Podcast series: Keeping the lights on

A three-part podcast series where we dig deeper into the global challenge of keeping the lights on while driving towards decarbonisation.

The world is facing conflicting energy challenges; meeting global demand for energy, while reducing emissions to try and tackle the climate change emergency.

'Keeping the lights on' is a three-part energy beacon podcast series that features experts from across the University, debating issues of decarbonisation, network resilience, extreme weather events and the climate crisis, shining a light on the problems facing industry, governments and consumers in 2020 and the solutions we are delivering at Manchester.

Stream all three episodes to get to the heart of the energy challenges we face today and discover what our academics recommend we do to address these.

Episode one: Decarbonising energy generation

Nuclear power plant

In this podcast Professor Abbie Jones, Chair in Nuclear Graphite at the Dalton Nuclear Institute, and Dr Andrew Welfle, Research Fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, discuss nuclear and bioenergy as clean sources of energy generation.

Discover the clean energy innovations taking place across nuclear and bioenergy and what this means for the future supply.


Podcast transcript

You’re listening to a podcast from The University of Manchester.

Welcome to the Research Beacons’ podcast, a series of illuminating conversations that shine a light on research at Manchester and our innovative solutions to global challenges. Our Research Beacons podcast series highlights how researchers at The University of Manchester are finding solutions to global challenges across five key areas: Advanced Materials, Cancer, Energy, Global Inequalities and Industrial Biotechnology, our key research beacons.

In our ‘Spotlights On’ energy podcast we’ll be shining a light on energy research at Manchester and the global challenge of keeping the lights on. Over the next three episodes we will be joined by experts from across the University to hear how their work is helping to keep electricity flowing or trying to curb climate emissions and minimise the impacts of climate change.

There's been a transition away from coal-fired power in the UK over the last five years, following a drive to slash carbon emissions. Our energy remains dominated by North Sea oil and gas, but as we move to a low-carbon economy and with access to energy supply being used by some countries as a political tool, we've been increasing generating capacity from renewable sources. Indeed, on some days, for instance, when it's been particularly blowy, we've seen stretches of time where we've not needed any coal from the grid at all, something not seen since before the Industrial Revolution. Nuclear power also currently provides twenty percent of our generating capacity, but our old reactors are nearing the end of their operating lives. To avoid energy shortfalls, our focus needs to be on investment in supplies that are secure, diverse, affordable and low carbon, such as renewable generation, nuclear power, coal fire generation with carbon capture and storage, pipelines to import gas from Norway and Continental Europe and terminals for imported liquid natural gas, and further gas storage.
This needs to be coupled with infrastructure improvements including major new electricity lines and a smart grid and energy efficiency programs. We will be investigating some of these areas in this podcast mini-series.
Today, we're looking at nuclear and bioenergy as clean sources of energy generation. I'm pleased to welcome Professor Abbie Jones and Dr. Andrew Welfle to discuss their research and what it means for the future supply of energy.

<Vicky> So Abbie, over to you. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

<Abbie> Hello Vicky, I'm a professor in nuclear graphite engineering and I'm based within the School of Engineering, here at The University of Manchester. My research group is principally focused around nuclear graphite, which is contained within the core of an AGR, advanced gas-cooled reactor, and what we principally do is look at the safety and aging aspects of the nuclear graphite materials and try to predict its behaviour. To better understand safety and to better provide confidence to the Office of Nuclear Regulation. So, within the School of Engineering we have a unique set of a graphite laboratories, so that we can work on real radioactive samples. Half the group equally are computationally very heavy. So, they build large models and try to computationally examine the behaviour of the real reactors and then we get to go into the laboratories and test that on real samples.

<Vicky> Fantastic, that's grand. How did you get interested in this specific area of research?

<Abbie> Well, I've always been interested in energy and safety really. I did my PhD around carbon science, around the diamond community actually, and then I went from diamond, which is a very nice, well-ordered state of carbon, to a very disordered graphite material and started working in the nuclear graphite sector and then I realised, that a lot of my research skills were directly applicable and that I could really throw my heart and soul into it.

<Vicky> Were you motivated to make that move by anything you might have seen in the news? Or was there something that kind of made an impact on you personally? How did you go from the sparkly world of diamonds to the more interesting world of nuclear?

<Abbie> (Laughter) Well. It's really around electricity and electrical safety and trying to do research, that has a real-life impact and has got real application. So, I wanted to get more involved in something that wasn't so fundamentally science, and that could be just as applicable in the modern world.

<Vicky> Great. I will go a little bit more into, kind of how that research has been applied in a moment. Andrew, if you could answer the same questions. If you could tell us who you are and what you do, that would be great?

<Andrew> Thank you. I'm Andrew Welfle and I'm a research fellow at The University of Manchester and I'm based in a group called the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. My work very much revolves around bioenergy. So that's working in anything to do with bioenergy. That being a renewable energy technology. So basically, how can that technology be used more so in the future, to meet our climate change commitments and to generate renewable energy and to stimulate sustainable development. So, basically, the work I do is everything.

<Vicky> Very important and you mentioned the Tyndall Centre and the climate change research where you work. Is there anything you want to tell us about specifically your area?

<Andrew> It’s a really interesting place to work, the Tyndall Centre. So basically, we are sitting in the School of Engineering, but in our department the Tyndall Centre, there's not many engineers. We're quite unique, in that we have people who are engineers or physicists to social scientists, geographers and we all kind of work with a fellow mission, to work on climate change research. So, we kind of accompany and work alongside engineers to basically develop the solutions for energy and sustainability, so it's quite a unique place to work.

<Vicky> A great example of lots of different disciplines coming together towards a common goal for a greater good. Then what interested you in your area of research?

<Andrew> I went on a bit of a journey. I started off many years ago and did a geography undergraduate degree. I was very much interested in the earth, environment, land systems - environment essentially - and I got interested in climate change and sustainability through that. Then my first few jobs were with engineering companies. So I went on a bit of a journey towards the engineering world and when it came to deciding what I want to do for a PhD, bioenergy kind of sits between those, so I kind of felt at home. It was very much bioenergy, analysing natural systems lands, forests or whatever it maybe and it's also got that engineering slant, as in the technologies to create the energy at the end.

<Vicky> Fantastic. Was there anything that kind of inspired you, kind of in the greater world, to go into this, like in the news or anything personally that made you think?

<Andrew> Well, obviously, looming over us all in media is climate change, it's there all the time. So, I work heavily in that field. But renewable energy is something that interests me, and I just see the work I do with bioenergy as such a flexible and unique technology. You can take any organic material basically and produce energy from it, using all sorts of fancy chemical engineering processes. So, it's quite interesting.

<Vicky> Fascinating and there's lots of different people working in lots of different areas and obviously you’re linked in with that. Which is great. We’ve talked about two different aspects of energy generation for the UK and the world. I guess here in the UK we don't really think about electricity that much. We tend to take it for granted. The fact that it's kind of on tap, there's constant supply there. Should we be worried that a constant reliable energy supply might not always be the case?

<Abbie> Yes absolutely. Well from my perspective definitely so. We’re at a point with the nuclear reactors within the UK, that are providing 20% of our electricity, are really coming towards their end of their life and over the next 10 years, will progressively see that decline from 20% down to zero and we'll just end up with more and more reliance on gas. Which is not the way we want to be going.

<Andrew> I think we've been really spoilt in this country, as in fossil fuels provide such an amazing technology; so flexible, its energy is there when you need it. There’s lots of energy there, but the problem is the emissions and climate change. We need to ween ourselves off those fossil fuels. The challenge and interest in our research field is very much, ‘how can we meet that challenge of renewable technologies and bring a mix of technologies, and balance those demands with the different technologies?.

<Vicky> Do you think the general public has a perception that energy is constantly on tap? Do you think they're worried or complacent?

<Andrew> I think in this country, like many countries in Europe, for example, we don't have the same perception as maybe other parts of the world. Energy is always there; we don't have many power cuts. Previously we haven't really thought about where the energy comes from. I think that's changing slightly because of the news agenda. People are starting to think about coal, natural gas and shale gas has been quite prominent. So yeah, it's something that people are starting to think about.

<Vicky> How, is your research very specifically addressing this challenge of keeping our lights on?

<Abbie> Well, we're addressing the problem of continued safe operation. I mentioned earlier that our reactors are aging and so we need as many combined heads as possible. So that we can understand its behaviour going forward and we've got the safest and most reliable supply and confidence in nuclear technology.

<Vicky> So, I guess we need to plug that gap as you say, for the reactors that are going to be decommissioned. Nothing is replacing that 20% unless we rely on fossil fuels. So, it's how can we make them last?

<Abbie> Making them last as long as possible and plug that gap to be able to get new low-carbon technologies for the future, with renewables, by investing in next generation nuclear reactors. So that we've got something to give us a constant supply and be hand-in-hand with renewables and with other low carbon suppliers out there. That can really give us a safe and secure supply to the UK.

<Vicky> Great. That kind of leads into your renewable research and how that's being addressed?

<Andrew> Yeah so we basically do lots of work with policymakers, because the looming target at the minute, is that the UK's decided to go carbon neutral by 2050 and that's harder than you think it's going to be. So, lots of policy makers are running around like headless chickens at the moment working at how to get there. They’re talking to a lot of academics and people such as the group I'm involved with, to work out how my technology or other peoples can try and fill that gap. So, working in bioenergy is quite interesting because it can provide heat, it can provide power, transport fuels. It's quite a flexible option and we're working at how bioenergy can contribute the most to each of those.

<Vicky> What's your food source, what's the food stock for your specific area of bioenergy?

<Andrew> My research particularly focuses on resource. So how much resource do we have? What and where is it? How do we mobilise it? How do we make the most of it? So that's everything from the stuff you put in the bin after having food. Restaurants and any industry that produces waste which is organic; that's a resource. There's also the stuff that people commonly associate with bioenergy forests: wood pellets, wood chips. Hopefully, that’s sustainable. You have agriculture straws animal waste; basically anything organic is a potential feedstock for bioenergy process. So, my job is very much looking at what's available, how best to use it and what kind of energy can we generate from it.

<Vicky> So, you’re kind of tackling two challenges, because you’re helping with the waste issue, which is another big area in sustainability and the circular economy.

<Andrew> Yes, lots of lots of work we do is around waste. How can we develop waste management strategies? Where can bio energy can be generated from our waste? And at the same time mitigating emissions that maybe generated from waste that goes on to landfill. Likewise, how can bioenergy be linked to the agricultural sector and use resources that may otherwise decay or rot in the fields and produce methane. So basically, bioenergy can kind of accompany work along with other sectors, to provide energy and to also reduce emissions along the way.

<Vicky> Fantastic stuff. Your research obviously has massive benefit for the society. Is there anything you both might want to add about the kind of impact and benefit this research has specifically had?

<Abbie< Well, I think we're both hand-in-hand in trying to reduce carbon content and then CO2 emissions from a nuclear perspective. Just helping to keep the lights on with nuclear reactors has helped to save forty-two million tons of CO2 over the last five years, just from continued operation of the AGR's, advanced gas cooled reactors.

<Vicky> Wow. An impressive figure.

<Andrew> Likewise, we work with policymakers themselves, but we also work with organizations that try and push policymakers, for example. We recently worked with the Committee for Climate Change. So, we work on reports which are basically sent to government to advise them how the UK could grow its bioeconomy. So, we were kind of advising and saying why aren't we doing this, why aren’t we doing that. Our research in Manchester shows that essentially if the UK did push the boat out, we could generate vast quantities of energy at home from our biomass resources, if we so wanted to. So, a lot of our work is poking politicians and policymakers to make the decisions to up their game when on renewables.

<Vicky> I guess also within both of these industries, there are jobs created as well?

<Abbie> Yes, well typically the nuclear sector provides around 10,000 jobs across the UK. Around two thousand jobs per station and a further two to 300 jobs in the local community. So, it's very beneficial.

<Vicky> There’s an economic, societal, environmental impact of the important work that you're both involved in?

<Andrew> Yeah, I think it's important that academics and specialist in our area talk to politicians in the language they want to hear. They want to know about jobs. So, if we talk about for example the recent election that took place, lots of talk was about our forestation and planting trees. That's a big opportunity for bioenergy based on sustainability, but also that's going to make lots of jobs. So, if we can talk in the language of the politicians, there is no reason why we can't meet everyone's gains.

<Vicky> So, what's the legacy of your research and is there anything that we can do now, that we didn't know about before the research took place? What can we look to do in the future?

<Abbie> So, our modelling capability that we've developed at Manchester, really has helped us understand the radiation behaviour of the current nuclear reactors to a much longer lifetime than we ever thought we could. Going forward, we can really help to address some of the fundamental kind of areas that are lacking in knowledge for next generation reactors, because we've developed a good understanding of our current stations.

<Andrew> Likewise, if you probably don't know at home, bioenergy is the number one renewable energy source in the UK in terms of generation from renewables. Much of that is currently power, so a lot of our work has been involved around ‘where is the resource coming from to power these power stations?’ So, we've done lots of stuff around sustainability and that has filtered through into policy and legislation. That has required that resources, particularly importantly from elsewhere, meet certain sustainability standards. So that's a strong legacy, that hopefully we’ve built on but as you move away from power and other technologies such as PV or wind turbines take over, there’s opportunities for bio energies and heat and transport fuels particularly. So hopefully we'll continue that legacy and make renewable sustainable energy.

<Vicky> What challenges still remain? What's next? What do you want to tackle in five years going forward?

<Abbie> How can we make systems more efficient? So, we can generate process heat and we've always got this constant supply, whichever technology it is. We want to get to a really efficient system where we're not having any waste lost. And that we can then start to use batteries when they come online to store the heat, until that we've got a supply of electricity going forward.

<Andrew> Going back again, about climate change. The net zero target is going to be the main thing that everyone's going to be working on in the sector to a certain extent in the next few years. We're not very good in this country of creating pathways or trajectory of how to get there. So, a lot of much of our work will hopefully be focusing on getting these ideas off the ground. These calculations off our papers into reality.

<Vicky> Yeah, I think it’s great, the work that the Tyndall Centre have done setting the carbon trajectories for city regions and Greater Manchester.

<Andrew> Yeah, so we're very good at telling people how to get there. The hard bit is them getting there, them implementing the plan. So, I think much of the future work will be focused on that.

<Vicky> So hopefully when we've got our crystal ball or we kind of time travel into the future and look back, we can see all these great things that have that have been achieved, fingers crossed, and I guess instrumental to enabling what our policy makers and politicians are doing today to enable a better future. So, if you had ten minutes with one of our current cabinet ministers involved in one of these areas, what sort of things would you be telling them? What would your asks be in relation to this topic?

<Abbie> Well I would ask them why aren’t we now investing in low-carbon and very safe reliable nuclear systems, hand in hand with renewables that will last us 60 to 70 years into the future? Why are we really not putting that investment into the next generation reactors and why are we just lagging behind and relying on gas?

<Andrew> Likewise, I mentioned much my work revolves around identifying opportunities from different resources that we could produce energy from. Which we're not doing currently and that includes identifying land on which we could grow crops for various types of energy. Going forward I'd say to a politician, we have a unique opportunity whether you like it or not from leaving the EU. The common agricultural policy, we can reform that, why not reform it in a way that benefits things such as energy in addition to food?

<Abbie> Leads to security in the UK.

<Andrew> Yeah definitely.

<Vicky> Absolutely. Solves the energy trilemma and the current challenge. Fantastic. Well it's been a pleasure to chat to you both and find out more information. We’ll also be able to post some links to the relevant research and papers that you’re both involved in, if people are interested in finding out more about these interesting areas and very important research.

Listen to our next energy podcast to find out more about how the grid is burning up to growth and demand at dramatically different mix of sources of generation from when it was put in place over six decades ago and whether it can cope with increasing extreme weather events. To hear more about our research in advanced materials, cancer, energy, global inequalities and Industrial biotechnology go to manchester.ac.uk.

Episode two: Network resilience

Network behind city

Infrastructure improvements are necessary to avoid energy shortfalls and work to enhance our energy network is vital.

In this episode we are joined by Dr Mathaios Panteli, Lecturer in Resilient, Low-Carbon Energy Systems, Dr Vidyadhar Peesapati, a Knowledge Transfer Research Fellow and Matt Nobel, a PhD Student, to understand the advances being developed to ensure the resilience of our supply.


Podcast transcript

You’re listening to a podcast from The University of Manchester.

Welcome to the Research Beacons’ podcast, a series of illuminating conversations that shine a light on research at Manchester and our innovative solutions to global challenges. Our Research Beacons podcast series highlights how researchers at The University of Manchester are finding solutions to global challenges across five key areas: Advanced Materials, Cancer, Energy, Global Inequalities and Industrial Biotechnology, our key research beacons.

Welcome to part two of our ‘Spotlight On’ energy podcasts, where we're shining a light on energy research at Manchester. We've been joined by experts from across the University to hear how their work is helping to keep electricity flowing and keep the lights on. Infrastructure improvements are necessary to avoid energy shortfalls, including major new electricity lines, a smart grid, and work to enhance the resilience around the energy network is vital. Today I'm joined by Dr Vidyadhar Peesapati, Dr Mathaios Panteli and PhD student Matt Nobel.

<Vicky> So, over to you Viddy. Why don't you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

<Viddy> I'm a research fellow in high-voltage engineering and my area is conditioning monitoring and asset health. So, what I tend to do is try to understand the health of high voltage equipment that's on the network. Which is predominantly an aging network. So, we try to find faults that happen and try and see if we can predict failures before they happen. I work in in UK's largest high voltage lab of any academic institution. We can reach voltages that are capable of testing the equipment connected on the UK's network. The UK’s largest transmission voltage at the moment is 400 KV AC. Our equipment can go to twice that and we can also do it impulse testing i.e. lightning testing on equipment. We try and try and replicate things that could happen on a real network and that's basically what I do. I test equipment sometimes to failure, to understand if we can pick up little diagnostics, to see what happens to equipment before they actually go bang.

<Vicky> So, I think you’ve probably made a lot of people very jealous by working in such a fantastic laboratory, being able to generate lightning strikes and the works. What actually got you involved in this area of research in the first place?

<Viddy> I came to the University to do a masters in Power Systems and at that time, this was 15 or 16 years ago, there was a massive shift in what was going to happen in terms of the renewables being connected to the network. So, not only was it a very interesting area, but it's very attractive area from an employment perspective. So, I got interested in high-voltage engineering. I did a PhD on lightning, which meant I did a lot of hands-on testing and using the equipment in the high voltage lab and slowly that shift is where I started enjoying testing equipment. Testing equipment to failure, understanding why things failed. Almost like an MOT or a blood test. We try and pick up signatures on equipment, to make sure or to understand what's happening to it, especially as it’s an aging network.

I've been in the area for a good 15 years now and I genuinely enjoy it. Especially when you get to use some cool equipment that not a lot of other universities have in the world. So, it's a great place to be at the moment.

<Vicky> Fantastic. Sounds really exciting. Over to Mathaios. Tell us a bit about who you are and what you're involved in.

<Mathaios> Thank you so much Vicky. I'm a lecturer in resilient low-carbon energy systems in the power generation division here at The University of Manchester. My main research area is looking at how we can make the transition to low carbon energy systems, while maintaining high levels of quality electricity supplies to the customers. The energy landscape is currently going through a lot of changes; drastic changes as you said Vicky. We have the penetration of emerging technologies, such as battery energy systems, PV, intermittent renewable sources, which bring many benefits to the decarbonisation of the energy systems, as well as many challenges. My research focuses on developing advanced mathematical tools to see how I can optimise the operation and the planning of an energy system, to actually accommodate and facilitate the benefits of these low-carbon technologies.

A power outage in the electricity infrastructure can have cascading effects on other infrastructure, for example communication, transportation and so on. So, in my research, I'm also looking at how to evaluate these interdependencies between critical infrastructures and how to build a resilient infrastructure in the UK, against extreme events and catastrophic impacts. We're doing work both in the UK, looking at the resilience of the UK electricity grid, as well as internationally. So, we are leading international projects at The University of Manchester, under the global challenges research fund. And we're looking at solving global challenges faced mainly from the global South where we’re looking at the electrification challenges in developing countries, for example, how to build in resilience and sustainability, and for countries that are currently developing and are exposed to extreme weather events. So, our research goes far beyond just UK and to the need to tackle global challenges as well.

<Vicky> Great stuff and then finally over to you Matt. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you're up to at the moment?

<Matt> Yeah, thank you. So, I'm a final year PhD student at the power systems research group here in Manchester and I look at the resilience of power networks. That means how to keep the lights on during extreme events and severe weather conditions. My particular research interest is, that while it's fairly straightforward to avoid these black outs by just building more and more transmission lines and building more and more generation capacity, it's also a very expensive way of doing it. So, I look more at methods that exploit or use the skills and features modern systems already have, in order to avoid these blackouts from happening.

<Vicky> Great. What got you interested in all of this?

<Matt> So I think keeping the lights on is actually one of the main challenges of electricity supplier at moment and we are actually quite dependent on electricity, because everything we use somehow depends on electricity. We use communications, we use public transport, and some people heat their homes with electricity. So every single aspect depends on electricity, And while we have to make sure the lights stay on, we also have to make sure everything is affordable and sustainable and I think this is a very interesting and challenging task and it's very fascinating to look at.

<Vicky> So it's great that we've got our researchers on the case looking at all these issues. Here in the UK we do tend to take for granted that when we switch on that light switch and we want to watch something on Netflix, it's always going to be there and available. You mentioned that it's an area that's a bit of a challenge. How worried should we be about our electricity supply? Should we be? Do you think the general public are quite complacent about it?

<Viddy> I think there is a significant shift in how we use electricity and how we generate electricity as well. I don't want to use the word worry, but I think the change is happening at a very alarming rate. That change, how we generate, how we use, how we distribute and how we transmit energy, is going to have a big impact on how we actually use it. So, if everyone has an electric car, that will change the demand. That will also have an impact on supply, which will have an impact on the equipment that's in the network. So, all of these things need to be looked at. One event happening can have a cascading effect on the network and with our over-reliance on electricity, anything of that sort, can actually have a huge impact on our day-to-day life. So yeah, it is something that has to be thought about and looked at.

<Mathaios> I totally agree. I would not I say we should be worried as the National Grid is doing fantastic job, in keeping the reliability of the Grid at 99.9999%, but there's still that 0.0001% of events that we should worry about and this area of research is what we now call ‘High impact - Low probability’ events. As I said before, the August 2019 blackout was a once-every-30-years event. So there are a lot of changes going on in the energy landscape which we don't fully understand yet and we still need to better model, to better understand their impacts and the challenges that they can impose on the electricity grid. As well as the exposure of the power grid to more and more frequent extreme weather events that challenge the traditional way that the system has been designed and operated for many decades now. I will not say we should worry, but what I would like to say is that we should rethink a bit about the way that we are designing, planning and operating the power system. In order to be resilient and flexible enough to accommodate the emerging technologies and all the challenges that come with these technology and technologies in the future.

<Vicky> So, it's a lot of planning ahead that's involved here, and looking at what's on the horizon and acting accordingly?

<Mathaios> Yes exactly.

<Vicky> Can you tell how your research has actually benefited us in the UK, or in a country across the globe? Are there any sort of specific examples you can tell us about?

<Viddy> Yes so basically at The University of Manchester, we’re leading a number of international projects with partners from around the world. I would say the highlight of our research so far has been winning the 2018 Newton prize. Which is basically an annual prize awarded from the British government to projects that demonstrated excellence in impact, innovation and research. That related to a joint project with Chile, where we’re aiming to design their electricity grid to be robust and resilient against earthquakes. We're very happy that our planning and optimisation tool, that we developed, has actually been adopted from the electricity coordinator in Chile. Which led so far to over 50 million U.S. dollars of investments in the Chilean grid. Which also led to another project to broaden the impact of our mathematical tools to other countries in Latin America to hopefully make those countries more resilient and sustainable.

<Vicky> Fantastic. Are there any examples in the UK as well, of the work you've been doing here at The University of Manchester that will have an impact for the UK?

<Viddy> Yes absolutely. We successfully completed a project a couple of years ago called Resilience Electricity Networks for Great Britain. Which was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council here in the UK, where they were looking at the impact of climate change and extreme weather event and the risk resilience of transmission networks. So basically, we had a very nice partnership with the Tyndall Centre here in Manchester, where we're getting different and future climate scenarios, future demand scenarios and generation scenarios for the UK. Then we're using those scenarios to basically assess the future resilience of the grid against the many challenges you mentioned the beginning, that basically we will experience different changes in generation demand behaviour, exposure to different weather events and so on, to make the electricity infrastructure of the UK more resilient to such events. We also have the opportunity to work closely with social scientists. So, we expanded the core engineering work that were very good at, as engineers, to look more into the social aspects of climate change and the reliance electricity supply into our work as well.

<Vicky> Fantastic. So, there's a real mix of disciplines coming together to help address this as a challenge, as well, which is great to hear. What do you think are the key challenges on the horizon over the next five years? What’s the things we need to really be focused on tackling?

<Mathaios> I think there's a few things actually. I think getting to grips on how we will be using electricity is one of the key agendas, at least from my perspective. For me it's understanding the equipment. We work significantly with a lot of the utilities companies for the National Grid, Scottish and Southern energy WPD. We are always checking equipment, testing equipment to understand aging and we're trying to understand the impact of all the changing infrastructure that's going to happen. Especially electric vehicles, distribution generation, wind and the cost of the equipment. I think that's actually quite an important thing, because the shift that we are seeing right now is only going to go ahead within the next ten to 15 years. We are in a very comfortable state at the moment, where we turn the switch on it and it's an uninterrupted power supply and to expect that to happen for the next five, ten or 15 years. When you have such a significant change and I think the talk recently about electric vehicles being the only mode of personal transport in the next 15 years, almost a certain extent taking out petrol and diesel vehicles, will have a significant impact on the infrastructure. So, I think the next five years we'll see how that is going to change our network and what we do on the network to almost, give it that extra strength for instance. So quite exciting times going forward.

<Viddy> We, should not only look at this from the perspective of the industry or the academics, but also from the perspective of society. People tend to not to think about the availability of electricity, but the availability of services. So, it doesn't really matter to them how their home is warmed or how they get transported, as long as the homes are warm, and they get transported. So, from the perspective of resilience, if people still have access to these services, even during a blackout, then the impact of these outages would be less severe.

<Mathaios> I agree with Viddy. Just to further emphasise the need for flexibility in our electricity grid, looking ahead in the future because we have traditionally designed the system to be robust enough to deal with abnormal conditions, let's say. So, we are doing a very good job when, for example, when losing an element in the system. Keeping it live as well and we made a very good job in keeping the lights on under these expected conditions, but we see more and more events hitting the network that we didn't predict. So, building a bit of flexibility in the system, in order to be able to cope with potentially unforeseen contingencies and events is becoming very very critical in the future.

<Vicky> What kind of events have been hitting us that we've not seen before? Can you give us some examples?

<Mathaios> Yeah, the most vivid example is the blackout that happened in the UK in August 2019. Where basically we lost a number of assets in the power grids more or less at the same time. That was a unique experience, as far as I know, in the history of UK.

<Viddy> There was lightning strike involved in that as well, and it's interesting that's the kind of things that you have to account for. To a certain extent you're planning for abnormal events that you know could happen, if that's the right word to use. So, you're almost trying to predict to a certain extent, these events that could happen again. I like that word that Mathaios was using, high impact but low probability. The sheer fact of the high impact makes us think about it and worry about it. Our network is a living thing and that's the thing that people need to understand, it's happening now as we speak. So, changes are immediate, the network has been planned with a surplus but that surplus will not be a surplus as we move towards higher electrification.

<Mathaios> So we need to really define the surplus.

<Viddy> Exactly. So where does that come from? Matt actually highlighted that as well. As a community we are used to having that service. That could be heating, turning on your kettle or turning on your TV and then suddenly if you had to make a choice between, what you turn on and when you turn it on. You will start to ask questions. All of these things are things that networks have to think about. To be fair, the distribution networks do think about this. Transmission networks think about it; that’s the reason why they’re so robust. They were heavily designed to take on these hits, but we are doing more of it and expecting more of it, as well. Which is kind of where we all come in really.

<Mathaios> Yeah, I mean just to add to what Viddy said about distribution networks. The UK blackout in 2019 is a great example of the impact of the distribution networks, as well, the reliability of the overall electricity grid because we lost generation.

<Viddy> There was a huge disruption on the railway network as well. Vicky, were you on a train at the time?

<Vicky> Yeah. I was on a train, trapped on the hottest day of the year in July 2019. Which is a little bit unpleasant, but that was caused by the sagging in the overhead lines and the train just snarled to a halt for three hours.

<Viddy> That’s interesting. There's only a few of us in this room and you don't have to go too far to understand that already there’s things that have happened, that have impacted on our day-to-day lives to some extent.

<Vicky> All external events can affect the knowns, the unknowns and then the black swan events. Matt you mentioned about lessening the impact of the blackouts through actions that we can take, like community resilience and other areas. Are there any examples of countries where that has been done really well? Where it works effectively?

<Matt> There are countries which have faced lots of blackouts in the past and the people in these countries help themselves by buying solar backup power generators and storage systems. So, it's not only electricity; it's also knowing where to access these services, if the electricity fails. So, for example, if electricity fails on the large scale, then usually the water supply fails. So, the question is, where do you get water from? You need people who know where there are clean springs that you can use for water. It's really about preparing communities. So, the community knows and maybe somebody has a back-up generator in the cellar. Maybe somebody has batteries which other people can use to charge their phones. By enabling the community you can reduce many of the impacts of such a blackout.

<Vicky> I guess that's all down to communications as well as knowledge that you're talking about. Where these services are, might come down to effective communications?

<Mathaios> It really comes down to the support that is provided from the network operator. To those vulnerable and exposed customers and believe it or not, even in the UK, there are Distribution Network Organisations that categorise customers that are vulnerable. Who are very weakly connected to the main grid. For example, there are areas in the North West and in the Lake District and even in North Wales, which are exposed very frequently to disconnection of electricity assets, due to extreme weather events. As Matt said they organise communities to deal with these events. For example, they have backup generators to connect to in case their electricity goes off. And it goes off much more frequently than it does in metropolitan areas of the UK.

<Vicky> I love the story, I think it was in New York, I can't remember what year. Where people were out in the streets and lighting candles and the fact that they had a blackout actually brought people together. There's a bit of a nice community atmosphere there. So, I guess we need to stock up on a few candles?

<Viddy> I have an example of that actually in the UK that a friend of mine shared a few years ago. There was a power outage in his area and during Christmas time. I said that must have been horrible and he actually said it was the best Christmas ever because the children’s phones ran out of battery. So, they got candles out and they sat together and played different board games. They came closer as a family and they had the best Christmas of their life.

<Vicky> So maybe we need to learn from the past and apply some learnings to the future as well? Finally, I've got a last question for you. If you had five minutes with a cabinet minister, maybe you're stuck in a lift because the electricity has gone out, what advice would you offer? What should the government be doing from a policy perspective in these areas?

<Viddy> Infrastructure. Change is needed and it needs a huge boost right now. For me, if I had been able to, I’d talk about infrastructure. You kind of think electric vehicles and stuff like that. I don't think we're at a point where we have a network of let's say fast charging points. Where people can just take a car and just go wherever they want for thousands of kilometres. I don't think that exists anywhere. That's one of the key reasons people talk about infrastructure. I think it’s quite an interesting thing and I think that would be doing something. I definitely would discuss that with someone in a decision maker position to be honest, yeah.

I think it's very important to link the different types of infrastructure. So, transport, water, electricity, communication all together and look at them from a whole system perspective. To make use of any interconnection and links between them; that's one thing policymakers and regulators, as well, should look at. The other thing is strengthening the communities and preparing them for these kinds of events.

<Mathaios> From my point of view, I was very pleased to see that OfGem the electricity regulator in UK is considering resilience against unknown events within the next regulatory framework in the UK, to become active in a couple of years’ time. So, I'm really looking forward to seeing if there's going to be a change as we have discussed just now in the way that we plan the system we operate the system to be more flexible. To accommodate all these changes that are going on in the energy landscape. So in my opinion we should invent more flexibility, as I said before in the way that we operate the system and it would be nice for this to be captured in the regulatory framework as well in order to enable the development of business case studies basically. The room and the area for all the new technologies to penetrated into the system, in a secure and reliable way.

<Vicky> Thanks ever so much for your time. You've given us a lot to think about, and for external bodies to think about, as well as the general public. So, I'll let you get back to the great work that you're doing in there keeping our lights on and electricity flowing.

Listen to our next energy podcast to find out more about keeping the lights on and some practical tips we can all take to help mitigate against climate change and carbon emissions. I'll be talking to Dr. John Broderick about why the term keeping the lights on, is in itself problematic and we were talking about the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow and some key themes around the research he's doing on carbon budget setting.

To hear more about our research, advanced materials, cancer, energy, global inequalities and industrial biotechnology go to manchester.ac.uk

Episode three: Achieving net zero

There is no planet B placard

What can we do as citizens to meet our electricity demand against the net zero challenge? John Broderick, Lecturer at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, outlines the scale of the global emergency and the key actions we can take that will make a difference as we try to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Find out more with Policy@Manchester's publication 'On Net Zero'.


Podcast transcript

You’re listening to a podcast from The University of Manchester.

Welcome to the Research Beacons’ podcast, a series of illuminating conversations that shine a light on research at Manchester and our innovative solutions to global challenges. Our Research Beacons podcast series highlights how researchers at The University of Manchester are finding solutions to global challenges across five key areas: Advanced Materials, Cancer, Energy, Global Inequalities and Industrial Biotechnology, our key research beacons.

<Vicky> In part three of our ‘Spotlight On’ energy podcast on keeping the lights on, I'm joined by Dr John Broderick. Today we're going to be talking about the term keeping the lights on and what that means for us as citizens and what we can do to really help in striving for the zero carbon targets that we're trying to achieve to mitigate the effects of climate change. So, we'll cover a few issues around that, but firstly John, over to you, if you'd like to tell us who you are and what you do?

<John> My name is John Broderick and I'm a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, and I do research as part of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

<Vicky> Fantastic. Could you tell us a little bit more about the Tyndall Centre and maybe anything that's kind of special about that group or facility?

<John> I really enjoy working at the Tyndall Centre because it is such a diverse community of researchers. We have got engineers and physical scientists and natural scientists and social scientists as well. So, we have people who work on sociology and social psychology, alongside people working on the fundamental technologies.

<Vicky> So that's kind of multidisciplinary research coming together for the greater good?

<John> Well yes, and to analyse the problems that climate change puts to us. In Manchester, we focus on the energy system.

<Vicky> Can you tell us about your area of research and what got you interested in that?

<John> I'm interested in carbon budgeting. So, I look at the quantities of emissions on aggregate that energy systems and energy technologies produce. I got into this about ten years ago when aviation and offsetting was becoming a hot topic and we were looking at what we could do to reduce the impact of air travel. Now that went quiet for a bit and I did some work on shale gas and on smart grids, but aviation is coming right back around and that's where some current research direction is going.

<Vicky> What motivated you to get into this? Is it something you saw on the news? Something that had an impact on you personally?

<John> Well the start of this motivation was as a six former I won a science prize. The prize was to go on an ecology field trip in the Bahamas. Which was all very exciting and glamorous but when we got out there the coral reefs that we were meant to be monitoring were in a pretty bad state. They were suffering from coral bleaching. I don't know if you know but the corals themselves are a symbiosis between a little sea anemone creature that builds the physical skeleton. The carbonate skeleton of the coral reef has little tentacles and captures plankton. But also, within its cells it has some algae that photosynthesise and when the corals are stressed, they eject those algae. The symbiosis breaks down, they go white and they lose their colour because they lose their photosynthetic pigments and then they can ultimately, and frequently, die off.

That removes the physical basis of the whole coral reef ecosystem. So, this was many moons ago and we were seeing in that particular year a significant bleaching event and it was striking. I mean visually striking seeing white corals on the reef. So that really made me think about the physical and the biological consequences of climate change.

<Vicky> Yes, that's a really tangible experience that kind of roots what's happening, what we've contributed to. You can actually see the effects of that. I guess we're seeing more and more of these kinds of effects?

<John> The coral ecosystems are some of the first that will be most heavily affected by climate change because it's the warming background temperatures that drive this stress that causes the bleaching impact.

<Vicky> There's examples obviously we can see; ice caps melting, all the way through to the fires in Australia. It looks like we're getting more and more signals that the planet’s not going to cope very well forever with the contribution we are making to carbon emissions.

<John> Yes and so I decided a few years later that actually I didn't just want to be watching things going downhill. I wanted to be working on analysing the causes of the problems and the solutions to the problems. So that's how I ended up in the engineering department.

<Vicky> Well thank you for all the work you are doing to benefit the world and we’ll probably come on to a little bit more about what you do there. Just to link into the theme of the podcast and the previous conversations we've had on parts one and two, we're talking about keeping the lights on, as a theme for our ‘Spotlight On’ energy and we've covered generation and how we can meet the demand through generation. Obviously, climate change came up quite heavily in that conversation. Looking at how we can find energy sources that are low carbon emitters, we talked to experts in the field of nuclear energy as a clean fuel and how we can bridge the energy gap with nuclear power and extend the plant life of existing reactors to keep the power going. We also talked to Dr. Andrew Welfle, who told us about his work in bioenergy, as a clean source of renewable energy, to help move away from our dependence on fossil fuels.

We covered generation issues in part one and then in part two. We talked about the resilience of the network and the work that some of our academics in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering are doing about the grid and how we can make the grid more resilient and robust, with the integration of more renewables on the system. We also considered the fact that it's quite an old network, 60 years old, and the extreme weather events that cause effects. We also looked globally as well at places like Chile, and how the electricity network stands up to some Black Swan extreme weather events. So, we covered those areas in terms of how we can keep the lights on, both from meeting that energy demand and looking at low carbon energy sources. We’ve also spoken about the network itself and how that can bear up with the fact we’re sat here with the lights on and we just take that for granted that it will always be the case, that we will have access to electricity.

So, I just wondered what your thoughts are around keeping the lights on?

<Andrew> Keeping the lights on. It's a phrase that turns up a lot, but actually I don't think is terribly helpful when we're thinking about the energy system, from two main perspectives. First it’s quite a trivial one. It's about lights and we use that as a metaphor that stands for energy. It tends to stand for electricity, and we need to remember that electricity is only a small part of our energy system. It's only about a seventh of the total primary energy that we consume. So, we need to look much broader at how we produce and consume energy. We need to recognise how much energy is used in heat and in transport. That currently has very little to do with the electricity system. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is that it sets up the idea that somebody else should be responsible for keeping the lights on and that we are passive beneficiaries of their work. I actually think as we move towards greater penetration of intermittent renewables, and potentially inflexible nuclear plants or plants with limited flexibility and as we move more demands on to our electricity system through heating and transport. Then we're going to have to become more active and involved ourselves as participants in the energy system and become familiar with using energy in a different way.

I'll give you a trivial example. My wife and I have an electric vehicle at home and we also have an economy 7 tariff which enables us to charge it at a very low rate through the middle of the night on an off-peak basis. Now this has benefits both for the network and for us financially, where we see a much lower cost in our electricity bills. It still requires us to manually set the timer on the vehicle, plug the car in at particular times. Maybe go back out in the cold, after dark to make sure it's set and actually, that's a bit of a burden to be honest. Maybe one that we need to shoulder ourselves. I mean, actually, when we think about, going back out at night and plugging the car in is a small additional effort. Also, something that maybe technology providers need to be working on is the integration of those systems. So, we can automate some of this, so that we don't have to have so much manual intervention. So yes, keeping the lights on hides a couple of the really key themes that I think will be part of our energy system transformation in the next decade or two.

<Vicky> Hmm. So, there's a lot of talk around things like smart grid interventions and that being key for going forwards. This obviously touches on consumer behaviour, and changes and shifts in how we live our lives day-to-day and how we ourselves can contribute to the big issues and energy. I guess it'd be really good at this point to ask you, if there's anybody listening out there and thinking ‘what can I do’? What are your top tips that people could do on a practical level that will make a real impact on mitigating against climate change and our emissions, and helping to conserve energy?

<Andrew> I think one of the biggest things people can do is speak to their elected representatives. Speak to their local and the national politicians about the climate negotiations that are going to happen in Glasgow. I think the UK is taking a strong leadership position there and being effective is the most significant thing that we can do globally as citizens. The first thing I would say to people to do is, if they think that climate change and energy system transformation is important, is to make sure that their politicians know that that's the case. In terms of what we can do in our own lives, to reduce the quantity of energy that we demand makes it so much easier for the rest of the energy system to be able to meet those demands. So, looking at how much we travel. How energy-intensive that travel is. Looking at how we use heat in our homes, that would be the next thing to do. Now they're not easy things. They're not little things but they're things that will make a big difference. So, I would encourage people to think about their home insulation and what they could do to reduce the amount of heat. Think about the controls in their heating systems. Do they need to be heating all of the house all of the time? Can they get a little bit smarter with some thermostatic radiator valves and maybe some smart controls or just a well-set timer control? Then think about road transport and air transport particularly, because they're the most carbon intensive at present. How far and how frequently we're traveling and are there opportunities to reduce that?

<Vicky> Fantastic. I shall stock up on my supply of jumpers and thermals to wear around the house.

<Andrew> Again just as a little kind of personal anecdote on that. Two or three years ago we did a big insulation project on our home and I have been absolutely overjoyed at how the house feels now. All of the rooms are at a moderate comfortable temperature for a much longer part of the day. The house is just so much nicer to be in. It was a lot of upheaval to do the works, but I've been so pleased with it.

<Vicky> It all pays off doesn't it? Like you say people might think these are options are quite insignificant - what change can I make? - but on that scale little actions actually do contribute a lot.

<Andrew> Well they do when they are multiplied, when you talk to other people. So, when you talk to the building industry and you say, ‘I want higher standards’. When you encourage people to do things slightly differently. When you show and you tell other people about it. That's when you begin to see a broader social change. So, I think it's not enough to passively consume some of these technologies, but to actively increase their uptake more broadly.

<Vicky> Yes, it's great to have all this on the radar isn't it? We talked about keeping the lights on, we need to make sure we're turning them off in rooms where we're not going to be using them, and as we exit from one room to another, and that that kind of thing as well. So, you mentioned COP26. If you could talk to one of the cabinet ministers, have you got any top things you'd be saying to them?

<Andrew> I think that they should recognise the scale of the issue, because we have been talking and making such limited progress to date, we are making the problem harder and harder for ourselves. So, I would encourage all global leaders to recognise the scale of that challenge and to be able to bring forth some strong collaborations and commitments.

I think need some progress, particularly in the aviation sector because there hasn't any been to date. It has been moving slowly and is only proposing an offsetting scheme, rather than reductions within the sector. So, I think that that is something that needs to be addressed but that's not going to be the major topic of conversation at COP26. At COP26 we need ambition on the emissions targets that matches the targets that are in the Paris Agreement from 2015.

<Vicky> So it's joining all that together and working together across countries and getting different politicians committing to all that change.

<Andrew> I think we're going to need for someone to show some leadership and then bring other people with them. However, that's achieved at international diplomatic levels and so that's really what I think the UK could offer.

<Vicky> A really good example of what the UK is doing, and Tyndall Manchester were involved in, is the city carbon budgets. The work that was done there by Tyndall Manchester and that's obviously contributing towards GMCA’s carbon targets for 2038.

<Andrew> Yes, what we did there was strip out the negative emissions technologies from many of the future emissions reduction scenarios. So, there's the presumption in lots of government and scientific models that we have technology that takes CO2 out of the atmosphere in the second half of the century. Now that's a big ask, to be able to deliver those technologies at the global scale. It's not to say that the technologies are a pipe dream. We have them as demonstrators, we know they exist but to scale them up is a big risk. So, we took that out and we said what are the safe quantities of emissions that could be fairly allocated to a developed country like the UK? Then how could that be scaled down to the city?

What we found is that we need to have a very significant increases in the rates of reductions than we're seeing at the moment. So, the recent trend has been reductions to the order of about six percent per annum. Slowing last year and that's been due to us getting coal out of the national electricity system. That's a really significant piece of progress but it's a one-off and we need to keep pushing. In fact, we found that we needed to increase that rate of reduction to greater than 10% per annum. So, it's not just the 2038 zero target that we have. It's important we know that everything needs to get to zero.

That's a fundamental feature of the climate science and the way that CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere. If you don't have carbon emission sucking technologies, then you have to get to zero. Then the other part is that yes, we need to be keeping ourselves within our carbon budget and the carbon budget shows us that we need to be looking at greater than 10% per annum reductions and really scaling up our efforts. That perhaps implies coming back to the issues that I mentioned in the introduction. That we think more about how we demand energy and how we demand particularly carbon-intensive energy services because the easiest way of cutting our emissions is to cut our demand especially for services like air travel that currently have a very high carbon intensity.

<Vicky> Great thanks John. That's been fantastic. So, the key take out of taken from all this is, we need to act now, and that action needs to be both on the micro and the macro level. All the way from the actions we take as individuals, through to a regional level like what GMCA is doing. All the way up to the global and what we're doing together as one planet to save the world. Thank you for your time.

To hear more about our research in advanced materials, cancer, energy, global inequalities and Industrial biotechnology go to manchester.ac.uk.