An interview with Sam McCloskey, Director for the Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy
We joined Sam McCloskey, Director of CASE, to find out more about her role in advancing sustainable energy in Northern Ireland. Sam gave us an insight into the future of R&D in NI, areas she would prioritise to help NI move forward sustainably, how CASE projects have achieved some global firsts, and how individuals/organisations can now apply to CASE's new call for project ideas.
Q1) Could you tell us a little bit about your background, and what inspires you most about working in the sustainable energy sector and more specifically for CASE?
I graduated from Ulster University (Coleraine) with a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Science, way back in the days when studying the environment was far from trendy! Ulster was one of the first Universities in the UK to deliver an undergraduate environmental degree course and I was drawn to the mixture of sciences, from economics right through to meteorology. The course was dynamic and varied, and studying in Coleraine was a joy, as we were surrounded by the very best that the environment had to offer! It was studying that brought me to Northern Ireland from Birmingham where I grew up and other than a year of Master's Degree study at Reading University (an MSc in Agricultural and Food Chain Systems), I have been in Northern Ireland ever since.
I started my career as an environmental consultant and worked for 18 years in the multidisciplinary consultancy sector, on a wide range of sustainability projects, from BREEAM Assessments to Environmental Management Systems. What drives me, is seeing the impact that forward-thinking businesses can have by introducing even the smallest sustainability measures. These impacts are seen both on the bottom line and on the environment. For example, implementing simple waste management practices can result in savings of 1% of turnover or £1,000 per employee. So, it was working with entrepreneurial companies in energy, manufacturing, construction, quarrying and food & drink that led to an interest in industry-led Research and Development, and to ultimately working at the Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy (CASE). Linking innovative Northern Irish companies to leading lights in academic research in sustainable energy is very exciting stuff.
Q2) For those who have not heard of CASE, could you briefly explain its role?
The Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy (CASE) is funded through Invest NI’s Competence Centre Programme and our fundamental aim is to transform the sustainable energy sector through business research. We have allocated £5m of funding to 25 collaborative research projects, with 60 companies and Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI). We are one of four competence centres in Northern Ireland, established in 2012 to bridge the gap between industry research needs and academic offerings. We act as a broker bringing research partners together, funding projects and providing signposting to a range of other sustainable energy stakeholders and activities.
Q3) Could you describe the implications CASE has had so far (regionally/globally), and the value in having an R&D centre like this in Northern Ireland?
Our project teams have achieved some global firsts, particularly in ocean energy research. The CASE funded Tandem Tidal Turbine project was the first to test in different water environments (tank, lake and lough) and to test at scale in array format (two devices alongside each other). Learnings from this research have gone on to inform this emerging industry. There is a significant opportunity for tidal energy off the north coast of Northern Ireland and the potential for further smaller-scale testing in Strangford Lough. CASE has been supporting the local tidal energy supply chain to gear up in readiness for large scale arrays and advance technology and deployment methods so that they can be comparable (economically) to offshore wind.
On the bio-energy side, project consortia has looked at the implications for creating value streams from biogas (from anaerobic digestion) in the absence of a financial incentive (since the withdrawal of the NIROC) and the prospects for bio-gas in a more holistic energy mix – to power electricity, for heating and as a transport fuel. Outputs from one research project included the development of a unique tool to assess the significance of anaerobic bio-refineries on a regional basis.
Energy systems cover a wide range of topics from community energy projects in Coleraine, to dynamic heat demand response, to energy storage projects. A project led by Senergy involves the development of a nanocomposite solar thermal panel that could ultimately be integrated into a roof structure or building façade.
Whilst CASE is a virtual centre, it is the only centre of its kind in Northern Ireland that supports groups of companies as they embark on a pathway to commercialise new products and services. We’ve also helped Northern Ireland to leverage over £8m of other R&D funding eg. from Europe, the UK government and internationally.
Q4) What makes a good CASE project?
Projects need to be led by industry and in response to a current sustainable energy challenge. It’s important that all members of the project consortium can see the benefit in their involvement in a CASE project and work together towards outcomes that will have an impact on their businesses (or research institutions) and the Northern Ireland economy.
Q5) The centre's three main research areas fall under ocean energy, bioenergy and energy systems. What advice would you give to an individual or company looking to get involved with a project?
Coincidentally, we have a call for project ideas open at the moment (due to close at the end of January 2020). Any company (or consortia) with a particular research interest or a new product or service idea can make contact directly with the CASE team at Queen’s University Belfast. We will help to nurture project ideas by making the necessary introductions to potential academic and other industry partners and guide them through the application process.
Alternatively, organisations can become members of CASE and tap into our research network.
Q6) Given the uncertainty of Brexit, what do you feel the future looks like for R&D in Northern Ireland?
At present, the UK research funding organisation, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) has 28 calls open for research projects under the Industrial Strategy Challenge and an available £4.7bn to fund these projects. Many of these are energy focussed. It’s difficult not to see the opportunities that arise from this kind of national government support. The zero-carbon agenda is also creating strong momentum for decarbonising the UK’s energy system and we will need to provide innovative solutions to meet the 57% reduction on the 1990 target by 2030 and ultimately zero carbon by 2050.
After the referendum, Brexit had an immediate impact on the ‘desirability’ of UK organisations in the view of our European neighbours when putting together project consortia for bidding for Horizon 2020 or INTERREG projects. However, the commitment of the UK government to underwrite UK organisations funding until we leave the EU provided some necessary reassurances. For example, Queen’s has recently been awarded an H2020 project, as project lead, on wave energy. We can’t predict what will happen concerning the UK’s access to European funding if and when we leave the EU but I’m very confident that there will be support for sustainable energy research in Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future.
Q7) Northern Ireland is lacking in grants, infrastructure, and even the topic of 'energy' in regards sustainability often falls down the policy priority list. With our fair share of issues hindering sustainable growth, could you name three areas that you would prioritise to help NI move towards a sustainable future?
To be fair, I think Northern Ireland punches well above its weight concerning renewable energy and should be very proud of its achievements going from 3 traditional power stations to 23,000 power stations in 20 years and with 44% renewable electricity consumption. I was one of the naysayers 8 years ago when considering the 40% target by 2020 in the Strategic Energy Framework (SEF), but we did it and it is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of all the key players in the sector. Now that we seem to have renewable electricity well on track, the three main areas I would advocate are:
1. A focus on renewable heat and transport, as both of these, have fallen short of the SEF targets and need attention and ongoing innovation support;
2. Ensuring that energy is at the heart of any Northern Ireland specific decarbonisation strategy. Energy production is the highest contributor to global GHG emissions and energy-related emissions grew by 1.7% in 2018.
3. Expedition of the implementation of the new Strategic Energy Framework to provide the necessary policy context to support r&d in the sector (which unfortunately may be hampered by the need for Ministerial sign off).
Q8) Finally, given that your role surrounds sustainable energy, have you made any changes to your own life to become more sustainable?
Not as many changes as I would have liked….but it is still a work in progress. We installed a 4kW solar PV system at home 3 years ago and have a reasonably strong energy efficiency regime in place. We have two wood-burning stoves in the house that are largely fuelled by waste wood (and heat downstairs in winter), we compost, occasionally grow our own vegetables and up until recently (and an incident with Mr Fox) we had chickens – so, some locally produced food. My commute to work is my biggest concern, with very limited public transport options over my 50-mile journey, I try to work from home at least one day per week and use public transport a couple of days a month (although I have to drive to a bus stop or train station). I leave the car in the office when I get to Belfast and always walk to meetings in the city – which has benefits, both from a sustainability and personal health perspective.
To find out more about CASE, how your organisation can become a member or if you are interested in applying for CASE's call for new project ideas (closing end of January 2020) click here.