Meet the academic putting people at the heart of the energy revolution

Green energy champion Sara Walker is making great strides to promote hydrogen power with the support of Connected Places Catapult and is keen to help homeowners invest in renewable technologies.

“Individual action on the environment can make such a difference,” says Sara Walker, a Professor of Energy at Newcastle University. “If more people make small changes, they will all add up.”

Sara is a passionate campaigner on green issues and carried out research into how wealthier households could be encouraged to invest in technology to reduce energy demand – and then spread the word among friends.

She is also an advocate of renewable power and the use of hydrogen, and has convened a new ‘hub’ on hydrogen integration to better understand the scope of the technology’s potential future applications. Stakeholder events will take place over the summer ahead of the launch of a manifesto and five-year programme of research beginning in October.

“As an academic there’s a risk that if you don’t talk to many people and just focus on your own area of interest, your research will not be entirely aligned with the needs of industry and will not have such an impact”, Sara explains.

“So it has been very useful working with Connected Places Catapult to get their broader view of stakeholder needs, which has helped to inform my research and enabled me to come up with better informed questions.

“I don’t want to produce reports that sit on a shelf and never get seen again; I want to create practical solutions that can make a difference.”
says Sara Walker, Professor of Energy at Newcastle University

Early academic interests

Professor Sara Walker’s early academic interests included computer science and physics, and she remembers spending time after school writing code on the family’s ZX Spectrum.

“I used to play a game called ‘Manic Miner’ which involved an element of programming. But these were early days in the computing science curriculum, so I decided to pursue physics onto A Level and university.”

Sara’s passion for physics stayed with her, so she took a teacher training qualification and taught the subject to “persuade others that physics is a fantastic subject”.

She became interested in environmental and energy issues, volunteered with the Leicester branch of Friends of the Earth and started a Masters in environmental science. Her first research job was at De Montfort University looking into wind energy technology and energy efficiency, which led to the aforementioned project to encourage the ‘fuel rich’ to invest in energy efficient systems.

Sara and colleagues worked with the local council to develop a one stop shop advice point; where residents coming in for advice were engaged by staff in “broader conversations” around reducing energy consumption.

She also found that behavioural ‘nudges’ could encourage some homeowners to install electric vehicle charging points. “We looked to identify first movers in a community to ask them to try new technology and promote it to their neighbours,” she explains.

Branching out into industry

After eight years at De Montfort, Sara joined IT Power in Bristol to lead work on developing policy mechanisms for governments in Mediterranean countries that promoted the greater use of renewable energy.

Sara’s next move took her back to her native North East, working for renewable energy company E-Connect, running its research and development team. Soon after, she stepped back into academia, joining Northumbria University and later Newcastle University.

Working in industry gave her insights into commercial pressures and the shorter term nature of business needs. As a result, she now plans for short, medium and long term research outcomes.

One of Sara’s projects involved managing energy load on the Scottish island of Eigg. The island used a mix of diesel – shipped in to generate electricity – plus hydro-electric, wind and photovoltaics. The local authority wanted locals to use renewable power when it was plentiful; switching to diesel when it was not. Sara and her team developed control devices for homes to enable this to happen.

“Our displays featured a traffic light system, so homeowners could make informed choices,” she says. “If the light was green renewables were available, so they might have decided to turn on a washing machine or dishwasher. But even if the light was red, they could over-ride the controller if they really wanted to put something on.”

Exploring hydrogen and geothermal opportunities

More recently, Sara has worked alongside the North East Local Enterprise Partnership to develop the market for hydrogen and to consider ways to decarbonise heat demand. She has been involved in a range of projects, including decarbonisation plans with the Port of Tyne, to mine water heat.

Geothermally warmed water within redundant coal mines could be used to help meet local heating demand. “The benefit of disused coalmines is they already have access shafts installed, and the coal authority is often pumping this water to the surface anyway.”

Plans are in development to harness warm water from disused coalmines for heating at a new development at Seaham Garden Village near Durham. At the same time, colleagues at Newcastle University are mapping underground ‘hotspots’ where water temperature is sufficiently warm and identifying locations such as hospitals and industrial parks which need large quantities of heat all year round.

Hearing a range of voices

Sara has been working on a project with Connected Places Catapult called HI-ACT (Hydrogen Integration for Accelerated Energy Transitions) to better understand how small and medium sized companies and community groups feel about the technology. “A whole range of voices were not being heard including those involved in manufacturing, food and drink; different sectors where there is potential to use hydrogen and create geographical clusters of interested businesses.

“We spoke to the Connected Places Catapult about ways they could help us reach out to those small companies, understand their needs and share knowledge.”

The HI-ACT consortium recently held a workshop with several Catapults working together on the Hydrogen Innovation Initiative seed project to see how they can work together.

Sara says that promoting energy efficiency and sustainability are particularly relevant issues now, given the cost of living crisis and high energy costs; It is very much at the forefront of people’s thinking.” But she recognises too that concerns over the climate are not necessarily a priority for those struggling to put food on the table.

“I feel positive that this issue is getting discussed more, and that Government has a new structure that separates out energy security and net zero from a much broader business and trade department.

“But the environment is not high on everybody’s agenda: some sectors of society are always going to take multiple holidays a year and not worry about aviation emissions. At the other end, people are worried about how they are going to afford to eat and heat their homes, and we need to be engaging all sectors of the community in the conversation.”

Sara hopes that future years will see clearer Government policy around the potential role of hydrogen, and for more effective mechanisms to support the retrofit of housing to increase energy efficiency. “If we can achieve that in the next five years, I can retire happy.”

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