A proposal by the Energy Research Accelerator to put the Midlands at the forefront of energy innovation

112 Girl in yellow hat small

The Energy Research Accelerator is proposing six ambitious 'Big Ideas' which will put the Midlands at the heart of energy innovation in the UK and internationally. 

Investing for a greener future

The Energy Research Accelerator (ERA), is a regional experiment in innovation. It brings together nine Midlands research intensive organisations, a research community of nearly 1500 researchers, with a mission to deliver regional impact in energy and interconnected systems. With an initial funding of £60 million, managed through Innovate UK, within a short space of time ERA has delivered beyond the original expectation. ERA has created 23 new research facilities, obtained £120 million of industrial funding and close to £450 million of total value in terms of new investments in energy research and development. 

Working with a community of academics, industry, policy makers, the Manufacturing Technology Centre and the Energy Systems and Connected Places Catapults, ERA has identified many of the major national and regional energy challenges. By building on the facilities we have created and our collective expertise, we believe that we can provide significant future economic growth and stimulate the creation of new, high-skilled jobs. This process, called “Big Ideas” has distilled out six major themes and a further six cross-cutting activities. Our benchmarking indicates that our Big Ideas programme would deliver £1.5 billion to the regional economy and at least 6,800 high quality jobs.

Our six Big Ideas

The six Big Ideas that we would like to pursue in ERA phase 2, are listed below, and full details can be found in our proposal document.

1. Energy Storage

Medium-duration energy storage is going to be needed as part of decarbonised electricity systems and that large-scale demonstration projects are required. Short-term requirements may well be managed through the use of lithium-ion battery energy storage systems, but there is an increasing need for large-scale, medium-duration energy storage solutions. ERA is proposing and has significant capabilities in two of the most promising areas:

  • Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) – this could easily deliver the required scale of storage, but it needs to be technologically enhanced and demonstrated in order to build confidence in policy makers, funding bodies and the energy industry itself.
  • Liquid Air Energy Storage (LAES) technology – we propose be to develop a pilot-scale demonstrator for this technology which would be based at one of the ERA demonstration sites across the Midlands.

To support our energy storage ideas, we also suggest further development of the Energy System’s Catapult’s Storage and Flexibility Model, to understand the role that storage could play in the Midlands.

2. Decarbonising Heat

The decarbonisation of heat is the major energy challenge that will impact nearly every UK citizen. For the Midlands, this presents a major opportunity to enable economic recovery with the majority of UK boiler manufacturers being based in the region. We are proposing the development of a National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat (NCDH), which will enable the rapid scaling-up of manufacturing, skills and deployment of heat solutions - all necessary to meet carbon reduction targets. The NCDH will focus on:

  • Manufacturing acceleration
  • Low-carbon fuel development for heat and industry
  • Skills academy
  • Business incubator
  • Building integration and a community-based living lab
  • Standards and verification
  • Green finance

3. System Simulation, Data, Digital and Informatics

Dramatic changes to our energy infrastructure is hard to manage and hard to plan and digitisation and data are of increasing importance. We are proposing 3 ideas:

  • A national-scale, real-time Whole Electricity System Simulator (WESS) to understand the fundamental risks within our UK power system and thereby improve our security of supply as we move towards a low-carbon electricity network.
  • A Digital Energy Systems, Data and Informatics programme which works regionally to nationally to establish the framework and tools for the management, curation and interpretation of energy data.
  • Digital Twins of the two Midlands cities of Birmingham and Nottingham to understand the energy, transport and resource flows.

4. Integrating Resource Recovery with Energy Production

The low-carbon management of resources produced in energy systems and beyond is essential. We are looking increase the circularity of waste, to increase the carbon efficiency of incineration and utilise carbon dioxide emitted in the process to form new by-products. We are also suggesting new uses for former industrial sites in the Midlands which have inefficiently burnt waste or have produced carbon-intensive energy for many years.
Our aim is to develop and demonstrate three new processes to recover key resources, produce energy and utilise CO2. These are:

  • Production and utilisation of biochar in locking-up carbon
  • Circularity in energy and electrified transport through the recovery and recycling of cricitcal metals
  • Recovery and recycling of plastics

Download our full proposal

Download our summary proposal

Download our press release

Watch our webinar video - our Big Ideas to government

5. Alternative Fuels

Development and characterisation of replacements for fossil fuels is essential in decarbonisation of transport sectors such as aviation and hard to reach off-grid homes for heat. We also recognise the need to produce hydrogen for heat and transport. We are proposing two innovations in this Big Idea:

  • The creation of a National Centre for Fuel Standards which will focus on the development of sustainable fuels for transport, particularly the aviation and marine sectors, as well as kerosene, methane, and propane substitutes for heating.
  • The production of hydrogen via nuclear energy by coupling a small-scale modular reactor to a hydrogen production plant.

6. Low Carbon Inter and Intra-Urban Transportation

Our aim in this theme is to develop low-carbon methods of transportation both for the regional freight and logistics sector and individual urban travel. Decarbonisation of regional transport can only be part delivered by electric cars. Freight and logistics will likely need other, hydrogen based, solutions. The two themes under this idea include:

  • Micromobility and electric vehicle solutions for Midlands cities. This will create demonstrator vehicles and programmes as an open platform for innovation. It will run real user trials, launch start-ups, assist existing businesses and create the ecosystem for new products to be launched into this growth market.
  • Regional hydrogen freight and public transport system. We will create a regional ecosystem for the development of a hydrogen transport system, working with the Humber ports, East Midlands Airport and Midlands Connect to develop projects which will establish hydrogen-based freight logistics to and from key Midlands locations.
Cross-cutting themes supporting the Big Ideas

Our cross-cutting themes support all of our Big Ideas. providing and accelerating support for small businesses, developing new skills, stimulating behavioural change, helping to support national and regional policy and also developing 'living-labs' where innovative energy projects can be demonstrated at a commercially viable scale. Our themes include:

Policy and Economics
Providing policy and economic support to policymakers at a local and regional scale.

Accelerating Business Growth
Supporting SMEs in the low-carbon energy sector and delivering export sales and sector growth.

Living Laboratories
Utilising the living lab concept to build and develop new large scale demonstrators, providing best practice and showcasing different low-carbon solutions.

Energy System Behavioural Change 
To understand behaviours and practices affecting uptake and success of low-carbon technologies to optimise the low-carbon transition.

Skills
To deliver a sustainable pipeline of future energy leaders and knowledge transfer experts who can support the UK's transition to net-zero.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity
To ensure an inclusive working environment and provide opportunities for underrepresented groups in the energy sector.

Big Ideas for a Net-Zero ambition

The following illustration shows how ERA's Big Ideas will significantly help the UK's path to net-zero, while also achieving the objectives of levelling-up, post COVID-19 growth, science & technology leadership, and an improving in air quality.

BIG-IDEAS-DIAGRAM ERA CSR report 2020 v13

National Centre Decarbonisation of Heat

The establishment of the National Centre for the Decarbonisation of Heat is one of the Big Ideas. 

BIG IDEAS FOR A NET-ZERO FUTURE