Comment: How to resolve the UK’s energy paradox

Ahead of this year’s All Energy event in Glasgow, Edinburgh Innovations’ Andrew Aveyard writes that the UK cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to the energy transition.

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There’s a feeling in the UK at the moment that we’ve cracked it – we are world-leading in offshore wind, we’re pretty close in onshore wind. Tidal, wave and nuclear are coming along nicely and more and more people are installing their own solar panels. We just need to carry on like this and boom, we’ll be running solely on renewables before we know it.


Alas, even if this were close to true - which it isn’t - it still wouldn’t be enough, because we’re caught in a paradox. We need, and are using, more and more energy, even while we know that to preserve the planet we need to use less and less. 

Individually, we need to power the devices we now rely on – phones and laptops, and now the electric cars we are being encouraged to switch to. And, on a societal level, we need yet more power, for the supercomputers to process the data that will help us get to net zero, for example.

To resolve the paradox, we need innovation. And this doesn’t just mean inventing new technology – it means inventing the right technology, with academia working in partnership with industry and the public sector. And it means supporting that technology from research to early investment, prototyping and testing, industry partnership and/or company formation and scaling up, right until delivery onto the market.

Energy doesn’t just come out of a plug or fuel pump, it is part of a whole system, from generation and transmission to distribution and usage, with storage underlying all elements, every part of which needs innovation.

At the University of Edinburgh, for example, researchers are working closely with offshore renewable energy companies from SSE Renewables to Orbital Marine, developing new tools to ensure that the sector delivers floating offshore wind generation projects and helps commercialise tidal and wave energy. Centres for Doctoral Training such as the IDCORE programme lead the way here.

For energy transmission, we have a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Severn Drives energy company, for example, to improve the efficiency of long distance energy cables. In a KTP, public funding body UK Research and Innovation pays two thirds and the company one third to employ someone to feed university knowledge into developing a product.

In terms of distribution, the Edinburgh Geobattery project is led by geothermal company TownRock Energy, with industry and academic partners from Scotland, the US and Ireland. It aims to recycle waste heat from University of Edinburgh supercomputing via flooded mineworkings under the city, and into homes using heat pump technology.

And Dr Katriona Edlmann’s work on underground hydrogen energy storage has led to a major Ofgem-funded trial with hydrogen storage company Gravitricity, amongst other projects, to explore ways to decarbonise the UK gas network.

Meanwhile, we need policy intervention to reduce demand in areas where intervention is possible, such as housing retrofit and insulation.

Reducing demand in some areas would free us up to increase it in others, such as sustainable autonomous manufacture, which would allow us to grow back our manufacturing base. Professor Jonathan Corney works with various companies on Internet cloud interfaces for manufacturing and advanced forming technologies such as hydroforming and rotary forging.

We need to harness data and AI to create digital tools that can improve grid efficiency for example, using technologies like digital twinning to link energy demand with supply, as Dr Desen Kirli is doing companies like Flexitricity.

These projects don’t get off the ground without investment, from both the public and private sector, which means both need to prioritise innovation. And we need that finance to be sustainable, so we need financial innovation, such as the work being done by Edinburgh Business School around carbon accounting.

Finally, we need to seriously upskill workers through short, tailored courses co-designed between industry and academia, that keep pace with innovations and ensure we can deliver them.

If we prioritise innovation, collaboration, and sustainability, through a combination of technological advancements, policy interventions, financial innovation and workforce development, the UK can transition towards a renewable energy future. If we think we’re already there, we’ll never make it.

Andrew Aveyard is Business Development Lead for Energy at Edinburgh Innovations, the University of Edinburgh’s commercialisation service. He will be at the All Energy conference 2024, University of Edinburgh stand F55