Collaborating with academia to find innovative ways to accelerate towards net-zero – Mike Lewis, CEO, E.ON

It can be tempting to look for a silver bullet to answer the looming questions in the climate debate and find solutions to decarbonisation. But it’s in local economies and regional innovation – specific areas developing their own technologies ready for export around the UK and beyond – that we should look for success. We must celebrate our variety and focus on what specific areas can add to our combined arsenal in the fight against climate change.

Rather than avoiding this reality and trying to curb emissions with blanket policy, we should welcome the fact that local solutions support local jobs, which in turn act to drive the national economy. The UK is diverse and our regions offer different opportunities and present specific challenges to the decarbonising agenda. 

No solution is more vital than finding a way to decarbonise the way we heat our buildings. Inefficient and outdated heating systems contribute over a third of the UK’s total emissions and the steps to retrofit homes through policies such as the Green Homes Grant have failed to make a dent. Furthermore, ongoing disputes over a role for hydrogen in decarbonised heat risk delaying the steps which we need to be taking now. 

There are certain actions we can take now that will be robust to any scenario – in terms of heat decarbonisation these include increasing the energy efficiency of our homes, enshrining future building standards, and accelerating the rollout of heat pumps and smart meters. 

Of course there will still be questions that need to be addressed. More research is needed to define the role of hydrogen in the future heat networks and, in existing models, such as the Energy Research Accelerator project, industry and the Government can support this research and in turn gain vital insights into what the correct, individual solution will be for individual challenges. 

These discussions about the varying roles of certain technologies are nothing new. When E.ON first started developing large-scale renewables nearly 30 years ago, we asked the same questions about whether further research was needed before we rolled out at scale, or whether rolling out at scale could lower the associated costs. It’s a valid question and an easy trap to fall into – the answer is that we have to do both. 

A collaborative effort, where research organisations and universities, supported by government and the private sector, develop the technologies of the future, is key to achieving our net zero targets and must be reflected in the Government’s approach to funding the vital steps toward our net zero goals.

E.ON is a keen advocate for a National Centre for the Decarbonisation of Heat, one of ERA’s ‘Big Six’ ideas for their next phase of activity, which would support innovation and deployment of low carbon heating systems manufactured in the UK and equip people with the skills required to install these systems across the country. In the case of decarbonising heat we foresee a 60-20-20 split of heat pumps, district heating in urban hours and then, once viable and produced at scale, hydrogen. Delivery of low carbon heating should be organised at the local level through the framework of local energy, heat and energy efficiency plans – localised solutions to local problems, which serve the national climate agenda.  

The Midlands, where more than 70% of E.ON’s workforce is based, is the perfect example of a region which can deliver this holistic approach to energy innovation. The Energy Research Accelerator (ERA), has brought together the expertise of the eight Midlands Innovation universities, with the British Geological Survey to create a community of nearly 1,500 researchers with a mission to deliver regional impact in energy and interconnected systems. 

ERA has created 23 new research facilities, obtained £120m of industrial funding and close to £450m of total value in terms of new investments in energy research and development. The ERA project has expertise spanning some of the most exciting low-carbon technologies available globally – including medium-duration and large-scale energy storage, decarbonising heat (including research into heat pumps and hydrogen boilers), alternative fuels such as the role of green hydrogen in a future hydrogen economy, integration of the circular economy with zero-carbon and carbon capture acceleration, and low-carbon freight logistics alongside the Midlands Innovation Transport Group. This is an example of the system working at its best – a collaboration of the sharpest minds in energy innovation, working closely with industry to provide solutions to the big problems facing our economy and the climate. 

The diversity of our regions, the variety of housing models, and the range of resources and infrastructure that they host, offer vital tools that the UK must utilise if we are to get to our legally binding net zero targets. In this, the year of our COP Presidency, industry must play a role in urging the Government to further fund local projects which have proved the impact they can make on local and national targets as we transform our industries, economy, and workforce. 

-ENDS-

Mike Lewis joined E.ON UK as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in 2017, having worked in the energy industry for over 25 years. Having joined Powergen in 1993, mIKE originally worked in technical and environmental roles, before moving into corporate strategy and development, and following E.ON’s acquisition of Powergen in 2002, moved to E.ON’s headquarters in Düsseldorf as Vice President Corporate Development. In 2007, HE was appointed Managing Director for Europe on the Board of E.ON Climate and Renewables, before becoming Chief Operating Officer in 2012 where Mike was responsible for global wind power development, construction and operations. He became CEO of E.ON Climate and Renewables in 2015.

The Energy Research Accelerator brings together nine Midlands research intensive organisations and a research community of nearly 1,500 researchers, with a mission to deliver regional impact in energy and interconnected systems. With the initial government funding, ERA has delivered beyond the original expectation and created 23 new research facilities, obtained £120m of industrial funding and close to £450m of total value in terms of new investments in energy research and development.

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