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Integrating energy to save the planet


Integrating energy to save the planet

Our energy researchers are working with industry partners to help the UK cut its carbon emissions.

In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that we must cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050 or risk flooding, heatwaves, drought and poverty for millions around the globe.

The UK’s own Committee on Climate Change has since recommended that the country targets net-zero emissions by 2050 in line with the international effort.

This came as no surprise to researchers at Newcastle University. Here, at the Integrated Transport Electricity and Gas Research Laboratory (InTEGReL), academics and industry experts are already working together to help the world avoid climate disaster.

Professor Phil Taylor is Head of Newcastle University’s School of Engineering and Director of the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration (CESI), the body behind InTEGReL.

He and his team are working urgently to reform our energy systems.

A single wind farm turbine.

“One of the main drivers for climate change is CO2 emissions from the energy sector,” says Professor Taylor.

“We need to find ways of decarbonising our energy system but there’s something called the ‘trilemma’ – which is how do you come up with a sustainable, affordable and secure energy system? If you only had to do one or two of those it would be relatively easy; trying to do all three simultaneously is difficult.”

At the same time, Professor Taylor is urging a more rounded approach to energy research – a principle at the heart of the InTEGReL project.

“Over the past decade or so, we’ve been trying to decarbonise our energy system, but we’ve focused on electricity,” he says. “Electricity is only 20% of the UK’s energy consumption. We’ve decarbonised 30% of that 20% and the rest of it is still fossil fuel based.”

In autumn 2017, InTEGReL was unveiled, bringing industry and academic experts together at a live energy site in Gateshead.

Here, anthropologists, computer scientists, engineers, statisticians and economists from Newcastle University work closely with Northern Gas Networks, Northern Powergrid, Northumbrian Water and Siemens.

There’s something called the ‘trilemma’ – which is how do you come up with a sustainable, affordable and secure energy system? If you only had to do one or two of those it would be relatively easy; trying to do all three simultaneously is difficult.

Professor Phil Taylor, Head of Newcastle University’s School of Engineering

Living laboratory

Much past research has used simplified models of the whole UK energy system, which didn’t account for real-world factors such as the way consumers use energy and the nuances of supply and demand.

InTEGReL takes a different approach, allowing observation and experimentation within a ‘living laboratory’.

“It’s got a real gas system running through it that supplies gas for hundreds of thousands of people, an electricity grid running through it, a control room and a data centre,” Professor Taylor explains. “The beauty of that is that it’s full-scale, it’s real and it’s an integrated approach.”

Newcastle University and industry experts can look for ways to integrate the traditionally segregated areas of energy – gas, electricity, transport, water – in practice, not just in theory.

Whole energy system

“You’ve got to look at the whole energy system in an interconnected way, so you understand the interdependences,” says Professor Taylor. “We’re open to SMEs coming and developing novel products or large companies testing new systems here.”

One potential area of progress involves integrating renewable electricity with the gas grid and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

“In some parts of the network, we already have peak times when we have too much wind power and we end up paying money to turn wind farms off,” Professor Taylor explains. “Instead, we could use the electricity to drive electrolysers and produce hydrogen."

"We can then blend hydrogen into the gas grid and use it in hydrogen-powered vehicles or combust it to heat homes. So, you’ve saved money in the electricity network and you’ve partially decarbonised the gas grid.”

Professor Phil Taylor

Connection with industry

The connection with industry at InTEGReL is also vital for the future of energy research and its application out in the world.

“The energy community is too small for the size of these challenges, so we need to grow it,” says Professor Taylor.

“We’ll be bringing students to InTEGReL to train them. They’ll get the right skills because they’ll understand all of the energy vectors, not just electricity.

“We’ve got a focus on trying to bring new disciplines and new people to work in this energy space. If you’re an AI expert or a data scientist, often you go and work in the banking sector or in food security or health.

"We need to grow the energy community and make sure we’re nurturing the next generation of energy leaders.”