Written Evidence Submitted by the Energy Research Accelerator (ERA)
The Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) consists of the eight research-intensive Midlands Innovation universities, along with the British Geological Survey. The ERA programme involved a capital investment of £60 million from government in 2016 via Innovate UK, which ERA used to leverage an additional £120 million co-investment from industry and university partners.
The funding has created 23 new state-of-the-art energy research facilities across the Midlands, and has brought together a network of almost 1500 energy researchers. ERA is also supporting the development of skills through a doctoral training programme. The economic impact of ERA amounts to an impressive 9:1 return on the original £60m investment.
recovery from COVID-19 and how can it best be supported in this?
There is a huge potential for technology, research, and innovation to drive the post-Covid economic recovery, if the right levels of investment are provided to the public sector and that this is evenly distributed across the country.
The Midlands, for example, is one of the hardest hit regions in terms of the economic impact of Covid, but also has the greatest opportunity to see the fastest turnaround, according to independent analysis by KPMG for the Midlands Engine. It is also an area where the private sector has traditionally invested significantly greater levels of funding into research and development to drive business innovation, than the public sector.
This poses a challenge to the Government’s desire to ‘level-up’ the economy, as businesses in the Midlands are unlikely to be able to invest as heavily in research and development as they did in pre- Covid times, and means the Midlands requires special attention if it is to not only recover as quickly as it has the potential too, but also ‘level-up’ to other higher performing parts of the UK which have received greater levels of public investment in R&D. Research undertaken by The Centre for Cities reported in January 2021 that for areas such as the Midlands and the North it will be four times harder for the Government to level-up these areas due to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic in these areas compared to other parts of the UK
A report by NESTA “The Missing £4 billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK” shows that analysis of ONS figures, reveals that 52% of gross domestic expenditure on R&D goes to London, the South East, and East of England regions In comparison as an example, the West Midlands received only 9% during the same period (2018/2019).
The East and West Midlands are business-led innovation regions with business investment in R&D at or above the UK average but there are low levels of public investment. The report shows that if the Government levelled-up its investment in R&D in the regions to the level of funding it has given to London and the southeast, then the Midlands should receive an additional £1.4billion a year.
Moreover as in the East and West Midlands as there is more private sector R&D investment than there is public sector, the region has further missed out as the report highlights that generally the private sector tends to invest on average twice as much as public sector investment, so by their calculation public sector investment levels in R&D in our region should be £2.8billion more per year.
The report argues that if public sector investment in the Midlands is not increased, the danger is that the private sector will respond to the better availability of innovation resources and skills elsewhere by relocating their own investment. This also limits the region’s ability – and potentially that of the UK more generally – to attract new R&D investment from abroad.
R&D spending matters because it leads to innovation, which creates productive industries and well- paid jobs. Furthermore, there is good evidence that R&D investment correlates with economic growth, reduced regional inequalities and better health outcomes for local populations, and thus
drive the country’s post-Covid recovery through investing in research, development and innovation.
The report shows that similar regions in France and Germany (to that of the Midlands) receive two to three times the state investment that the East and West Midlands receives.
The authors argue the disparities in UK regional performance are correlated to the unbalanced R&D public sector investment, arguing that the highly unequal regional economic performance means the UK is one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the industrialised world.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on two of the Midlands great manufacturing companies (multinational PLCs), resulting in over 10,000 job losses and a reconfiguring of the businesses. The indirect impact to supply chains within the region is profound and is clearly a major challenge to the region’s economic strength. The Midlands exports from manufacturing form an important element of the net UK export programme but are heavily dominated by machinery and transport equipment. It remains unclear at what level the air and road travel sectors will recover and on what timescale.
This type of impact on whole sectors in which the Midlands is heavily invested necessitates a measure of restructuring and diversification. The Midlands employs the largest concentration of direct and indirect employment in the country’s traditional energy sector, and with the level of innovation needed to reach climate change targets, this could further threaten rates of unemployment in the medium term. The net zero transition could present the Midlands with an opportunity to create new industrial sectors which will see significant future economic growth, potential for reskilling and upskilling and sector wide leadership in delivery of low-carbon products and services.
As an example of the scale of market opportunity, the international Hydrogen Council suggests that by 2050 the establishment of a worldwide hydrogen economy would create a $2.5 trillion market for hydrogen and fuel cell equipment and provide sustainable employment for more than 30 million people. Heating remains the greatest energy challenge the UK faces. Currently housing and heating makes up 16Mt CO2eq1 of the Midlands GHG emissions, with more than half of the energy costs for households coming from heating and hot water2. An estimated 26 million houses nationally need to be retrofitted UK-wide in order to meet 2050 carbon targets. This will require an investment of hundreds of billions of pounds.
The potential to reconfigure the manufacturing and skills base of the Midlands is significant. Like many regions, the Midlands has an old housing stock which needs retrofitting to improve the energy efficiency. In addition, there are currently around 32,000 homes per year built in the Midlands.
Allied to this, there are a significant number of heat sector businesses located and operating in the region, including retrofit, heating, boiler manufacturing and energy companies. This includes a significant number of SMEs operating in the heating sector. There are a number of Midlands projects which are either completed or underway including the flagship programme of deep retrofitting of homes in Nottingham as part of the Energie Sprong, the installation of district heating in cities such as Birmingham and Coventry, retrofitting heating systems into homes, mine water heat recovery pilot and there has been significant ongoing work on the use of hydrogen for heating with Midlands based manufacturers Worcester Bosch and Baxi Boilers leading the way.
Such transitions require the coordination of technology development, innovation, and the support for SMEs to redevelop their business. To be effective there is a need for joined up, coherent support activities which reach from R&D support, funding and the right local political alignment and it also needs anchor institutions which will ensure coherence and continuity. There is also a need for long term commitments from partners and national government to ensure that institutions can be confident that investments will not be squandered.
The Energy Research Accelerator is an example of the kind of organisation which provides a level of coherence associated with low-carbon and energy innovation (a description of the regional impact of ERA is attached to this submission). 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, is also the UK’s largest green energy research partnership.
With the initial government funding five years ago, ERA has delivered beyond the original expectation and created 23 new research facilities - which have the capabilities to address the country’s green energy research needed to address the Government’s ambitious climate goals - and doubled the initial public sector investment it received of £60m by using it to lever in £120m of industrial funding and close to £450m of total value in terms of new investments in energy research and development.
ERA has a track record of working with businesses to deliver new to market products and solutions. Over 1,000 SMES have already benefitted from working with ERA’s partners and using ERA funded laboratories and equipment to develop new products and processes or to improve their energy efficiency, this has helped to create new jobs and develop new skills.
In its first phase ERA, through its partners has also developed, or co-developed:
New approaches to battery manufacturing which led to the establishment of the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre at Warwick, a world-leading battery research and innovation centre.
A Smart Manufacturing Accelerator at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, with the pioneering Industry 4.0 Factory in a Box approach which is now being applied cross sector to produce alternative products such as pharmaceuticals.
The demonstration of hydrogen for heat on the Keele campus which is now the template for
the UK’s hydrogen for heat programme.
Carbon neutral housing at the Trent Basin in Nottingham - a development of over 500 houses, and soon a new school will be built there too - where the energy generated through PV is stored in a community battery, and excess energy is sold to the National Grid.
A 1.5 GWh scale energy storage project in China delivering much needed heat to homes.
The concept of Energy Innovation Zones of which there are now 5 in the West Midlands including Tyseley Energy Park and the transformation of Rugeley coal power station.
Working with innovation partners such as the Catapults, industry, local government and LEPs has created a series of innovations which provide a platform for economic development and redevelopment of the towns and cities of the region. The key element is working in partnership, seeking to work in collaboration rather than in competition and a shared goal of supporting regional development and growth – through ERA’s Industrial Advisory Board which has 12 major businesses represented, ERA provides a platform for energy sector businesses large and small to coordinate and collaborate on activity, particularly in areas where academia and industry can share knowledge and work together. This helps to identify gaps in the market, and areas where businesses can work with universities on energy innovation projects.
ERA has identified a series of six interventions, known as ‘The Big Ideas’ which will be vital for the Midlands and UK more widely in developing the technologies needed for the net-zero transition, and delivering regional jobs and economic growth. Some of these Big Ideas include the creation of a National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat which builds on the regions leadership in this sector and tackles the hardest energy component to decarbonise; a regional hydrogen logistics programme recognising the Midlands’ key role in the movement of freight in the UK; and utilising its international leadership in energy storage to deliver much needed grid scale energy storage solutions as the UK transitions to high levels of renewable generation.
ERA’s Big Ideas have the support of over 40 major businesses and organisations, which have identified over £1 billion worth of aligned investments that could be unlocked through ERA’s Big Ideas. ERA estimates that government funding for its Big Ideas will bring in a GVA of £1.5 billion to the Midlands and create over 7,000 high quality jobs.
This coordination in such key areas provides the backdrop against which industry can successfully cluster and reconfigure, stimulating and supporting the creation of new skills and jobs and regional economic growth. The National Centre for Decarbonisation of Heat would be developed in the Midlands region which is home to companies such as Worcester Bosch and Baxi, located in Tyseley Energy Park, one of the region’s Energy Innovation Zones, and embedded in the communities of East
Birmingham, a community that has suffered from economic deprivation, high levels of unemployment, skills deficit, fuel poverty and which has been heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Such initiatives can have the impact of delivering against net zero targets, but also living communities out of skills and fuel poverty and reigniting local economies.
from previous economic downturns, and how relevant are these to the current situation?
There is the rather obvious comparison to be drawn between post-war Britain and the present challenges presented by climate change. Arguably the UK’s economy benefited strongly from the innovation driven by the need to accelerate technology development through the war years. The development of the UKs leadership in the transport sector, with flagship companies such as Rolls Royce with their leadership in aeroengines is an obvious example, the development of radar is another. The UK’s leadership in nuclear energy technology with the first development of a civil nuclear reactor is another example where focussed innovation led to obvious economic impact and global leadership.
The urgency of the need to address climate change is not an opportunity to be missed or under invested in. The intense focus that the need to deliver low carbon solutions creates, drawing together all parts of the innovation community, from big industry, SMEs academia and Catapults means that there is a great opportunity to accelerate innovation, product development and future successful businesses.
The UK has positioned itself well in this regard with the political commitments via the 2008 Climate Change Act, but also to net zero by 2050. There are examples of success such as offshore wind. It is also clear that there is the level of creativity, focus and commitment within parts of government such as BEIS, to deliver innovation which could make the UK leading. However, the level of investment and support for innovation has been truly modest compared with the need and demand.
There is every danger of having exactly the right conditions to be transformative both in terms of climate change and the UK economy, saying the right words, but then investing at a token level and the opportunity will be lost. Government needs to be more confident, more ambitious and must work with, empower and support industry, academia, and innovation organisations. Some thought needs to be given about properly resourcing organisations to deliver. At present there is a small industry of continuously writing funding applications which is a waste of resource, time and creates a focus that winning a funding application is success rather than delivering outputs.
There is no doubt that COVID has had an impact on university R&D. Lack of access to facilities has limited the research productivity, damaged early career researchers scientific productivity and creativity and also limited the ways in which universities can work with business to advance technology development. There is no doubt that compared to countries where the impact of COVID has been less, or better contained, that they will have stolen a march.
The need for government to focus economic support on the direct impacts of COVID has had a series of deep impacts on the funding which is potentially available to drive innovation. There are two clear examples of this, the first being the present £1b funding gap in the UKRI budget and the second the lack of a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). CSRs are opportunities for governments to support initiatives which can stimulate regional innovation and economic growth activity. The lack of a CSR and the forecasted limited CSR in the next cycle is a serious concern.
There are some positives though. The new way of working that has been induced by COVID and the enhanced use of video meeting platforms has meant the opportunity for talking, discussing, and developing new ideas has rapidly grown. As a result, there has been an acceleration and proliferation of innovative ideas which have been developed, a whole host of new collaborative partnerships and a new level of ambition to drive innovation. There needs to be recognition from government that there may be an opportunity to provide an injection of funding to take advantage of this potential before it dissolves back into business as usual.
Universities have welcomed the funding to support UKRI-funded PhD students whose studies have been impacted by Covid-19. It should be noted though that the funding provided has not been targeted at all PhD students in the system, many of whom are self-funded or funded from other sources.
PhD researchers are not only important because they are undertaking the green energy research the country needs to meets its net-zero targets, but we also work with our industry partners to ensure students are prepared with the skills required by industry.
ERA is also now a key partner in the £4 million Research England Development fund which is designed to develop the skills of post-doctoral researchers in the inter-related sectors of Infrastructure, Cities and Energy, with the drive to net-zero being the joint objective which binds all the disciplines together.
Whilst the establishment of the Taskforce in May 2020 was welcomed, little information has been shared about the taskforce, or the outcome of any discussions in terms of addressing how university research, which is largely subsidised by overseas students tuition fees which are uncapped, can be supported in the short, medium or long term, given the drastic downturn in the number of overseas students coming to UK universities since the start of the pandemic.
As overseas students cross subsidise the co-investment that universities are able to plough into academic research, if left unaddressed this would significantly hamper programmes such as ERA, which work in tandem with industry, and would also have a significant impact on the research and innovation needed by the Government to meet its net-zero target.
ERA, as the UK’s largest green energy research partnership, prior to the pandemic had begun to develop overseas green energy partnerships, net-zero is seen as an area where the UK could become a ‘science superpower’, it is also an area where UK industry could lead the manufacture of the innovative next generation of sustainable energy generation products.
ERA is coming to the end of its initial government (Innovate-UK) funding in April 2021. If the UK and regions are to maximise their potential there is a need to optimise the way that academic institutions, industry, councils and LEPs work together to drive innovation. The lack of organisations such as ERA will remove the regional coherence that has been generated, lose the opportunity to fast start new innovation and technology sectors, and we would fall back to a position of universities limiting their horizons to individual research projects rather than working at a system level to drive and support innovation. There is a need to properly recognise and resource innovation support organisations such as the Energy Research Accelerator that are supporting regions and places.
We would also like to make the following suggestions to enable ‘place’ to be truly embedded within R&D decision making:
Build on areas of regional R&D strength. For example, ERA - a Government investment built on the energy research expertise of Midlands universities, linked in with the local energy business ecosystems. ERA supports the government’s net-zero targets and demonstrates how delivering innovation at a regional level can also leverage significant industrial investment worth many times more than the original funding.
The R&D placed-based strategy from the Research and Development Roadmap needs to take into account the regional impacts of Covid - e.g. evidence shows that West Midlands is the hardest hit, and East Midlands third hardest hit.
Stakeholders need to be consulted regarding priorities for local R&D objectives.
Consider the weighting of place-based proposals.
Expand schemes such as ‘Strength in Places’ but please consider increasing the number of projects funded, and allowing multi-partners bids which will provide benefits of scale.
The Terms and Conditions of funding are often a barrier for small businesses. Many funds are not practical for SMEs to apply for due to the onerous terms and conditions.
We agree with many of the findings of the NESTA report (The Missing £4 billion: Making R&D work for the whole UK) recommendations and suggest its consideration alongside regional discussions on priority sectors, and to support R&D investment in those, particularly in capacity building.
Local areas tend to know best their R&D challenges and how to address them, and long term, locally devolved funding would be very effective in helping to achieve this.
Local councils and LEPs don't necessarily have the resources or the time, knowledge or experience to work out which R&D projects should be developed from their areas. Joint appointments of UKRI staff could be made to provide capacity, knowledge and skills to support the regions.
Programmes are often short-term and based on political cycles. If programmes and funding can be delivered over a longer timescale, it allows greater strategic planning and embedded initiatives.
Established in 2016 as the UK’s first cross-disciplinary energy research acceleration hub, the pioneering Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) brings together 1,400 researchers in eight internationally-recognised research universities from the Midlands region (Aston, Birmingham, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick) and the British Geological Survey. It was funded as a large-scale pilot to establish whether wide scale collaborative working could deliver significant regional impact. The five-year programme was created in discussion with BEIS and was financially supported by Innovate UK. The core objectives were to integrate research, develop advanced energy systems, reduce dependence on importing energy, enhance energy security and resilience, deliver regional economic benefit, develop future energy leaders and help to achieve the region and UK’s carbon reduction targets.
After only four years, already there has been significant success and economic impact, the latter amounting to a 9:1 return on the original £60m government investment. Benchmarking suggests the level of funding catalysed would result, over a longer term, in a net GVA of £3bn and 10,000 new jobs. Whilst not all of this activity has been led by ERA, ERA funding has been a key contributor in unlocking opportunities.
The Midlands is a region which has historically underperformed in terms of employment, skilled jobs and has been significantly impacted by Covid-19, and hence ERA aligns strongly to the levelling-up agenda. The region is home to around 10,000 companies working in the energy sector, including National Grid, E.ON UK, Engie, Rolls-Royce, Worcester-Bosch plus many promising emerging SMEs, of which ERA has supported over 1,000 within the region. The Midlands employs around one third of the people in the UK’s energy sector with over 56,000 regional jobs. Every year more than
£2.5 billion of capital investment is made in energy technologies and infrastructure (excluding buildings and transport) across the Midlands1.
The Midlands employs around one third of the people in the UK’s energy sector with over 56,000 regional jobs.
1 Low Carbon Environmental Goods and Services (LCEGS) Report for 2011/12, July, Department for Business Innovation and Skills
Investment in ERA initially took place in 2016, but in reality was the culmination of a number of stages of activity involving the partner organisations without which there not have been investment in ERA.
In the 2000s Birmingham, Loughborough and Nottingham were 3 of the 4 priority research partners actively working with E.ON UK’s own research and innovation teams, but the joint working also led to enhanced collaboration between these initial partners who went on to form the Midlands Energy Consortium (MEC). The Consortium then went to on to secure funding for the Energy Technologies Institute which was formed in 2007 and worked with a range of commercial organisations to accelerate the development, demonstration and commercial deployment of a focused portfolio of energy technologies. Key commercial partners included EDF Energy, Shell, E.ON UK, Caterpillar, and Rolls-Royce.
The MEC was able to build a much stronger set of relationships and understanding about energy research in the three universities and the three initial members grew to include the University of Warwick and the British Geological Survey. This joint working over a significant period has allowed trusted relationships to develop, understanding of complementary capabilities to evolve and joint strategic positioning between university management in the partner universities to be aligned. All of these stages of development have been important for both the establishment and running of ERA as a joint initiative by the partners.
Today ERA operates in coordination with its nine research and innovation partners. In recent years it has built stronger collaborative relations with the Midlands Engine and with the Midlands Energy Hub, who work on behalf of the LEPs across the region, supporting the roll out of low carbon energy solutions. It has expanded its network of businesses involved in its activities, building an ecosystem of energy related activity across the region and beyond.
ERA is having a core team of 5 people including a Director, Programme Director, Marketing and Communications Manager, Skills Manager, and an Executive assistant. These core posts and the operations are funded through contributions from the partner institutions. Consultants are used to boost capacity around key development areas.
The first phase of ERA was focused around three themes of energy research, supported by the world- class expertise at the founding universities and the British Geological Survey in terms of the research and economic opportunity:
ERA Phase 1 has led to the delivery of 23 facilities (see annex 1), including several large-scale demonstrators, such as the Trent Basin community energy project, the Tyseley Energy Park and the creation of the smart manufacturing approach ‘Factory in a Box’ (see annex 2). Key examples include:
The creation of the Trent Basin housing development, which will finally comprise 500 houses across a 250-acre brownfield regeneration site, has been strongly supported by the ERA investment both in terms of capital and expertise. This housing development is a living demonstrator of new energy technologies and will soon include a 450-pupil primary school. The installation of the community battery at Trent Basin has delivered new knowledge of how to run a community energy services company (ESCO) and has supported several businesses to develop and understand better their battery technologies. It has also allowed peer to peer trading of energy to be trialled.
The establishment of bioprocessing technologies and further development of the Tyseley Energy Park (TEP) – one of five Energy Innovation Zones in the West Midlands – has seen the installation of a low-carbon vehicle refuelling station and a plan to link waste heat generated on site to the City of Birmingham district heating system. The GBSLEP have funded the construction of an Innovation Hub at TEP (to open April 2021) and a business incubator is being developed. This transformation from a former industrial site to a new hub for circular economy and low carbon energy demonstrates what can be achieved at similar sites across the region and beyond.
The creation of battery innovation and manufacturing facilities at Warwick, supported by JLR, provided a basis for the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, £130m, and the foundations for a future Gigafactory investment which has been set as a priority by the West Midlands Combined Authority.
Investment into a new process, hydrothermal carbonisation, in collaboration with CPL at Immingham, has enabled high moisture biowaste streams to be converted into solid products that displace coal and therefore reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The work has also led to patents for the processing of coloured PET, which is notoriously difficult to recycle, to produce pure terephthalic acid that can be directly recycled for PET production, separation of coloured PET.
Research into thermal energy storage and investment in pilot-scale facilities has led to the development of large-scale activities in China, where opportunities exist for demonstration and commercialisation of ideas by UK companies, given the scale of infrastructure investment taking place. Developments include the installation of >1.2GWh of thermal energy storage for curtained wind power, new air conditioning systems for high-speed trains, and refrigeration systems for food transportation, all sponsored by industry. These facilities have furthered the development of Highview Power’s ‘liquid air energy storage’ technology, originally developed by an ERA academic, which are now in commercial deployment.
The creation of a borehole testing facility at Sutton Bonington, near Nottingham, which is vital for understanding the migration of carbon dioxide in geological sites as Carbon Capture and Storage programmes are developed across the UK.
The ERA funded Manufacturing Technology Centre’s (MTC’s) “Factory in a Box” programme, developed two demonstrators with SMEs to locally deploy modular manufacturing solutions for production of thermal energy products. This has led to a suite of projects to commercialise the solution across a range of sectors with industrial customers, as well as a follow-on project with a physical testbed and digital sandpit for FMCG and pharma.
The ERA Skills programme was an addition to the original programme and was funded by the partner universities. It was established in 2016 to maximise the research capability associated with ERA facilities and to develop future energy leaders, delivering an innovative cohort experience for doctoral researchers drawn from across ERA. 58 PhD students are part of ERA’s institutionally-funded Doctoral Training Partnership
Over 100 Midlands-based PhD students regularly engage with the ERA skills programme and a large number have benefitted from 15 tailored ERA events where students have been able to gain specific training unlikely to be available from individual institutes, widening knowledge and enhancing future collaboration opportunities both with other research institutes and with industry.
Over 250 delegates from 12 universities attended the ERA early career researcher conference in summer 2020.
The establishment of the Doctoral Training Centre on Sustainable Hydrogen between the Universities of Nottingham, Loughborough, and Birmingham brings together the world leading expertise in hydrogen generation, purification, sensors/monitoring, and storage, along with whole systems issues and utilises the ERA facilities.
The ERA skills team in collaboration have been awarded a significant £4m Research England grant with £3.4m in match funding to support skills development for post-doctoral researchers (C-DICE), an important skills gap in the development of early career researchers, with the focus being on energy and infrastructure with UKCRIC and ERA.
A Mission to China at the start of 2020, assisted by the FCO and the British Embassy in Beijing, helped to reinforce many existing links of the ERA partners as well as establishing new relationships. These links enable the partners to act quickly and together as new opportunities arise, and has already resulted in ERA entering partnering discussions with Tsinghua University, JITRI (Nanjing) and various businesses in Hangzhou, particularly around hydrogen energy systems, energy storage and renewables integration. These Chinese organisations are prepared to financially invest in funding collaborative research.
ERA has developed collaboration links with Germany’s leading innovation organisation, the Fraunhofer. Joint projects are being developed which are linked to bioprocessing for fuels and chemical products, and the production of sustainable aviation fuels.
An existing relationship with the E.ON Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, has been extended, particularly focusing on research into grid systems and next-generation fuels.
ERA has supported both the ‘Midlands Engine’ and the West Midlands Combined Authority as energy has become a top priority:
Most recently ERA has played a significant role in the development of the Midlands Engine’s Green Growth Action Plan, running stakeholder workshops, providing technical insights, access to a large number of ERA’s stakeholders as well as drafting documents.
ERA has helped shape the energy strategy of the West Midlands through the creation of Energy Capital and the formation of Energy Innovation Zones. ERA academics co-led a Policy Commission, chaired by Sir David King, which developed the concept of the ‘Energy Innovation Zone’. This formed the basis for the WMCA energy strategy.
The outputs from ERA’s Policy Commissions, for example the recent Policy Commission on ‘Energy from Waste and the Circular Economy’ (2020), are helping to shape UK thinking and unlock barriers to progress in various sectors. The concept of ‘Resource Recovery Clusters’ is seen as a key transition vehicle for utilising redundant coal-fired power stations in the region and was recently presented to the Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP (Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth). ERA academics have led, with the CBI, a Policy Commission on Decarbonisation of Heat (2020) and co-funded the ERPs report on Medium Term Energy Storage.
In addition, ERA has supported its partner institutions, working closely in their regions, fulfilling the ‘anchor institute’ role for universities. The development of the Peterborough Integrated Renewables Infrastructure (PIRI) project is a recent example which is the largest smart city- wide, low carbon energy system in the UK2.
More recently ERA has taken a regional coordination role to establish a network of interested industry, civic and academic members to develop a hydrogen vision for the Midlands.
The Trent Basin Community Energy Demonstrator directly informed the Energy Revolution Stream of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund as well as numerous policy documents, e.g. Financing the Transition: Harnessing UK cities’ Ambition for Clean Energy (UK100, 2017), The Future for Small-Scale Low-Carbon Generation (BEIS, 2018), Accelerating the Rate of Investment in Local Energy Projects (UK100, 2020).
ERA continues to work increasingly with both the Midlands Energy Hub and the Energy Systems Catapult, looking for ways of joint working and increased coordination to help deliver the best solutions for the region.
ERA is also supporting the UKRI Prospering from the Energy Revolution projects RESO, based in Coventry, and Decarbonising the Black Country and is also supporting Net Zero Rugeley.
ERDF projects worth around £50m have been delivered by ERA partners. These have provided business leaders access to world class expertise and the knowledge to drive innovation. This transformational support has been provided to over 1,000 regional SMEs. Typical engagement involves providing support to SMEs to identify ways to improve efficiency, to identify new market prospects and to test and demonstrate new ideas and therefore grow their business. The ATETA programme3 at Birmingham which was established in 2017 has generated a net income of £25 million for the local economy.
ERA is supporting the development of an incubation hub for SMEs linked to ERA research facilities.
New export and international partnership opportunities have been established for regional SMEs, which have been helped to engage and compete on an international level. In partnership with DIT and business networking groups, ERA has fostered opportunities for SMEs in Central and South America, Asia, USA, and Australia.
ERA facilities have also supported overseas investment in new technologies, new ventures, and commercialisation. Already there has been ~£1m of funding, from Chinese businesses alone, for research using ERA expertise and facilities.
EBRI at Aston University has supported 200 companies via its Master Class programme which utilises ERA funded equipment. It has helped business decision makers to assess opportunities and access analytical support to realise commercial success. The team has established regular communication with 8,000 contacts across the region.