The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has outlined its research aims for the next five years, exploring the challenges and opportunities presented by the net zero transition.
UKERC’s programme will do this through four national capabilities and seven research themes, the first of which will analyse UK energy in a global context. It noted that the Paris Agreement, shale revolution in North America and fall in the cost of renewable power have changed the geopolitical context of the UK’s low-carbon energy transition. Under this theme, UKERC’s research will explore the global geopolitical consequences of the transformation of the energy system while also delving into the political implications of Brexit and beyond for the UK’s net-zero energy and climate strategy along with its changing place in the world.
With the UK having historically placed an emphasis on centralisation, UKERC noted that locally integrated, multi-vector systems, diverse business structures with local ownership and participatory democratic control are all expected to increase. Under the theme of local and regional energy systems, it will explore the socio-technical parameters and potentials from this challenge and aim to turn them into substantial developments that can aid local and whole system goals.
With the trend towards energy system decarbonisation and decentralisation leading to a growing awareness of the potential interactions with environment and land use, UKERC’s research will also seek to understand the environmental implications of changes in the UK energy system. Elsewhere, UKERC will examine heat decarbonisation pathways, characterise key uncertainties and explore both the challenges and opportunities, noting that as half of UK energy consumption is heat related, achieving net zero by 2050 means that “rapid action” is needed in this area.
Energy infrastructure transitions is another area of interest for UKERC’s research programme. It explained that the transition – whether to low carbon or net zero – will require existing energy infrastructures to transform and new ones to be developed. This will take major investment and take considerable amounts of time. However, UKERC noted that the transition pathway remains uncertain and institutional arrangements are still under debate. Therefore, in this area, it will seek to focus on these challenges associated with energy infrastructure transitions such as commercial structure, regulations, policies and public attitudes.
With transport responsible for 40% of UK final energy consumption – 98% of it fuelled by oil – UKERC will tackle energy for mobility. Under this theme, projects will target areas where transport decarbonisation efforts have been driving substantial technological and governance challenges for the energy system – particularly at a local level. There will be six core projects here, investigating things such as the readiness of the grid for EVs and the planning and governance of grid connectedness of new housing.
The final research theme is industrial decarbonisation, looking into future strategies for industry decarbonisation. This will include exploring how the availability of future infrastructure, such as hydrogen networks, could impact the cost of emission reduction pathways for key industrial sectors.
The four national capabilities under the research programme – evidence for decision making; the energy data centre; The Observatory for Societal Engagement with Energy; and the energy modelling hub – all aim to benefit the wider scientific community and society, undertaking key actions such as systematic evidence reviews, mapping and monitoring public engagement with energy systems and improving the transparency and understanding of energy models.
UKERC also revealed that it will be inviting applications for up to 10 members from the UK research community to join its new Research Committee. Around £3.5mn of its budget is to be allocated to research through a flexible Research Fund in its fourth phase, with the committee responsible for allocating this fund.
Aims of the fund include providing flexibility for the new research programme should new scientific insights or policy developments arise, and bringing a wider range of researchers and disciplines into the research programme itself. This would include researchers from outside of the “traditional” energy community, UKERC noted.