UKERC at 20

09 May 2024

It’s now two weeks since we celebrated our UKERC at 20 event. On reflection it is clear that we did indeed have a lot to celebrate. The day began with an inspiring session about what had happened in the past, including how UKERC came about and it’s development over time. It was a valuable moment for us to stop and take stock of how far we’ve come.

Looking Back: Energy policy and UKERC through the years

In the early 2000’s the energy transition faced huge challenges, with disconnected energy communities and climate change still a controversial topic. Through a mix of ambition, target setting, and the drive of a host of individuals, substantial progress was made. Progress that at the time people considered impossible, in fact, as Joan MacNaughton shared, there were times when they were openly laughed at. Our four speakers Joan, Jim Watson, Peter Taylor and Paul Ekins were at the heart of this process, albeit playing very different roles. I think now when we look at where we are, it can feel daunting about how we can move forward. The opening session of the event gave hope that given the scale of the challenges previously overcome, we can certainly tackle the challenges of the future.

Jim specifically provided guidelines on how we could succeed in the future, noting the importance of interdisciplinary working, collaboration, and looking to the global stage. He also brought in Lego figures, and I think we can all take a lesson from that, that when we feel challenged, humour is so important to take us forward.

Opening session_Jim Watson, Joan macNaughton, Peter Taylor and Paul Ekins

Watch here: Opening session, Jim Watson, Joan MacNaughton, Peter Taylor and Paul Ekins

The Changing Research Context

The second session was about change and what we have achieved in UKERC. We heard about the Public Observatory from Jason Chilvers and I spoke about a revolution at the energy environment interface. Phil Heptonstall provided an overview of the role of systematic evidence reviews and the phenomenal body of knowledge that’s been created through those reviews, and their extensive influence. Phil is sadly leaving UKERC at the end of this phase, but what an impressive legacy to leave.

After a break for lunch the session on change continued with a presentation from Catherine Jones on energy data. It’s widely known that collecting data is one of the hardest jobs because getting academics to upload their data is akin to herding cats. It’s not that we don’t want to share it, it’s just we want to move on to the next thing. However, this challenge has been tackled by enabling us to share our data, resulting in UKERC successfully co-ordinating a comprehensive showcase of energy research. Finally, Neil Strachan talked about modelling, which has always played a core role in UKERC. It was reassuring to hear Neil explain that models aren’t truth machines, but rather an enabling space for interdisciplinary working and this has very much been the case over the last 20 years.

These session on previous research context evidenced the great work that has been undertaken, and the extensive impact and achievements that have been made over the years. There’s been growth across the board. We’ve grown in terms of our interdisciplinarity. We’ve grown in terms of our impact. We want our research to make a difference which will be critical to inform a sustainable energy transition into the future.

Image of participants in the changing research context session

Watch here: Caroline Kuzemko, Catherine Jones, Nicola Beaumont, Phil Heptonstall, Neil Strachan and Jason Chilvers

Impact Highlights

The final session was focused on impact with strong examples from heat, from industrial decarbonisation, and from the green grids initiative. It was enormously satisfying to hear tangible examples of where we’re having impact, but was particularly valuable from this session were the comments from Jane Dennet-Thorpe and David Joffe, as external users of UKERC research, who shared their genuine experience of UKERC research being applied and influencing the world beyond academia. This took the day beyond a self-congratulatory affair, evidencing that UKERC is beneficial. So at twenty, I think it’s fair to say, that UKERC remains reflective and responsive to the outside world, but equally fair to say that we are influential in that world.

Joanne Wade, David Joffe, Jane Dennett-Thorpe, Will Blyth, Ahmed Gailani, Imogen Rattle and Meysam Qadrdan,

Watch here: Joanne Wade, David Joffe, Jane Dennett-Thorpe, Will Blyth, Ahmed Gailani, Imogen Rattle and Meysam Qadrdan,

Looking Forward: Priorities for the next 20 years

We finished the day with a presentation from Keith Bell on the future UKERC research themes, which preceded a panel discussion chaired by Jess Britton and with speakers Joanne Wade, Association for Decentralised Energy; Dhara Vyas, Energy UK; Sara Walker, University of Birmingham; and Damitha Adikaari, Department of Energy Security & Net Zero.

Damitha Adikaari, Sara Walker, Joanne Wade, Dhara Vyas and Keith Bell

Watch here: Damitha Adikaari, Sara Walker, Joanne Wade, Dhara Vyas and Keith Bell

In this session Sara posed the question: is UKERC a disruptor or an incumbent? Throughout the day analogies of UKERC being an older sibling were made. Drawing on this to answer this question, I’m a little sister and I do look up to my big sister. She is certainly wiser than me (although I’d never admit that to her), though she does disrupt sometimes, but she disrupts in a way that’s strategic and thoughtful. And I think in UKERC, that’s our role; to play the big sister, to play the incumbent, drawing on a wealth of evidence and experience, but still disrupting with care.

Final reflections

Nicola Beaumont

Watch here: Nicola Beaumont

UKERC at twenty still has high levels of energy and enthusiasm, and despite talk of previous achievements there was a clear hunger for the future. Work on the green grid work and the industrial decarbonization which was shared is highly innovative and has capacity to shift the energy landscape. Throughout the day there was a consistent drive to bring in new disciplines and new partners. During the past 20 years UKERC has remained dynamic and it seems there is no likelihood of that changing anytime soon. Gaps in the research agenda were also noted, for example around agriculture and energy demand. So there’s plenty of work ahead and no shortage of drive to expand, explore and deliver into the future. This made the day a celebration of the past, but it also held a huge amount of excitement for the future.

Returning to 2002, it was asked that a networking center of excellence to link industry, government, and research was created. Based on the UKERC at 20 event I think it’s fair to say that we’ve exceeded that, and the energy research landscape has been transformed, in terms of the evidence we produced, but also in terms of our impact, our scope, and our stakeholders.

As a final note it is critical to note that a cornerstone of UKERCs success throughout the 20 years has been the UKERC HQ team coordinating us, organizing us, pulling us together. Without them there would have been no celebration and UKERC would have been rather more chaotic. So a final huge thank you to the HQ team.