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We need to stop talking about decarbonising energy - and just do it

07 June 2022

There's a long and hard road ahead, but it's time to start turning ambition into action.

We need to stop talking about decarbonising energy - and just do it
Renewable energy, such as solar power, will need to be harnessed to a far greater extent than at present. Image credit: Pexels/Red Zeppelin

The Energy Saving Trust estimates that we need to slash the carbon emissions associated with heating our buildings by 95% from 2017 levels as part of wide-ranging measures to achieve a net zero economy by 2050.

Electricity consumption needs to create 97% less carbon output over the same period, according to the organisation.

While some progress can be made by reducing demand for power, or spreading it out, it’s clear a huge change will also be needed in how we generate energy.

Renewable sources such as the wind, the sun and the tides will have to be harnessed to a far greater extent than at present.

New methods such as capturing carbon and hydrogen from industrial processes must be developed at scale and pace.

It’s a steep journey from where we currently are to where we need to be.

Given the urgency, we need to stop talking about it and start moving.

Support from central government

It might sound straightforward, but making this first step to serious action is challenging and requires motivation, investment, and collaboration.

First and foremost, the low carbon energy mission needs significant support from central government.

There’s been a lack of meaningful policy in this area, although soaring prices in the wake of the pandemic and the terrible events in Ukraine have finally focused minds.

Ministers published an Energy Security Strategy in April that set out plans to accelerate the deployment of wind, new nuclear, solar and hydrogen power towards a loose ambition for 95% of electricity generation to be low carbon by 2030.

The motivation finally appears to have been found, and the government will need to invest heavily to ensure end users are incentivised to turn to renewable power – and industry is able to deliver it.

Translational Energy Research Centre (TERC)

Translational Energy Research Centre. Image credit: TERC
The Translational Energy Research Centre at the University of Sheffield Image credit: TERC

Then it comes down to collaboration and direction, which is where the ICE hopes its partnership with the University of Sheffield’s Translational Energy Research Centre (TERC) can make a difference.

TERC, part of the university’s Energy Institute, offers a fast track to turning early-stage research into proven, sustainable, low-carbon products and services that are ready for deployment.

Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), TERC works to discover, demonstrate and upscale energy solutions for sustainable energy generation, use and storage.

It boasts some of the largest and most exciting testing equipment of its type in Europe, with bespoke rigs that can be adapted to suit requirements.

I approached the team there and had a very productive meeting with managing director Professor Mohamed Pourkashanian and business development manager Alix Johnstone-Morfoisse.

Our work together over the coming period will help grow a shared understanding between engineers, researchers and technology specialists as the UK embarks on the journey to low carbon energy.


We want to facilitate knowledge transfer between the two organisations for mutual benefit.

Alongside informal ongoing discussions, TERC will join the ICE low carbon energy community board meetings, supporting projects to grow the knowledge base in our sector.

The ICE will contribute to TERC’s ongoing work by directly identifying the challenges faced by industry and society.

Lobbying for low carbon project funding

Another benefit will be the joining of forces with regards to political engagement, something both parties already do well individually but can align on.

One focus of this activity will be making clear to MPs the need for funding of trials and research towards low carbon sources.

Another area of importance is winning public hearts and minds to support the mission to convert to low carbon energy sources.

The rising cost of energy and the falling levels of real income make it harder to implement the switch away from fossil fuels over the foreseeable future.

This is not ideal as the climate emergency isn’t going to wait for better economic conditions, so we have to keep going on the journey.

But a hiatus does give us more time to plan our route. And like a super tanker, it may take a while for us to get going, but then we will gather momentum and be hard to stop.

We need to move from ambition to reality

Carbon capture equipment at the Translational Energy Research Centre. Image credit: TERC
Hydrogen equipment at the Translational Energy Research Centre at the University of Sheffield Image credit: TERC

The next 12 months is critical.

I'd like to see the excellent theory being worked up by organisations like TERC transferred into the practical, with plans on the drawing board for new low carbon energy infrastructure in specific locations.

We need to be planning now to take low carbon energy from desk and pilot-scale study into practical application.

I'd like to see TERC’s plans brought into the community to produce energy from hydrogen, for example, at a profit that makes it sustainable in every sense.

The civil engineer’s role

Civil engineers have a huge role to play in this next step.

We need to collaborate with many other disciplines, such as academics, technology specialists, householders, commercial clients, policy makers and others – and this is a process we can lead on.

Engineers are good at adapting and, I believe, make excellent project managers.

Throughout their careers they are faced with a diversity of challenges.

We need to use all our engineering expertise to translate projects from ambition to reality, solving the practical challenges that emerge and keeping the focus trained on the outcome – sustainable, low-carbon energy generation that works for economies, communities and the environment.

The ICE wants to lead this partnership

The ICE wants to lead on this in partnership with valuable organisations such as TERC, which is positioning itself as a central magnet to create the complex ecosystem required to deliver low carbon energy.

Its ambition is to be a centre of excellence for the technologies we need to meet our ambitions as a country in terms of decarbonising power.

By bringing together energy providers, end users, suppliers, technology specialists and the construction industry, we believe TERC can turn the key in the engine and get us moving in earnest towards our destination.

Pourkashanian has told me that during the next 12 months, TERC will "support innovators and businesses to research, develop and demonstrate novel and cutting-edge clean energy technologies”.

It will also “work to break down technology barriers in sustainable air transportation; low and zero-carbon power; hydrogen production and utilisation for industrial decarbonisation; renewable power; and energy efficiency".

Despite the distance we need to cover, and the terrain in front of us, I'm optimistic we will complete our journey as planned.

The government, industry and society all want to get there.

We are in the early stages, but we are making progress every day that gives me confidence in the end result.

  • Ian Parke, co-chair, Low Carbon Energy Advisory Board at Institution of Civil Engineers