Energy research and training prospectus - Professor Jim Skea

It was with some relief that the Fellowship team launched its major report, Investing in a Brighter Energy Future: Energy Research and Training Prospectus at the Royal Society on 11 November. The report has been some 18 months in the making, rather longer if you trace the history. The starting point was the report of the International Panel that reviewed the RCUK Energy Programme back in 2010. One of its recommendations was that “a fully integrated roadmap for UK energy research targets should be completed and maintained". In early 2012, the Research Councils appointed myself and the team – Aidan Rhodes, Matthew Hannon and Iris Kammerer – to undertake this task in an independent way. Having engaged 250 people in the process (some twice and in one case three times!), run 12 workshops and written up 12 workshop reports, post-it fatigue, drafting fatigue  and general fatigue had definitely begun to set in.

During the last 18 months, we have learned an enormous amount about how the Research Councils work and how the UK energy innovation system works (as well as its limitations). We started with a set of bilateral consultations with the Research Councils, the learned societies, government and business. These generated their own insights but they also gave us clear guidance about how to run our workshops: focus on the key higher level issues in a small number of “strategy-level” workshops involving wider stakeholders and then do a deep-dive into specific topics in extended expert workshops. For the expert workshops, we should try to link topics related by common research skills and stay alert to interconnections across a complex energy domain.

We also learned about how successful workshops are facilitated! We employed a great team, Christine Bell and Nigel Chapman at the Centre for Facilitation Services, to help us run the expert workshops. They were fun to work with and became part of an extended team almost straight away. Their take on the process, as non-energy experts, can be found in the Evaluation report (PDF). See the “word cloud” below, for what participants thought of the process we put together!

After 18 months, with our heads having been immersed in technical detail, we had to think about how to focus our conclusions. This summer, we sat back and took stock of what we had learned. Leaving technical detail to one side, we looked through the other end of telescope and reflected on the big messages that had emerged. This was the basis for the recommendations in the final report which we first road-tested with our Advisory Group chaired by Peter Taylor, formerly of the International Energy Agency, now at Leeds University.

We were keen not to flood readers with recommendations – the International Review Panel had generated more than 60. But like the International Panel, we found it hard to restrict our recommendations to those that could be taken forward by the research councils alone. To some extent, this was because part of the problem we were invited to address was the lack of “joining-up” between academic research and training and wider policy/commercial aspirations and goals. But it also reflected the messages bubbling up from the workshops. Released from their day jobs, many participants wanted to think ‘lofty thoughts’ and had what was effectively policy advice to offer.

Two examples. There were persistent requests for clarity about energy policy in order to guide energy research. Even before the Miliband speech on energy prices in September, we were sceptical about this and have instead recommended that energy research portfolios should be designed on the basis that policy is unlikely to become clear - ever. There were also requests for longer term funding cycles. We were more sympathetic to this. Not if the main aim is to provide comfort to scientists (on that the Treasury would never be convinced), but with some justification if scientific outcomes can be realised only over longer timescales.

We also recommended that the UK should increase its spend on energy R&D. This did not come from the workshops but from our own assessment of the evidence about historic spend, spend compared with other countries and the size of the R&D challenge implied by UK energy and climate change goals. Whether this recommendation is viable in light of reported pressures on the science budget i remains to be seen.

In drafting the recommendations, there was a big choice about positioning ourselves on a spectrum ranging from bland/acceptable to direct/challenging. On the basis that we were invited to conduct an independent review, we chose the latter approach. Having offered challenge to the research councils and others, we now welcome being challenged on our own recommendations. Further debate is needed in several areas and would be healthy.

In the end, in spite of our original aim, we came up with 43 recommendations. We split these up according to the target audience: those targeted at the UK energy innovation system as a whole; those regarding research council processes in general; those relating to the RCUK Energy Programme; and those on specific energy topics.

Although the report is done and dusted in one sense, there is still a lot of follow-up needed. We are aiming to communicate the report and its findings, for example through evidence to the current parliamentary inquiry into low-carbon innovation and contributions to research workshops and meetings. We are also completing the peer review of the more focused reports on specific topics such as bioenergy and energy infrastructure. These we will be appearing on our website in the next few weeks.

And then we are looking forward to our new research programme on the effectiveness of energy systems. If we’ve learned one lesson from the last 18 months it is that this work is needed.

The Prospectus: all the little things! - Dr Aidan Rhodes

It feels strange to be at the point where I can pick up a copy of our finished prospectus in my hands. It’s been a long time getting to this point – 18 months since Jim took on his role as Energy Strategy Fellow and 15 since I joined the project. Along the way, our small team has expanded and evolved through the organisation of many, many workshops and the writing of nearly 20 reports. We came into this naïve and inexperienced, but we leave as battle-hardened veterans of the research engagement trail. Along the way we’ve met hundreds of people in the UK energy research community – nearly 250 of them, working in everything from fossil fuels to bioenergy to consumer behaviour. It’s been a fascinating time, and we’ve learnt a lot about both specific areas of energy research and also how those areas connect and work with each other. Here’s a few things from the last year or so which I found memorable, for one reason or another!

We identified, after extensive consultation with the community, six areas of energy research that both covered the major ity of the community and did not already have extensive. These were designed to bring together complementary disciplines and skillsets, ensuring that we broke through the ‘silos’ tha t often characterise research disciplines.  These areas were; Fossil Fuels and CCS, Energy in the Home and Workplace, Energy Infrastructure, Bioenergy, Transport Energy and Electrochemical Energy and Energy Storage.  For each area, we decided to have a two-day workshop bringing together a representative selection of academic experts in the field, along with representatives from policy, industry and NGOs.

For this, we needed to book suitable venues, and Jim requested that we organised venues that were a) outside of London, so participants would be less tempted to slip off to other meetings, and b) had something in common with the research area we were discussing. This was, shall we say, accomplished more fully in some areas than others. The Transport Energy workshop was fittingly held at Coventry Transport Museum, among the Thrust SSC and other reminders of Britain’s great car-making past. We held the Bioenergy workshop at Rothamsted Research, with the aim to have the participants able to look out the window and see fields of rolling crops.  Unfortunately we held it in the middle of a cold, wet May, so they couldn’t see much, but the intentions were there, at least! The Energy Infrastructure workshop was held at the IET’s Birmingham venue, tying into the engineering and ICT focus of the workshop. We unfortunately didn’t manage to secure such evocative locations for the other workshops. Fossil Fuels and CCS was held in Edinburgh, mainly due to the high proportion of Scottish researchers in this area. We did hold it next to Arthur’s Seat at least, so our participants could at least see some interesting geology. The Home and Workplace workshop was held in Scarman House in Warwick, and the Electrochemical Energy workshop in St Hugh’s College in Oxford, both venues with very little to do with the subject matter. They were, however, excellent venues, with (importantly) excellent catering!

Jim, Matt and I identified pretty early that we would need help facilitating these two-day workshops. This came from a realisation of the quantity of data we needed to collect, the issue that we didn’t actually know how to facilitate a workshop of this length and complexity, and the problem that if we facilitated the workshops, we wouldn’t be able to listen and engage with the participants as much as we wanted to. We therefore contracted the services of Nigel and Christine from the Centre for Facilitation, who brought expertise, warmth and charm to our workshops and wasted no time in designing enough group exercises to keep our participants working solidly for two days. They also brought with them a collection of Post-It notes such as we have never seen. Big ones, little ones, hexagonal ones, circular ones, ones like speech bubbles, ones the size of an A4 sheet of paper… their bags were a Galapagos Islands for post-it note evolution. We collected an incredible amount of information using the notes, as anyone who was a participant would remember, and for weeks afterwards our offices were covered with brightly coloured pieces of paper and scrawling handwritten notes. Nigel and Christine brought a great deal to our workshops and made possible the creation of the prospectus as we see it today. I wish them good luck for the future!

We were supported in our workshops by an able team of PhD and MSc student note-takers, who had the thankless task of sitting and recording every major point made during two days of discussions.  We were somewhat surprised that we actually had note-takers who wanted to come back after their first gruelling workshop, but we quickly built up a core team of excellent people including Philipp Grunewald, Mike Helmsley and Stefan Pfenninger, who helped us out time and time again. You can see the evidence of their handiwork on almost every page of the finished prospectus.

And of course, Iris, our long-suffering administrator and PA, put a ridiculous amount of work into organising venues, sorting out lists of names and invitations, dealing with expense claims, invoices and budgets, as well as everything else that goes into such a big and complex range of workshops. She’s been absolutely brilliant, and we’re lucky to have her!

All in all, it’s been quite an adventure. The next few years will see us embarking on an exciting new research project – I’ll let Matt talk about that below.

The Fellowship Research Phase: A Synopsis - Dr Matthew Hannon

Following the development and communication of the Prospectus the Fellowship team are beginning to turn their attention to a separate but related phase of their research project titled The Effectiveness of Systems of Energy Innovation. We briefly outline its objectives and how it will be conducted.

Over the last 10 years there has been a re-invigoration of energy innovation activity internationally in light of growing concerns around the affordability, security and environmental sustainability of energy. These efforts have largely focused on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels by either substituting fossil fuels for alternative sources of energy and radically improving the efficiency with which we utilise fossil fuels to satisfy our energy needs.

Prior to entering the market energy innovations typically move through a number of different stages of the innovation chain. These stages are commonly referred to as basic research, applied research and development, demonstration and pre-commercial deployment. In broad terms the innovation chain refers to the various stages by which ideas are translated into commercially viable solutions that are exchanged in the open market.

This process is supported by what is referred to in the science and technology studies literature, as a ‘system of innovation’, which Freeman (1987) defines as a ‘network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies’. This programme of work seeks to synthesis insights from innovation system theory and empirical analysis of case studies of energy innovation systems to assess the effectiveness of characteristically distinct energy innovation system arrangements. More specifically the key objectives of the project are:

  • to map out systems of energy innovation for a range of countries and technologies;
  • to attempt to measure the effectiveness of these different arrangements; and
  • to compare different approaches with a view to learning lessons for successful energy research and innovation policy.

To meet these objectives the project will employ a four stage research plan.

  1. The first phase will involve the identification of a number of energy innovation system case studies, which will focus on high-profile examples of energy innovation in specific geographical areas. The case studies will explore the journey particular energy innovations have taken through the various stages of the innovation chain, examining the factors that have been most influential in shaping their development. During this process these innovation systems will be ‘mapped’ out via a combination of documentary analysis and exploratory field trips, where relevant experts and officials in these areas will be interviewed. The intention is to cover the UK, the EU, the United States and China as a priority, in addition to one or two individual EU Member States. Importantly however, ‘system b oundaries’ will emerge from the mapping exercise rather than being defined a priori, given that different systems of innovation are associated with different technologies. Consequently, the case studies could range from a regional to an international scale.
  2. In parallel with the mapping exercise, the team will also analyse the suitability of existing metrics or indicators designed to measure the effectiveness o f energy innovation systems. These will constitute as an important ‘tool-set’ to analyse our data and in turn, improve our understanding of the effectiveness of different energy innovation systems. Wherever these metrics are considered ill-equipped to meet the project’s objectives, existing metrics will be refined and/or new metrics will be developed.
  3. The analysis of the metrics will give rise to a set of hypotheses and findings, which will be tested against the views of experts inside and outside the regions concerned. Data to test these hypothesis will be collected primarily through a second wave of interviews with relevant experts.
  4. The final stage will involve a desk-based comparison of the effectiveness of these different energy innovation system case studies. Lessons will be drawn from these findings about how best to support energy innovation, which we hope will not only inform energy research and innovation policy making but also help to refine the innovation systems literature.

The research programme is already underway following the arrival of our PhD student Rui Hu in October 2013 and will run through to Spring 2017. We are currently engaged with the first and second stages of our research plan, undertaking a desk based survey of potential case studies and innovation metrics. Following this we intend to visit of case study locations in 2014 for further investigation. We will issue regular progress updates on our website and as part of our newsletter series. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any questions about the research project.

Energy and Environmental Science: the renaissance of energy innovation

Energy and environmental science (impact factor 11.6!) has just published an opinion piece by Jim on The renaissance of energy innovation. In the article, Jim notes that investment in energy RD&D has increased significantly in all developed countries in the last decade. He attributes this to the policy drivers of climate change and energy security and to underlying scientific developments notably in materials science, biosciences and ICT. The focus of private and public sector R&D is remarkably different, with public sector investments generally aiming to effect transformational change and private sector support tending more to improve and extend the existing fossil fuel paradigm. The tension between the two approaches is providing many opportunities for research in the energy field.  The paper is an early product of the Fellowship’s new research programme on the effectiveness of energy innovation systems.