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Interview with Professor Edward Owens, Director of Energy Academy, Heriot-Watt University

Professor Edward Owens, Director of Heriot-Watt University’s Energy Academy, explains why Edinburgh is the capital of renewable energy in Scotland, and how Heriot-Watt is leading the way.

Why is Edinburgh such an excellent location for so many businesses within the energy sector, especially renewable energy?

Scotland is an energy powerhouse, and the development of renewable energy here has been encouraged by ambitious Scottish targets and policies that have created a dynamic environment for renewable energy-related economic growth across the country.

Edinburgh has emerged as a real hub for renewable energy. The city’s universities, including Heriot Watt, have led the way through participation in a multitude of internationally-recognised energy research projects. This has in turn created dozens of energy sector spinout companies and established strong partnerships with industry.

The city’s abundance of research parks, enterprise hubs and incubators, alongside support from organisations, such as Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Renewables, has created a clustering effect for knowledge and support for the energy sector.

Edinburgh’s universities have attracted hundreds of millions of pounds of funding for energy-related projects, and the city has benefited from the related economic gains. It’s a real success story for Edinburgh.

What do you think the city is doing to improve overall energy efficiency?

You can see evidence of the city’s ambition to move towards a low carbon future across the city, from electric buses and park and ride schemes to LED streetlights. Electric vehicles will play an important role in reducing our future carbon emissions, and the city is consulting with academics and industry about how to provide the smart infrastructure required to minimise the disruption to transport, and the electricity grid, as the technology is adopted on a larger scale.

We support the overall target to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020, and we’re playing our part at Heriot-Watt University by developing new technologies that will help cities and communities around the world to reduce their carbon emissions.

Do you collaborate with any international companies or organisations in the field of renewables?

As a global leader in energy-related research, we are a natural partner for renewable energy companies and organisations across all sectors and stages of the supply chain.

As a Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems I have personally collaborated with researchers from locations as far apart as Orkney and Australia and have led sustainable energy research projects with field trials in Italy, Portugal, Tanzania and India. Renewable energy systems are a global issue and many of my colleagues in Edinburgh’s universities have created a similar multinational impact from their research.

How important are the universities here in producing talent?

The world is in the midst of a planned energy revolution. If our plan is to lead to a successful destination for the benefit of all, we must approach new energy projects from a multidisciplinary perspective, and recognise that the needs of people should be at the heart of our future energy systems.

At Heriot Watt we encourage our energy researchers and students to collaborate through the Energy Academy, which provides a forum for the development of multi-disciplinary research ideas. The result is that we often create research consortia that can approach innovation with a broad range of perspectives, from the highly technical skillsets of engineers and scientists to the people skills of social scientists and applied psychologists.

Edinburgh’s universities offer many specialised academic programmes, such as Heriot Watt’s Renewable Energy Engineering MSc, and produce hundreds of energy related graduates each year. We work closely with colleges, employers and industry to ensure Scotland has the expertise and skills it needs to compete in the field of renewable energy and to export our expertise to the world.

What breakthroughs in renewable energy are happening at Heriot-Watt University?

Heriot-Watt is focused on developing the science and engineering of extracting, converting and conserving energy from novel sources in novel ways.

A small snapshot of our research:

  • We’re working to halve the cost of solar hydrogen to make it more affordable as an energy vector;
  • We’ve developed a smart precision irrigation system that will dramatically reduce energy and water use on farms, particularly in developing nations;
  • We’re testing solar panels in our specialist deep freeze facility;
  • We’ve developed sensors that can detect and predict when subsea structures and networks will need to be repaired;
  • We’re working to optimise the deployment of storage into our energy distribution network with the aim of reducing the impact of our increasing dependence upon intermittent renewable energy sources;
  • We’re developing new building materials to help reduce the carbon footprint of our future cities; and
  • We’re developing innovative new carbon capture and sequestration processes to enable us to minimise greenhouse gas emissions from the future necessary use of fossil fuels.

Stay up-to-date with the research and innovation that’s happening at Heriot-Watt by visiting the Energy Academy website.