Net Zero. Net Zero is phrase that we hear increasingly in our day to day lives. For a long time, we thought that Net Zero was offsetting our international flights by buying carbon credits, outsourcing the planting of forests to airlines, letting us enjoy our foreign trips guilt free. Today we hear of activist investors demanding actions from companies, small and large, to reduce the climate impact of manufactured goods and to ensure that business models are resilient to the impacts of climate change. In Scotland, we even have our first Cabinet Secretary for “Net Zero”. But is Net Zero realistic and how are we at PNDC, through the University of Strathclyde and with our partners in industry and government, working to help deliver it?
Since my early days as a graduate with the local utility, the energy sector has made great strides in decarbonising the electricity we consume. This has been delivered primarily by switching from the large, centralised fossil fuel power stations to smaller, more distributed, renewable energy facilities onshore and offshore. The next steps in our journey to Net Zero is enabling the decarbonisation of heat and transport, principally by electrifying these activities and supporting the utilities in delivering this additional, highly variable, load on existing networks. Where the processes aren’t suitable for electrification, then substitution to lower impact fuels, such as hydrogen, may be possible. The interaction and study of these “multi-vector” systems is known as “whole energy systems”.
Our facility, located to the north of Glasgow, offers a unique combination of capabilities; it is the most comprehensive destination to innovate, test and accelerate technology supporting multi-vector energy systems. As a collaboration between academia, governments and industry, our innovation centre has a global reputation for excellence; our highly skilled post-doctorate team has on-site access to state-of-the-art assets which simulate real-world environments and the “once in a lifetime” events you hope to never experience.
Our electrification/decarbonisation programmes focus on: Decarbonising Transport (air, sea & land); Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems (ARIES) and the Future Proofing of Power Networks (PNDC).
We’re particularly interested in the interdependence of the electricity, gas, heat and transport systems and we’re working with the Energy Systems Catapult to establish a “Living Lab” of consumers where we can observe how consumer behaviour interacts with innovative technology, networks, policy, regulation and commercial models. The smart home hub has already become a feature in many of our homes, it isn’t a far stretch of the imagination to think that it will soon be able to determine when our EV is being charged, when the curtains should open to manage the internal environment and when is the least environmental impactful time for a shower (as long as you don’t mind getting up at 3am!). We’re excited to be partnering with the East Ayrshire Council and the UK Government to deliver the CoRE project that will invest £24.5M to make Cumnock an exemplar low carbon town.
Our team, who have already partnered on a variety of projects focused on the decarbonisation of vehicles through battery electrification and charging technology, are looking forward to getting started on the Agile Streets project which recently received £1.5M funding from the UK Government (BEIS); the project, led by Samsung Research UK, includes industry partners Connected Kerb, Octopus Energy, SMS Plc, the Energy Savings Trust (EST) and ourselves will look to develop a purpose-built optimisation platform to control EV on-street charging.
We are also currently building a programme of activities to demonstrate the use of hydrogen for transport and heat, supported by a £3M grant from Transport Scotland. This supplements the £4.8M funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the Driving the Electric Revolution programme where we will focus our efforts on reducing the carbon intensity of high powered, high integrity propulsion systems such as those used on off-road vehicles, and marine and aviation systems. Where we will focus on de-risking the components and systems of these advanced propulsion systems, the LOCATE facility based at the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc (MSIP) site in Dundee, where we are a partner, will use the £4M funding from Transport Scotland, to test the final power drive platforms.
We are also working with our colleagues elsewhere in the university to support the offshore energy and high value manufacturing sectors to transition to low carbon economies. The Orion project in the Shetlands is a great example of how a local community is embracing the potential of green hydrogen to be one of the key energy sources of the future.
Decarbonising heat, decarbonising transport, having technology in our homes that helps minimises our costs and environmental footprint all sounds very exciting and will help us realise our Net Zero aspirations. However, we shouldn’t forget the additional burden this will place on our existing power networks. This is why our key utility partners – ScottishPower, SSE and UKPN – are working with us on a variety of topics ranging from supporting the digitalisation of the system – and what to do with all this additional data when they get it, to ensuring these critical pieces of infrastructure are resilient to cyber-crime, to thinking about how to transport increased volume of power on existing cables.
While we get very excited about the technology, we should remember that according to the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change, the deployment of new technology alone will deliver only 38% of the reduction required for the UK to reach its Net Zero aspirations. The remainder requires the combination of technology and societal and/or behavioural change. Until recently, many experts were doubtful that society can quickly adapt and modify behaviours however the spread of COVID-19 around the globe and the response by the various governments and populations has changed this perception. Therein lies the challenge to us: How to inspire and enable populations to willingly participate in the net zero journey in a manner that supports a fair transition.
In this year, when COP26 will be in our neighbourhood, we want to reach out and connect with other motivated organisations that want to make practical steps in growing the economy, developing communities, and together taking a step towards realising Net Zero.
Executive Director, PNDC.