Unlocking Innovation: Generation Decarbonisation? 

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22 October 2020

The final day of the Railway Industry’s Association’s (RIA) Unlocking Innovation event series examined how rail can support the wider net-zero agenda and drive clean growth across the UK. The ‘Generation Decarbonisation’ session heard speakers from across the industry and beyond, covering the key technologies and different perspectives on rail’s approach to reach net-zero by 2050.

The talks began with a briefing from Innovate UK’s Will Drury, who spoke about encouraging companies from different sectors to collaborate on sharing their developments and building an integrated energy/transport system. Notably he highlighted some of the InnovateUK upcoming opportunities including a £20million flagship competition in this area for next year.

The first presentation came from an industry leader on decarbonisation Dr Andrew Kluth, who is Lead Carbon Specialist at RSSB. He kicked off by highlighting former Rail Minister Jo Johnson’s challenge in 2018, to remove all diesel-only trains by 2040. This was the key driver for RSSB’s leading research on reaching net-zero which has helped shape key sector publications including the RTS and the Department for Transport’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan amongst others.

He then went on to map out which technologies would enable rail to meet the challenge – particularly that electrification will be key, and clean hydrogen and battery technologies will need to be developed extensively to service the unelectrified network. Having been at the forefront of the industry’s decarbonisation plans for several years, his presentation centred on how the rail sector can integrate wider infrastructure and technologies to create clean energy solutions.

Next up with National Grid’s Russell Fowler, who started by highlighting the current status of the transport sector as a major polluter, contributing 28% of the UK’s emissions and making it the largest emitting sector for greenhouse gases. As he stated clearly, “If we are going to decarbonise the UK, we need to decarbonise transport.”

As an energy expert, Russell brought some interesting perspective not only from outside the industry but also given the central role of the National Grid in supplying to Network Rail and the rail industry. He gave a clear overview of the importance of this energy infrastructure in reaching net-zero. In particular, his presentation underlined the role that hydrogen can play, specifically ‘green hydrogen (i.e. produced by electrolysis from renewables), and how enhanced grid infrastructure will be needed to enable the future.

Ultimately, he stressed that the National Grid is ‘technology agnostic’ and eager to work with the entire rail sector due to its potential to be a fully clean transport mode.

Our third speaker was David Golightly from the Future Mobility Group at Newcastle University. David outlined his team’s work on developing a systems simulation model, Digital Environment for Collaborative Intelligent De-carbonisation (DECIDe), to help design and evaluate decarbonisation approaches. His presentation focussed on the need to consider decarbonisation as a whole systems issue and the risks that certain decisions can have adverse impacts elsewhere in the system.

The final speaker was Stephen Kent from the University of Birmingham and David Horsfall from Tyseley Energy Park. A primary focus of his work, Stephen began by highlighting the opportunities of green hydrogen. However, he was realistic about the current cost and carbon challenges of delivering enough hydrogen to fuel train fleets, a process which is currently both polluting and costly. David covered the exciting and innovative work that Tyseley Energy Park is doing. In particular, he made it clear that bringing in different sectors together to provide clean energy for rail and establish a fully-integrated power system will be vital for the future.

The first Elevator Pitch was from Rebeka Sellick of SellickRail, who shared their exciting contributions to unlocking zero carbon transport, with a focus on her Actiwheel to help increase the life-cycle and sustainability of vehicles and track. And wrapping up the series, we heard a pitch from TP Group’s Jon Constable who ran through their expertise providing green hydrogen solutions in other sectors and the potential for that to translate to rail.

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