Re-energising the North: collaborative research for a green recovery - a review

A programme of events led by Energy Leeds

October 2020 – January 2021

Energy Leeds has recently completed a programme of activities which are generating new interdisciplinary research collaborations to address the biggest energy challenges we face today. In designing the events the focus was informed by our present moment to respond to the imperatives of climate change and COVID-19, and explore both the role of energy in a green recovery and the ways energy research and policy might be shaped by current events. The events fostered new connections between people in industry, policy and academia, with clearly defined goals: to develop interdisciplinary research projects drawing on expertise from across disciplines and backgrounds, from social sciences to engineering, government policy to commerce. This required in-depth conversations with time for reflection built in. From the beginning, a community of participants shaped the agenda as a collective. Drawing on local knowledge and partners from Yorkshire and the North of England, the objective has been to produce new energy research proposals with a regional focus but a global ambition. 

The programme of activities was initiated in October with a broad call for responses to the question: “What do you consider to be the main obstacles that get in the way of us decarbonising the energy system?” Participants contributed their perspectives via a short online form, and the responses covered areas from policy to behaviour to mechanics and engineering, including highly specified concerns around building infrastructure to vast political questions around governmental will and fundamental societal structures. Within the fascinating diversity of answers that we received there were clearly themes and points of connection, which participants then drew together in an online task that invited the ‘sorting’ of the ideas into clusters. 

What this produced was a rich illustration of key hurdles in sustainable energy research, policy and industry, which provided the focus for two online ‘Town Hall’ workshops in late November and early December. After a dynamic provocation from Henri Murison (Northern Powerhouse Partnership), participants divided into small breakout groups to review the challenges identified in the initial survey before identifying the most pressing problem statements. Active discussions between engaged participants produced a portfolio of shared challenges, distilled into five key areas: 

  • How might we deliver local, low carbon energy infrastructure in a socially equitable way?
  • How might we facilitate the rapid take-up of hydrogen in domestic applications?
  • How might we deploy smart local energy systems to ensure national energy objectives are met?
  • How might we develop and deploy the next generation of hydrogen and CCUS technologies for industrial applications?
  • How might we learn from post-COVID behaviour changes to accelerate transport decarbonisation?

 

After the Christmas break, the first of two ‘Micro Lab’ workshops focused on developing solutions to the five challenges. Like the Town Halls, this session prioritised active discussion over passive listening and was characterised by high-energy sharing of perspectives and the teasing out of problems and challenges. Ten crucial research questions were produced. 

The intention of the programme of events was always to foster collaborations with a clear goal of producing high-quality research proposals, first for pre-identified pump-priming funding pots, and subsequently for larger-scale research funding. The second Micro Lab one week later focused on solidifying the cumulative work into several proposals actionable by the interdisciplinary teams that had coalesced around each one. The strength of discussions was made possible by the narrative of thinking nurtured by our community from the early stages and has produced new collaborative research that could have a real impact on decarbonising the energy system and delivering on a green recovery. Expect to hear more details about these new projects soon. Thank you to all of our participants and to KnowInnovation for expert facilitation – and watch this space!