The Midlands’ mission to help reach the UK’s net-zero energy target

Net-zero targets; emission goals; minimising carbon footprint: these buzzwords are part and parcel of modern society’s narrative. Everyone is talking about net-zero, but what is being done today to actually achieve net-zero by 2050? Amy Cole-King, who is a member of Barker Brettell’s energy sector group, has turned her attention to the English Midlands region – where Barker Brettell has its headquarters in Birmingham – to find out how green innovation is changing the way we live and work.

In the face of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and energy crisis, the Midlands remains steadfast in its commitment to driving innovation and sustainability in the energy sector. While setbacks may have slowed progress, research institutes and industries in the Midlands are adapting to the current landscape and forging ahead with initiatives aimed at achieving the UK’s net-zero energy target.

Despite the formidable task ahead to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, with collaboration between businesses and research institutions, such as those on display at the Midland’s Energy Summit 2023, efforts appear to be slightly more hopeful. Here are some of the topics discussed at the recent summit:

Emission reduction

The University of Nottingham has developed an extensive strategy to tackle rising energy costs and combat climate change. With its own energy expenditure reaching £30 million annually, the institution has witnessed a doubling in energy costs over the past decade. However, rather than accepting this trend, the University of Nottingham is proactively addressing the issue, aiming for a 63% reduction in emissions by 2030 and net-zero status in time for the 2050 target.

Central to the university’s strategy is a concerted effort to minimise energy consumption across its campuses. One of the key aspects of this strategy involves reshaping the estate for post-pandemic working and optimising space utilisation to minimize energy consumption. Energy surveys are being conducted to identify cost-effective interventions, while the installation of PV solar panels, biomass boilers, and heat pumps further contributes to energy efficiency on campus. Investments in electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure and the replacement of gas-based catering kitchens with electric equivalents further mark the University of Nottingham’s commitment to more sustainable practices.

Sustainability initiatives

Critical to the success of this strategy is the allocation of a £70 million endowment fund, enabling the University of Nottingham to finance its sustainability initiatives. Early investments have already generated promising results, with a notable 10,000-tonne reduction in carbon emissions achieved through targeted interventions.

Further bolstering its efforts, the university has established the Energy Research Institute with a £100 million investment. The institute serves as a hub for cutting-edge research aimed at improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions. Notable projects include collaborations to reduce the carbon footprint of the East Midlands Airport, such as the MariNH3 programme focused on developing sustainable aviation fuels. Additionally, the University of Nottingham is leading research initiatives like Titanz, exploring innovative energy solutions with a £3.5 million investment, the LiSTAR project which focuses on battery technology, and a £4.5 million study on sustainable CO2 capture technologies. The university is also actively contributing to the advancement of renewable energy sources, such as the £6.5 million Ocean REFuel project, which focuses on offshore wind energy generation.

Other Midlands universities are also making significant strides towards decarbonisation and sustainability. The University of Birmingham, for instance, has outlined a decarbonisation strategy as part of its commitment to tackle climate change. This includes a £50 million investment into the Birmingham Energy Institute, aimed at achieving net-zero carbon emissions across all sectors by 2045.

Carbon neutral manufacturing

But it’s not just academic institutions driving progress in the Midlands. Industry giants like Toyota are making substantial commitments to carbon neutrality. With a manufacturing site in Derbyshire, Toyota aims to be carbon neutral by 2030 and carbon-zero by 2040. A key aspect of its strategy involves innovative solutions such as fully automated compact paint booths, which significantly reduce CO2 emissions from the painting process of vehicles.

Several organisations also play a vital role in bridging the gap between research and industry.

Spanning three East Midlands counties lies the UK’s only inland Freeport, a free economic zone where specific midlands-based industries can receive help from tax and customs incentives. The East Midland’s Freeport (EMF) serves as a centre for economic activity and innovation. With a mission to attract investment into the region and drive innovation, EMF announced that it will be investing over £5 million into a zero-carbon innovation centre. Partnered with the University of Nottingham and Loughborough University, the zero-carbon innovation centre will provide the necessary technology and laboratories to progress research in electrification, hydrogen propulsion systems, and advanced manufacturing, specifically for industry use.

Clean energy technology

Another key player is the Energy Research Accelerator (ERA). ERA is the UK’s largest research network. A partnership between eight research intensive universities and over 1000 companies across the midlands, ERA has already delivered £110 million investments into clean energy technologies and has catalysed £250 million in follow-on funding. Some of the programmes delivered by ERA include the Hydrex programme at the University of Birmingham, which focuses on converting sewage into diesel and hydrogen, and Cranfield University’s HyPER initiative, dedicated to exploring hydrogen propulsion systems. ERA have also undertaken studies to assess the feasibility of hydrogen-powered trains in the Midlands region. The study identified four possible routes that could make hydrogen rail travel economically and commercially viable, with the full report being launched soon.

ERA not only support innovation in the energy sector, but strive to influence policy making, having an active role in campaigning for more clean energy-friendly policies. ERA’s outreach programmes, such as the H2GP initiative, also play a crucial role in raising awareness. Through workshops, seminars, and collaborative events, H2GP aims to engage stakeholders, foster collaboration, and drive innovation in the energy sector.

Through strategic investments, innovative research, and collaborative partnerships, the research institutes and businesses of the Midlands are leading the way towards a greener, more sustainable future. With a shared commitment to addressing pressing environmental challenges and mitigating climate change, these organisations are at the forefront of driving change and the transition to a low-carbon economy, setting a benchmark for organisations across the UK and beyond.

Barker Brettell has a dedicated team of patent and trade mark attorneys specialising in the energy sector. If you would like to discuss options for protecting your invention, please contact the author or your usual Barker Brettell attorney.