The road to net-zero, and how electrification will get us there
Net-zero is a "system problem", meaning you need to understand and solve the whole issue using a coordinated cross-sector systems approach, rather than looking at singular problems in isolation. For example, it's about more than creating electric vehicles - it's about charging them with renewable energy sources and ensuring every part is recycled or reused in the circular economy.
The central purpose of the Driving the Electric Revolution Challenge is to aid the UK’s move towards electrification by investing in power electronics, machines and drives (PEMD). These are technologies that enable the conversion of electrical energy into and from kinetic energy – not only are they the electronics that make your phone vibrate or power your hairdryer, but they are also the motors in electric vehicles and trains, and they convert wind into energy in a wind turbine. As they are such a crucial technology across sectors from transport to energy to agriculture, net-zero is not possible without PEMD. Further, without the Driving the Electric Revolution challenge, delivered by UKRI, PEMD manufacturing in the UK will not happen at scale.
In the UK, transport remains the largest source of carbon emissions, accounting for 34% in 2019, and so it remains one of the biggest challenges. Therefore, advancing electrification of transport is and must remain a priority. The good news is that we are seeing more and more car companies producing their own electric vehicle models, and even making pledges to electrify their entire fleet. This, coupled with government policy to ban the sale of diesel cars, means electric vehicles are firmly cemented in our vision of a net-zero future.
As electric vehicles become the norm, a crucial step in the coordinated systems approach is looking at how to recycle and reuse the batteries – otherwise it is estimated that there will be 6 million EV batteries in landfill by 2040. The Faraday Battery Challenge, also delivered by UKRI, is supporting the advancement of technologies which tackle this. One project, called VALUABLE, aims to stop this colossal amount of batteries ending up in landfill by remanufacturing them for solar, wind, rail and marine technologies here in the UK.
By 2050, faster-charging points will make it easier to charge up EV batteries. Currently taking up to five hours to reach full capacity or even longer at home, charging time is currently one of the biggest barriers for consumers considering buying an electric vehicle. Solid-state battery specialists Illika Technologies are working on a project with Faraday Battery Challenge Funding to produce battery technology that can charge an electric vehicle in just 25 minutes.
Soon, we’ll see electrification extended across other transport – large commercial vehicles, marine, rail, agriculture, off-highway and even air. Public transport, too, including buses and trains will also be electrified, whilst many cities are now also bringing in e-scooter and e-bike rental schemes. This roll-out of electrification means the number of polluting vehicles in urban areas will plummet, dramatically reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants, reducing congestion and propelling the UK towards net zero.
Looking to the skies, the Future Flight challenge is designed to accelerate the use of aviation whilst helping reduce the 6% of total UK emissions accounted for by aviation. Again, electrification will be paramount. While electric aircraft may seem like science fiction currently, it is anticipated that low-volume electric ‘air taxis’ will appear in our skies by 2025, and become more commonplace in both cities and rural areas within 10 years. These will develop in size and capability, eliminating travel to airports and slashing journey times. By 2050 we could see all UK regional aircraft using electric power and interconnecting with hydrogen or sustainable fuel aircraft for longer range international travel.
Beyond transport, growing the UK’s PEMD industry means we can produce our own wind turbines. Wind power is the UK’s strongest source of renewable energy and the Prime Minister has shown his faith in it with pledges for all UK homes to be powered by wind energy by 2030. Wind energy currently makes up 20% of the UK’s electricity supply and is rapidly expanding. By 2030, the UK offshore windfarm market is set to reach a capacity of 40GW, so it is crucial for the future of the country’s green energy.
In order to reach net zero, we need to take our coordinated systems approach and ensure wind farms are working to their full potential, otherwise we are literally wasting energy. The Robots for a Safer World challenge is funding and supporting robotics companies which are working towards this goal – companies such as BladeBUG and Innvotek, which create robots to inspect and maintain wind turbines and keep them functioning at an optimum level.
It is a hugely exciting time as we accelerate towards our net-zero emissions goal. Our vision of 2050 holds greener, cleaner lives for us all – we must now make it a reality.
Dr Will Drury, Challenge Director – Driving the Electric Revolution, at UKRIUK Research and Innovation