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Green energy – powering the future

At our annual University Executive Board away day in September we had a PESTLE session to explore the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental risks, challenges and opportunities facing the University.  We will share future PESTLE sessions in our blog.

I invited Professor Jianzhong Wu, Head of Department for Electrical and Electronic Engineering, School of Engineering, to help us understand developing research in the green energy area. Transformational shifts in energy systems are now becoming visible and Cardiff researchers work closely through our Energy Systems URI and with a number of leading organisations nationally and internationally on joint research and maximization of impact. He helped us understand the opportunities for Cardiff University in both research and education in the energy area.

I wanted to share Jianzhong’s expert contribution and the issues that we discussed:

The increasing share of variable renewable energy, strict targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the requirements on improvement of energy affordability and system security and reliability (which can be summarised as the Energy Trilemma), are leading to important changes in our energy systems. The UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050[1], compared with the previous target of 80% reduction from 1990 levels. The Committee on Climate Change set out the recommendation saying Wales could only reach a 95% reduction due to the importance of the farming industry to rural communities. Wales has accepted the target but declared the Welsh Government’s ambition to also reach net-zero by 2050[2]. This faces the challenges of a significantly high penetration level of renewable generation and a very substantial uptake of electrification of heat and transport.

Faced with these pressures, the modernisation of energy systems technology, processes and governance is a necessity if they are to be fit for the future.  The International Energy Agency predicted that $2 trillion annual investment in new supply is needed to meet energy demand to 2040[3]. In the UK, 2010 to 2014 saw investment of over £16 billion in the GB electricity networks and £3.8 billion in the GB gas networks. It is estimated that between 2014 and 2021 £34 billion of investment across electricity networks and £7.6 billion across gas networks will be required to ensure energy demand will be met in a cost effective, clean and secure way[4]. A number of recent initiatives address various aspects of this fast development, such as BEIS/Ofgem Smart Systems and Flexibility, BEIS Industrial Strategy, Ofgem’s RIIO2 consultation, IET’s Future Power System Architecture project. We can see momentum building in this area.

After years of incremental changes in energy systems, transformational shifts are now becoming visible, which are being driven by societal evolution, climate changes and technology advances. Downscale, upscale, cross vectors (integrated multi-vector energy networks, i.e. electric power networks, natural gas networks, hydrogen production and transportation, district heating and cooling systems, electrified transportation; the associated information and communication infrastructure; and societal, commercial and regulatory environments) and energy system integration issues are at the fore, which necessitate the following urgent and timely research. There are four main areas of research:

  1. Downscale – Peer to Peer Energy Systems to balance power and energy within a local system, which is seen as a solution to significantly increase the hosting capacity for distributed energy resources in local grids, and to trade or share energy among local prosumers so that the reliance and the pressures put on the external energy networks will be reduced. This is creating new technical challenges, e.g. development and application of new types of flexible power electronic devices, and bringing new business models. Local balancing has the potential to change the paradigm of the whole energy system.
  2. Upscale – Enhanced Network Interconnection. Interconnections of wide area transmission networks have been implemented in many countries, and enable trading of high volumes of energy across great distances. Uncertainties in global and European energy systems, especially after Brexit, result in difficulties in making optimal investment and operation decisions on the GB gas and electricity transmission networks.
  3. Cross Vectors – Integrated Multi-Vector Energy Systems. The complicated interactions and interdependencies between energy networks (technical, economic and market) need to be clearly understood; the roles of gas and heating/cooling networks in future energy systems need to be further clarified; new methodology and assessment tools need to be developed to better understand cascading failures, vulnerability and resilience; the fragmented institutional and market structures of different energy systems need redesign to realise the benefits of synergies between energy networks.
  4. Energy System Integration. Energy system integration is urgently needed and a whole-system approach needs to be developed to optimise the synergies between different energy systems, while enabling the synergies and conflicts between the local distribution networks and the national level objectives to be understood and optimally coordinated.

Cardiff researchers are among the initiators of two research areas, Integrated Multi-Vector Energy Systems and Peer to Peer Energy Systems, which are now global focuses in energy research and development.

The Cardiff team led the Multi-energy theme of EPSRC Supergen HubNet, Supergen FlexNet and Supergen HiDEF projects. They played a critical role in the EC H2020 project “Peer to Peer Smart Energy Distribution Networks” which was the first large research programme on Peer to Peer Energy Systems. Some of our ongoing research projects includes the £5.1m EPSRC Supergen Energy Networks Hub, £5.1m UK-India Clean Energy Centre, £5.3m ITRC Mistral project, €4m H2020 Magnitude project, £12m EnergyREV, £15m ANGLE-DC, £18m UK Energy Research Centre, £24m FLEXIS, and £36m Active Building Centre. Six papers in these two areas published by Cardiff researchers are Essential Science Indicators (ESI) Highly Cited Papers.

The two research areas raise fascinating interlinked questions regarding policy, society, economics, physics, cyber security, cloud computing, transport, hydrogen, heat, meteorology and material science to name just a few. The Cardiff researchers work closely through our Energy Systems URI and with a number of leading organisations nationally and internationally for joint research and maximization of impact, especially to capture the imagination of senior politicians, investors, funders and industry to transform the sector.

In summary, there is very strong policy pull for the green energy development; there are very large commercial markets globally considering the current ongoing energy revolution; there are massive research opportunities; although green energy research is a rich and diverse area full of exciting research questions it is not attracting enough new researchers to work in this space and there is a shortage of trained staff; and clearly there are massive opportunities for Cardiff University in both research and education in the energy area.


[1] Committee on Climate Change, Net zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, May 2019.

[2] https://gov.wales/written-statement-response-committee-climate-changes-net-zero-report

[3] IEA,The World Energy Outlook 2018.

[4] Delivering UK Energy Investment: Networks. DECC, 2015.