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Leading the Green Heat Revolution

n November 2019 the Confederation of British Industry announced the initiation of the “Decade of Delivery”. The then General Director, Carolyn Fairburn, set out “To tackle the climate emergency in the time we have, we need to go faster, and further, than ever before… But the truth is that nobody has done anything like this, on this scale before. Business can’t do it alone. It must be done in partnership with government every step of the way.”


Why the decade and not the 30 years of delivery given the UK’s commitment to be net zero by 2050? That rests with the need to first stop emitting greenhouse gases to limit their impact on global warming and, second, the later you leave it, the more drastic the intervention required and hence acting early makes economic sense. Indeed, Birmingham has set a 2030 net zero target.


Birmingham and the West Midlands are rightly proud of having been the progenitor of the industrial transformation that has driven global economic growth for several centuries. In a remarkable period of history between two to three hundred years ago, there was a confluence of developments which exploited human ingenuity and natural resources laying the foundations for the creation of industry. The access to coal as cheap fuel, the development of the steam engine, the creation of the first “mass production” factory and the civil engineering and canal infrastructure to interconnect. The names are now legends; Boulton, Brindley, Smeaton, Watt… Manufacturing took over.


This also became a focus of intellectual industry, via the Lunar Society, attracting the likes of Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the United States, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin, as in the unit of temperature), a giant of thermal science, who amongst many contributions pondered the origins of the energy of the Sun, through to William Herschel an astronomer after which the Herschel telescope employed to understand how stars and galaxies are formed. One might also argue that via Priestley, who discovered oxygen, and Wedgewood who employed Nicholson, that the region also had a role to play in the discovery of gases and splitting of water, via electrolysis, into hydrogen and oxygen.


Though fuelled by coal, this industry attracted the seeds of debate which now bridge to low carbon solutions; solar energy which in turn drives the Earth’s weather is the platform for global decarbonisation. Kelvins’ conclusions on the Sun as a thermal body were reasonably dismal, speculating that unless there was some hitherto unknown source of energy that the sun would run out of energy in a matter of millions of years. Now we know that the lifecycle of stars is billions of years and that they are fuelled by nuclear processes.


Twenty years ago, solar and wind power existed, but there was no real prospect of a major role in the energy system due to their high unit cost. We are now on the other side of major scale up of solar panel manufacturing in China (cost reduction by a factor of five) and the cost reduction, by a factor of three, associated with manufacturing and installation of wind turbines in the UK. There is now no barrier to wind and solar from a price perspective, and if one puts to one side the need to manage intermittent generation, wind is cheaper than everything. Here national and regional governments have had a major role to play in setting a policy direction and ambition which industry can follow and jobs and growth ensued.


There has been much discussion on the role of hydrogen in a low carbon energy system, in part recognised in The Government’s Hydrogen Strategy. There are few definitive answers yet, but hydrogen has the potential to play a role via decarbonisation of industry replacing the combustion of natural gas, decarbonisation of heavy transport replacing diesel and, via hydrogen boilers, delivering low-carbon domestic heating. The Hydrogen Strategy is a wait and see approach, with a moderate amount of funding to simulate innovation. We will know by the end of the decade one way or other.


Similarly, and accelerated by concerns over the rise in the natural gas price, nuclear energy is back as a priority, with innovation funding supporting the small modular, SMR, and advanced nuclear reactor programmes in both fission and fusion energy. The flexibility of these reactors mean that their locations will not be restricted to coastal regions, will have the capability to deliver heat and electrical power and could be the basis for hydrogen production and grid balancing.


Though these are national and global challenges, many UK regions have moved effectively to establish leadership. The Humber has become the UK centre for offshore wind development, the Tees Valley is well positioned to become the location for generation of hydrogen and its utilisation in decarbonisation of manufacturing and industry.


The East Midlands is set to benefit from the investments into Rolls Royce’s SMR programme. What about the West Midlands and Birmingham, has the last train left?


Maybe not, though there is a need to look beyond its historical ties to the automotive sector. The biggest net zero challenge is one which has not yet been discussed – the decarbonisation of heating of homes and buildings. Powered by gas, involving nearly 28 million homes and requiring investments running to hundreds of billions of pounds this is also an opportunity. Birmingham has its flagship district heating system, the region has major manufacturers such as Worcester Bosch and Baxi, energy companies such as E.ON and those who manage infrastructure – National Grid and Western Power Distribution.


Why has heating been left to last? Well, there is no great enthusiasm for a more expensive heating solution which requires major disruption to the home and no government deadline for a transition. To turn this sector around, the transformation that has happened in the wind and solar sector is required; prices need to come down and innovation and scale up is required. This is the growth sector of the future, yet to be grasped, and the region has assets to make it a leader.


How does this focus on innovation square with the decade of delivery? Vision, leadership and the need for the region to rediscover its roots. Delivery of net zero and the seizing of new sector opportunities needs to accelerate and be more ambitious, we are being left behind. The truth is, in local government there is a lot of delivery happening already, linked to services such as waste, education and law and order.


With overly stretched budgets and limited human resource local and city councils do not have the capacity and capability to act at the scale and pace required to deliver net zero. The West Midlands Combined Authority too is under resourced. It could be the decade of debate, deliberation and drawn-out decision making. Birmingham Town Council was established in 1838 (Birmingham was not a city until 50 years later). It was the pioneers of the industrial revolution which created the city of a thousand trades in the preceding years.


It is time for a new way of working, where there is partnership between local and city government, industry and business, financial and academic institutions, and indeed national government. For a decade term, the region should establish a net zero delivery body. Organisations would second their most able and driven and financially invest to create the capacity to deliver.


The machinery of local government, e.g. planning, would be aligned with the capacity of industry to deliver. Setting the region above the national competition, creating jointly owned ambition and recognising “Business can’t do it alone. It must be done in partnership with government every step of the way”, investment and talent will follow. That talent, in turn, will seed future success.


The West Midlands and Birmingham are behind the curve and business as usual is not going to cut it. Vision and leadership are key and building on its industry, innovation and academic assets. We should set out our stall to be the region that delivers the innovation required for net zero heating and thermal energy efficiency for the people of Britain.

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