vectors. The investment will see the creation of a number of large scale demonstrators, in one case with potentially a transformational impact on the City of Birmingham. At the highest Technology Readiness Level (TRL) there will be an advanced thermal manufacturing centre.
The thermal dimension recognises both the fact that managing thermal energy is an even greater challenge than getting the electricity production right in the march to decarbonisation and that in the Midlands there are some of the UKs leading academics working in thermal energy research. At Birmingham there has already been significant investment in cold thermal energy technologies by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of the Governments Eight Great Technologies strategy. This includes a large-scale, grid-connected cryogenic energy storage system and dedicated laboratories for the development of cryogenic engine technology. The transformation of these technologies to product in the market place will be delivered by the thermal manufacturing centre.
Simultaneously, the University of Birmingham has launched a Policy Commission to be chaired by Lord Teverson examining how to optimise the way the UK deals with cooling – the cold economy.
The announcement by George Osborne is the firing of the starting pistol. There is much to do in ensuring the vision is delivered against; the race is on.