With the future of energy generation and consumption come the extremes of challenge and opportunity.

The decarbonisation of electricity, heat and transport by 2050, as required by the Climate Change Act, mandates that the UK generates and exploits energy in ways that are completely different to those we have become accustomed to.

If British companies can create the technology and system solutions, the market opportunity that follows internationally could be huge. This could be a once in a generation catalyst for growth and jobs.

Though the opportunity, and indeed necessity, is huge, the progress has been slow.

On the electricity generation side, investment in nuclear energy has been painful, offshore wind construction has stalled, and incentives around onshore wind and solar have been curtailed. Thermal energy and heating account for about 40 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption, with an equivalent contribution to carbon emissions. Again progress in decarbonisation has been off the pace.

The hurdle here is to provide new approaches to the delivery of heating – and cooling – through networks and retrofit to the UK’s poorly insulated housing stock, which numbers 20 million.

Acceleration is required.

The Energy Research Accelerator (ERA) is a consortium of the six Midlands universities of Aston, Birmingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Nottingham and Warwick; together with the British Geological Survey (BGS), which have combined their collective research power in energy to deliver energy solutions on a timescale matched to the national need.

This will harness more than 450 academics and 1,000 PhD students to focus on the challenges linked to thermal energy, exploitation of geological energy sources, and the integration of energy technologies.

The initial investment from government of £60 million will create state-of-the-art research facilities, a Community Energy Demonstrator where technologies will be deployed in a housing development of hundreds of homes, and the manufacturing capability that will help deliver energy technologies to market at the scale required.

This initiative has attracted support from 50 organisations, including some of the UK’s leading companies, with an additional matching financial investment reaching up to £120 million.

ERA has just appointed its first CEO, the former Rolls-Royce executive Gordon Waddington. In totality, this initiative will drive the development of energy technology and skills within the Midlands, and is a key component of the Midlands Engine for Growth agenda – the counterpoint to the Northern Powerhouse.

An essential element to solving the heating challenge is cooling.

Cold or cooling is responsible for 15 per cent of the UK’s electricity consumption, and the cold chain is crucial to solving the world food shortage problems – in some developing countries nearly 50 per cent of food is lost due to waste linked to poor refrigeration management.

Between the middle and end of the next century it is predicted the global demand for cooling will outstrip that for heating. This cannot be delivered by the current technology – electrically powered air conditioning systems. Radical thinking is required.

The Birmingham Energy Institute, through its ‘Commission on Cold’, chaired by Lord Teverson, is providing the system-level thinking required. The Commission publishes its findings on 28 October.

Cooling is an essential component of ERA, and on 11 September ERA is holding a workshop for industry connected with solving the thermal energy technology challenges – heating and cooling.

This is an opportunity for industry to strongly shape the ERA investment to maximise the potential to UK business in developing products and solutions for the UK and international markets.

The investment and momentum behind ERA is beginning to set the pace for change that is needed for UK business to deliver products, systems, jobs and growth. This is a once in a generation opportunity for the Midlands, with national and international benefits.

Professor Martin Freer
Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute, University of Birmingham