UKERC - Pioneering a Low Carbon Future

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An introduction to the Energy Programme, and how it is helping the transition to a low-carbon economy. This excerpt looks at the UK Energy Research Centre.

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Professor Jim Skea - Research Director, UKERC

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has a special place in the Research Councils' Energy Programme because we were set up about five years ago to take a whole systems approach to energy. Some people might look at one bit of the energy system or one technology like carbon capture and storage or nuclear. What we are asked to do is look at the energy system as a whole and how the different parts interact with each other so that we take a consistent view of the whole energy system.

We have divided the work into four different themes: one of themes is looking at energy demand and how you can manage energy demand, hopefully to reduce it. There is another theme looking at energy supply and infrastructure so that's things like nuclear renewable energy and the electricity in gas grids. We've got a theme on energy and the environment where we are looking at the environmental impacts and consequences of different parts of development for the energy sector and a final theme called energy systems which involves putting it all together mainly by using big computer models to simulate the way the energy system operates.

Because are asked to take a whole systems approach we are funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council and that means that the UKERC people are actually coming from a very wide range of disciplines. The Committee on Climate Change has made use of UKERC's modelling capabilities to inform their analysis and a number of the people involved in UKERC have actually carried out contracts for the government or the Committee on Climate Change to help them with their analysis.

The big theme in the environmental area for the UK Energy Research Centre is climate change and the drive to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and it is a major organising principal behind our work, but what's important for us is not to neglect the other environmental impacts of the energy system, for example, if there are a lot of bio crops coming into the system what are the environmental implications of that in terms of land use or water use. If you were to use biomass as a fuel for home heating there are some interesting issues around air quality. Also the marine environment is becoming increasingly important because of the amount of renewable energy that we may have off shore and also because carbon capture and storage may involve putting carbon dioxide back into old oil and gas wells in the North Sea so obviously there is a marine dimension to that as well.

The biggest challenge really is getting an energy system that is compatible with a world in which climate change doesn't run away with us. It's a challenge that will never go away, we've got decades of work to actually carry out here. It may go in and out of fashion as time goes on but we hope it will still be part of the professional life of the PhD students that we are bringing through now, when they are as grey haired as I am.