2022 was a year of political instability for the UK which in turn had implications on the wider economy. With a climate and economic crisis happening simultaneously, the impact of war, and the rising cost of living, the last 12 months haven’t provided an ideal backdrop for the innovation sector to either highlight its achievements or to make a grab for the limited airtime and funds leftover.
The balance between economic and environmental responsibility and the role which innovation can play has never been more pertinent. As we hope for a year less in flux, we want to acknowledge the strides the government has made towards meeting electrification targets, regardless of the external challenges, and emphasise the ways in which DER-IC can support industry and the UK to move forward and grow.
In 2023, how can DER-IC work with government to build on these achievements, to make improvements, create new processes and place the UK as a world leader in Power Electronics, Machines and Drives (PEMD)?
1. Skills – across all levels: Decoding PEMD and encouraging a culture of creativity
The common challenges of electrification in the UK are our finite number of skilled engineers, low level of UK component content, a limited number of companies doing manufacturing process development, and a lack of supply chain capacity.
At DER-IC we are very conscious of this and the role that we play. Electrification can be a difficult concept to explain but it’s our responsibility to decode it and make sure it appeals to larger, diverse audiences, something which DER-IC is actively trying to change through working with educators and busting jargon. Together, we all hold a responsibility to develop accessible routes into engineering and PEMD to suit a range of people. This includes upskilling and reskilling existing roles, academia, technical education, and apprenticeships, right down to instilling a desire to know more about ‘how things work’ from a young age so that people ask that important question throughout their life – regardless of their background or interests. Funding for schools, further and higher education is vital, coupled with workforce planning for people new into the industry and an enhanced focus on Continued Professional Development (CPD) to keep pushing towards innovation.
2. Levelling up
The idea that levelling up, in itself, will fill a capability gap is a stretch. Levelling up needs to be about bringing about a set of equal opportunities to grow and prosper. It shouldn’t and in some cases doesn’t matter where electrification innovation is conducted but it must be where capability exists, not where it’s most politically or financially expedient. My experience is that investment seeks out capability, so to be successful eventually you have to invest in developing capability.
Companies need space to prosper and grow. Our plan is to have incubation facilities in the future at DER-IC North East, which would be office spaces available for use as well as our labs and equipment. It is vital that this region continues to grow, along with other hubs across the UK, however we need a whole new supply chain and more inward investment. DER-IC can support this goal through our government funding from UK Research and Innovation, which we have invested into new equipment to fill manufacturing supply chain gaps, as well as creating a network of R&D expertise across 30 academic and RTO partners.
Yes, levelling up remains an important item on the agenda for the UK, but we need to consider this on an international scale, by supporting local and UK national innovation but also encouraging collaboration globally. Currently, we strive to follow the example of other countries whose R&D investments in renewables and electrification are streets ahead of us. German Automotive spent $35.6bn in 2021 on R&D into electrification alone. The UK can make as much noise as it wants at climate events such as COP 27, but we now need to shout about programmes like DER-IC which are supporting the UK government in their commitment to stepping up and recognising the role climate economy could play in our economic recovery and role as a climate champion on a global stage.
3. Balance between continued growth and industrialisation and working towards Net Zero
The UK is already proving it is ready to deliver leading energy solutions, as shown in the success that has been seen in offshore wind. To support further innovation, a net zero ecosystem is being created. It will involve new skills, new research, and new methods, and the expertise and assets to seize the net zero opportunities and deliver sustainable growth. Rather than something that works outside of traditional, high carbon sectors, we need to find a way for these worlds to coalesce during the energy transition, encouraging and considering electrification at every level and recognising its investment value.
Moving into 2023 there are a number of sustainability trends that businesses should be aware of – notably a focus on rapid deployment activities utilising technologies that are ready for market, particularly across the energy sector and in transport across road, marine and micro-mobility spaces. UK businesses are well positioned to develop and deploy solutions to decarbonise these sectors and increase capacity charging and alternative energy solutions such as hydrogen.
4. A recognition of the value a well-funded, well-skilled PEMD sector could bring the UK
As companies race to scale up utilisation of new technology, we must ensure that the UK supply chain for manufacturing the high value elements of these systems such as PEMD scales in line with deployment. UK government estimated it to be worth £80bn to the UK by 2050 (up from £7bn today) if the UK supply chains can respond to the challenge.
As much as we’d like, we can’t shift entirely from fossil fuels to renewables without significant investment in the technology. While we have fantastic existing capability within the UK, with programmes like DER-IC helping to increase this capability, there have been set-backs, such as the collapse of Britishvolt into administration meaning that plans for a new battery gigafactory in the North East have been put on hold. We are going to need four or five gigafactories around the UK to satisfy demand from the automotive industry and for other industries in the coming years. The deadlines for decarbonisation of transport aren’t going to move, and therefore looking at battery manufacture as well as the power electronics and drivetrains that DER-IC is heavily involved in is essential. If we don’t have that investment, if we don’t get those supply chains up and running, we risk having to rely on imports from overseas. To make progress, we need to encourage investment targeted towards PEMD to drive innovation and help deploy this technology at a greater scale. Whilst it is the ‘right’ thing to do, we need to see considerable economic incentives. If the economic incentive isn’t there then, as we know from previous recessions, things pause.
For those of us working in PEMD, on the solutions, we need to keep having these conversations to continue driving forward innovation. If we are to meet government targets of reducing energy demand by 15 per cent by 2030, we need to see investment in robust R&D programmes like DER-IC to achieve these goals, drawing on the expertise of the UK’s strong PEMD community. This expertise must be combined with public awareness campaigns to make PEMD easier to grasp and as appealing as possible for future generations to indeed achieve an electric revolution.
Prof Matt Boyle, Executive Chair, Driving the Electric Revolution Industrialisation Centres (DER-IC)