Climate change is one of the world’s hottest topics, with companies around the globe devoting precious time and resources to make their businesses more sustainable. And at the centre of climate change, is our use and waste of energy – which is why a national centre devoted entirely to improving the sustainability of the gas, power, transport, heating and cooling sectors is so important. Tellingly, that centre is based right here in the North East.
Newcastle University’s National Centre for Energy Systems Integration [CESI] attracts experts from around the world to tackle the global climate change crisis head-on by making the ways we use energy cleaner, more affordable and more sustainable. In response to Newcastle Council declaring an official Climate Emergency last year – and, in doing so, pledging to make the city carbon-neutral by 2030 – CESI also agreed to join the council’s climate change assembly and began to directly influence local government strategies. But it won’t only be here in the North East where CESI’s influence is felt – the National Centre looks likely to help our region lead the pack in terms of the UK’s efforts to tackle climate change.
‘We’re in a good position to be at the forefront of that fight, but we probably need to be moving a bit quicker than we currently are,’ reasons Dr Sara Walker, Reader in Energy at Newcastle University and one of the CESI’s Associate Directors. ‘But what’s becoming apparent through the research we’re doing at CESI, is that we need a greater focus on place-based approaches to cleaner energy solutions. So what works in a rural environment, for example, won’t necessarily work in an urban environment; what might work in an owner-occupied house might be quite different to what you’re able to do in a rental property, and what we need to do to improve energy efficiency within our buildings is very different in commercial and industrial buildings compared to our homes.
‘What makes the North East interesting is that we’ve got lots of different types of industries, economies, forms of transport, properties, locations – we’ve even got the coastline, so we’ve got the potential to try offshore renewable technologies that other parts of the UK can’t. It makes us a really good test bed to try things out on behalf of the rest of the country. When we look at our emissions of greenhouse gases, the majority of those emissions are to do with how we are using energy – in the ways we travel, the buildings we live and work in, and the products we’re consuming. So improving our energy efficiency is huge in terms of fighting against climate change.’
Building upon a pre-existing reputation for excellence in energy-related research and innovation, CESI provides a space for researchers at Heriot-Watt, Sussex, Edinburgh and Durham universities to meet with industry professionals across the gas, power, renewables, transport, heating and cooling sectors and put a collective shoulder to the wheel in order to meet tough new low-carbon targets.
‘When you look at what energy is getting used for in the UK, it roughly splits into thirds between transport, the domestic sector, and industrial use, with transport being ever so slightly the larger of the three,’ explains Sara. ‘What we’re doing reasonably well at the moment is moving towards using more renewable energy, but that’s just for electricity really. In the transport sector, a lot of the energy we use is in the form of petrol and diesel. What we need to do is improve our public transport offering and gradually move towards vehicles that are low- or zero-carbon in terms of the fuel they use. That could be through electric vehicles or vehicles running on fuel cells, which use hydrogen. Only about 0.5 percent of vehicles are electric in the UK at the moment. But here in the North East the number of electric vehicle charge points per head is actually slightly higher than almost anywhere else in the country, because we’ve had some research projects recently, and having Nissan here helps.
‘As CESI, we’re working to identify what companies are currently doing across the entire energy network, so that we can understand how we can learn from each other, while working towards an overall transition to clean and affordable energy for our community. So we’re now having lots of joined-up conversations, instead of us each working on separate projects. CESI enables us to see the bigger picture by bringing all of those individual voices into one place, here in the North East.’