Happy 20th birthday to UKERC - and a call to action to the energy research community

News 1 May, 2024

UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) celebrated its 20 years last week, with a reception at the House of Lords and a one-day event at the Royal Academy of Engineering. It is impossible to cover both events fully in one blog post, but big congratulations go from the Energy Demand Research Centre (EDRC) to one of our ‘big sisters’: UKERC has pioneered interdisciplinary energy research in the UK, bringing forth new ideas, policy impact and a place for a community of researchers.

At the House of Lords reception, three key messages emerged for our research community. First, energy researchers have to better communicate our topic, forgetting terms like kilowatt hours, as not many people are interested or fully understand those expressions. From EDRC’s point of view, our message is clear: we need to use less energy to reduce emissions to deal with climate change. Second, any changes required from people need to be easy. This is easier said than done: local place-based action is often mentioned as key to delivering change, and is a key theme within EDRC. Local energy action often has to deal with issues of conflict and trust. To address this, local benefits need to be clearly communicated to people and must go beyond monetary benefits.  For example, including messages on cleaner air and better wellbeing can help. Third, everyone concerned about climate change must speak to their MP, as ultimately, they make many of the decisions and, alarmingly, there are still some climate deniers in parliament.

On the day of the conference, we heard from many previous UKERC Directors, Co-Directors and researchers. UKERC’s first Research Director, Jim Skea who is now at the helm of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sent an opening video message which highlighted the progress made by UKERC. Joan McNaughton, a former Director General of Energy and leading figure in UK energy policy, chaired the opening session and later highlighted the power of fossil fuel incumbents and the important  role of energy demand  in reducing emissions. Below is a snapshot of reflection from other speakers in relation to energy demand action, which many called for. Peter Taylor, leading UKERC’s and EDRC’s work on industrial decarbonisation, highlighted that reduced demand helps to decrease the overall size of the energy system and lowers the need for critical materials. Jim Watson, UKERC’s previous Research Director, agreed that there is need for demand-side action, although it is sadly not always on policy makers’ agenda. Jim highlighted that ten years ago, for example, UK policies were more supportive, and internationally there are good examples in countries like France and Germany of effectively reducing energy demand. Another previous UKERC co-director, Paul Ekins,asked whether we should consider a  ban on fossil fuel sales, similarly to what the UK is considering for future sales of cigarettes, given that ultimately fossil fuels affect the health of far more people than cigarettes do.

Unfortunately, UKERC’s current Director Rob Gross could not attend the conference, but we heard from several researchers and projects. Meysam Qadrdan, EDRC’s Flexibility team Co-investigator from the University of Cardiff presented on heat decarbonisation in Wales, showing that 84% of domestic buildings in specific Welsh cities can reach an Energy Performance Certificate of band C. Imogen Rattle, EDRC Place team Research Fellow from University of Leeds highlighted, rather worryingly, that no one in the UK has a clear responsibility for decarbonisation of industry. Neil Strachan from UCL reflected on UKERC’s leading work on energy modelling, highlighting that while energy models are not always right, they are important thought experiments which can bring inferred insights. Neil also said that it is important for different disciplines to work together in modelling. This is also something that EDRC’s Futures theme aims to do, by bringing together energy demand modelling with insights from a Citizens Panel. We cannot talk about UKERC without mentioning energy data, and for all energy geeks out there, UKERC has been paving the way for creating an energy data repository. As Catherine Jones from the Science & Technology Facilities Council highlighted, this is a beneficial resource for everyone in the field. Nicola Beaumont from the Plymouth Marine Laboratory showed how important it is for energy research to consider the environment, as a large amount of land will be needed for energy transition. Jason Chilvers talked about the work done on public participation, an area which EDRC has embraced through the various stakeholder panels which we are setting up.

EDRC co-director Sara Walker in a group panel discussion while attending UKERC celebration

In the final closing panel session, EDRC’s Co-Director and UKERC Advisory Board member Sara Walker asked one of the most intriguing questions of the day: now that UKERC is 20 years old, is it one of the incumbents or will it still be a disruptor? The other panellists included Joanne Wade from ADE, Dhara Vyas from Energy UK, Damitha Adikaari from DESNZ, and Keith Bell from the University of Strathclyde, with key messages including:

  • energy decarbonisation needs fairness at its heart
  • decarbonisation needs to consider local delivery models
  • there are skills gaps to fill
  • flexibility needs to be sorted out at a mass scale across the system
  • geopolitics are increasingly important – although no one mentioned the word “war” as such, the reality is that global (energy) security is at a very different place compared to 20 years ago

Centres like ours benefit hugely from the work that UKERC has undertaken over the years, and there are many ongoing cross-collaborations. Over the past 20 years, UKERC has put energy research in the spotlight and firmly in the minds of academics, policy makers and industry. UKERC was set up following the 2003 Energy White Paper, and for those of us who have been in the field for long enough to remember that White Paper, it was a seminal document that really led to key measures like the 2008 Climate Change Act. The fact that a former UKERC director now chairs the IPCC is evidence of the kind of impact UKERC has had. Through measures like flexible funds, UKERC has also allowed several early career researchers to flourish, building long-term legacy for UK energy research.

Before finishing off, I would like to ask colleagues in the energy research community to join the call to action from the evening reception and contact your MP. While some MPs may need more convincing than others, we have also been asked to thank those dedicated to climate action who are doing a good job. It is ever more urgent to convince decision makers that energy and climate action are fundamental for the future of humanity. If that argument is not enough for some, or they say that climate action is too costly for example, reflection from Paul Ekins becomes useful: debates on cost can be damaging as they do not recognise the growth that the clean energy sector has already amassed in other countries. Unless we take action, we will not reap the economic and social benefits that countries like the US and China are already seeing from decarbonisation. And with that, on behalf of the whole EDRC team, I would like to wish a very happy 20th birthday to UKERC and look forward to collaborating closely in the future.