Imperial experts react to plan for 'green industrial revolution'

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Wind turbines at sea

Image credit: Vattenfall - Kentish Flats Extension Offshore Wind Farm (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ has been broadly welcomed by energy and climate experts.

A plan to invest billions of pounds in offshore wind, hydrogen-powered industry, nuclear energy, heat pumps and carbon capture technology (CCS), amongst other areas, has been given a cautious welcome by energy and climate experts at Imperial College London.

The 10-point plan, announced by the government, aims to create 250,000 green jobs in the United Kingdom, particularly in areas where the decline of manufacturing and fossil fuel industries have left communities of people at a disadvantage, and allow the nation to meet its climate change commitments.

The news is a “positive sign of the government’s commitment to achieving the UK’s legal requirement to reduce its total carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and provides a clear signal to industry as to the direction of travel,” according to Professor Anna Korre, Co-Director of Energy Futures Lab, Imperial’s energy institute. 

“This is important because aligned and substantial industry funding will be needed to address the challenges at hand.”

The proposed investment levels aren’t up to the scale of what’s likely to be needed Dr Ajay Gambhir Senior Research Fellow, Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment

“The technologies to be supported under the plan - including renewables, low carbon hydrogen, CCS, nuclear, greener transport and green heating and cooling - are ones in which we already have substantial expertise at Imperial. We aim to harness the vibrant academic, research and innovation communities that the College boasts to amplify these efforts and their impact.” 

Dr Ajay Gambhir, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment, said “the announcement suggests the government understands the sectors and technologies it needs to target.”

But, he warned that “although certainly not trivial – the proposed investment levels aren’t up to the scale of what’s likely to be needed to make the requisite rapid and fundamental shifts in the infrastructure to support electric cars, generate low-carbon hydrogen and make our homes and offices much more energy efficient and low-carbon. 

“Some other countries’ investment commitments are much greater, so a key question here is whether the government has sent a strong enough signal to crowd in significant private investment. It will probably need to add to this initial announcement to do that in a major way, so as to convince private investors and businesses that it really intends to get net-zero done.”

First steps

Professor Robert Gross, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and Professor of Energy Policy and Technology at Imperial College, said: “It is important not to underplay the significance of this in political terms. It would be churlish not to welcome it. It reverses cuts and sets a level of ambition.? 

“Net zero will take £100s of billions and changes to every aspect of life over several decades. This is just a start.?We also need to see more action to build skills and supply chains otherwise opportunities to create jobs to level up won’t work. And more help for households with travel and food choices.” 

Further investment will be required to unlock the UK’s expertise in this area and to industrialise the existing world class science and engineering expertise Professor Anthony Kucernak Professor of Physical Chemistry

Professor Nilay Shah, Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering and a member of the National Engineering Policy Centre Net Zero working group, also welcomed what he called “an ambitious and broad-ranging announcement” but added that:

“Delivering net-zero in a just and economically beneficial way will require a huge and sustained engineering effort, a clear understanding of how the different interventions work together as a system, and accompanying societal, cultural, behavioural and structural change.

“It requires a stable commitment by government to net-zero policymaking over the long term that builds on the short term economic recovery and responds to the scale and pace of change required.” 

“These are important first steps in what will be an important journey for the UK in decarbonising the energy sector,” said Professor Anthony Kucernak, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Imperial.

“Further investment will be required to unlock the UK’s expertise in this area and to industrialise the existing world class science and engineering expertise in UK Universities and technical institutions. It will be important in the march towards 2050 that we keep a continuing flow of innovations to maximise the benefits of the new technologies.”

Dr Jeffrey Hardy, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute said: “The 10-point plan is welcome and ambitious.

“Many of the elements (electric vehicles, warm homes, etc) are inherently local. Our work in the Energy Revolution Research Consortium suggests adopting a smart, local energy systems approach could unlock more benefits, deliver faster and in a way that suits the needs of different places in the UK.”

Hydrogen power and carbon capture

Among the areas which will see substantial investment under the plan are hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

Professor Geoffrey Maitland FREng, Professor of Energy Engineering, said: 

The carbon capture initiative is welcome news of significant investment in a key technology Professor Geoffrey Maitland Professor of Energy Engineering

“It is good to see a significant focus on hydrogen as this is needed as the complement to wind to decarbonise domestic heating.?Initially most of this will be ‘blue’ hydrogen made from natural gas which will need CCS to remove the co-produced CO2.

“Producing hydrogen will be a key product of the green industrial clusters, being multi-purpose decarbonised transport and power as well as heating. 

“The carbon capture initiative is welcome news of significant investment in a key technology without which the UK will not achieve net zero by 2050 and where the UK is playing catch-up after two failed initiatives terminated by the government in 2011 and 2015.?

“So it is good to see the recommendations of the 2018 CCS Cost Challenge Task Force being followed, with CCS being introduced at up to four industrial clusters involving essential but difficult to decarbonise processes, such as chemicals, cement and steel. These will be too late to impact the 4th carbon budget (2022-26) but will be essential to meet the 5th budget (2026-32) and onwards to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”

Read more about Carbon Capture and Storage at Imperial.

Transport without the hot air

Electric cars in a row with plugsThe Prime Minister confirmed that a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars brought forward to 2030 and investment of £1.3bn in the rollout of EV charging points in England.

Dr Aruna Sivakumar, Research Theme Lead, Low Carbon Cities and Transport at Energy Futures Lab said: “Banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 is a clear win for the environment but it’s vital that the transition to electric transport be made equitably without negatively impacting mobility for those least able to pay.

 “To be effective, the ban will need to be coupled with strict controls on older vehicles, but we know that many people across the UK rely on their cars so the Government needs to put a clear plan in place to ensure that no-one is priced out of mobility”.

The Government also pledged support for research into the development of zero-emissions aviation and shipping, areas which have long been difficult to decarbonize.

Commenting on the promise of zero-emissions flights, Professor Rafael Palacios, Professor of Computational Aeroelasticity at the Department of Aeronautics, said:  

“The aerospace industry is an integrated one that work at a continental scale. Airbus builds its wings in Wales, but assembles the aircraft France and Germany.

“The scale of the challenge calls for an international effort in which we collaborate very closely with our partners in Europe and I am afraid inward-looking politicians here will delay rather than accelerate this much needed effort by duplicating what is already being done elsewhere.” 


Conor McNally

Conor McNally
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Simon Levey

Simon Levey
Communications Division

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Nuclear-energy, Climate-change, Sustainability, Energy, Environment
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