A big challenge for individuals and companies with what they think are good ideas for products or services is how to test and develop these and take them through to commercialization.
This is where in the UK, the Catapult programme comes in. This government initiated initiative – through its innovation agency, Innovate UK – is aimed to create a network of centres designed to transform the UK's capability for innovation in key technological areas and to help drive future economic growth. The programme was launched in 2012 and has subsequently grown to 10 Catapults in areas including medicine, materials, manufacturing and transport.
Among the latest is the Energy Systems Catapult, which joins the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult as the two so far covering the energy sector.
“Our role is to look at the transformation of energy systems from the perspective of decarbonization and climate targets as we move towards an entirely different future not based on fossil fuels,” Nick Winser, chairman of the Energy Systems Catapult, told Engerati in an exclusive interview. “There will be renewables, perhaps nuclear, carbon capture and storage, smart networks, hydrogen networks, more energy efficient businesses and homes, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and all these are things we need to look at.”
The Catapult model
Mr Winser says the Catapult model is based on experiences in other countries in promoting high tech development, of which the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany is arguably the best known and most successful.
“Our goal is to help to bring new technologies and services across ‘the valley of death’, moving them from becoming smart ideas to commercial opportunities that can drive jobs and growth both domestically and to export markets,” he says.
Approximately one-third of the funding for the Catapults comes as a direct grant from government, with the balance comprised equally from project funding and funding from corporate partners. (The exception is the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, which works on a membership model)
“We aim to help with aspects such as access to data, prototyping new products and services, setting up demonstrations with customers and developing funding partnerships with corporates,” he says. “We are designed to work with both large and small and both new and existing players. Often the innovation comes from new players but it also comes from existing players and we need to encourage new products and services from both these sectors but also to bring them together as larger companies working with smaller ones can help speed the commercialization process.”
Energy Systems Catapult focus
Mr Winser notes that the Energy Systems Catapult is still very much in the start-up phase with a small staff and a newly appointed CEO, Philip New, ex-CEO of BP Alternative Energy. However, he expects to quickly ramp up the staff – typically the Catapults have around 150 white collar personnel – and to develop the overall strategy.
Several ‘themes’ of work have been identified and the first that has been launched is on heat, which constitutes up to half of the country’s carbon footprint and is expected to become increasingly important with for example growth of heat pumps, CHP and district heating schemes. As part of this theme, the Smart Systems and Heat programme with 25 staff and significant grant funding is being transferred from the Energy Technologies Institute and large local authority based demonstrations are in the pipeline.
Other themes that are being worked on include demand side management, with its potential to support integration and system balancing into the future; energy storage, with questions to investigate around technology types; and network control systems, with the changing flows of energy.
“We believe a key to success will be to engage in an incredibly broad topic by prioritizing what is going to be valuable – it’s not about picking winners but trying to work out where the most value is likely to come from looking at an enormous range of new technologies and different pathways forward for our energy systems,” says Mr Winser. “We aim to come up with a strategy to help companies navigate through what is a complex and uncertain future both in terms of what the future energy system looks like and how will it come together and integrate.”
To date approximately 10 times more people than anticipated have contacted the Energy Systems Catapult, indicating that it is clearly timely and with an important role to play in developing energy systems.