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Next generation leaders

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For nearly 10 years, The Bartlett's Energy Institute and Loughborough University have been training PhD students to solve the demand-side of the energy equation.

Next generation leaders

Energy demand in the built environment is an emerging area of study.

Credit: LoLo

We focus on bringing in fresh talent. In the first year, students undertake training that allows non-specialists in the built environment to enter the field.

Cliff Elwell

The London-Loughborough EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Demand – or LoLo, for short – trains students who want to specialise in reducing the carbon emissions of the built environment.

It means understanding how buildings, and how the people who live and work in them, use energy – often through the daily activities we all take for granted, such as central heating or water heating, putting the kettle on or using the washing machine. But it also means understanding how technology and infrastructure, policy and economics shape and drive practices, and how willing government, business and the public are to change them.

Set up in 2009 as a partnership between The Bartlett’s Energy Institute and Loughborough University’s School of Civil and Building Engineering, and refunded for a further five years in 2014, LoLo hasn’t just watched as the demand-side of the energy equation has become a growing concern, it’s helped to shape the agenda – partly through research, but mostly through the 80 plus students who will graduate from its intensive Master’s and PhD programmes and move into the field. Its alumni hold posts in government – the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, for example – in roles with prominent energy-related companies and lectureships.

It’s an emerging area of study, one that asks students to connect science and engineering with economics, policy-making, and the social sciences. “We focus on bringing in fresh talent,” says Cliff Elwell, LoLo’s Deputy Director and an Associate Professor at The Bartlett’s Energy Institute. “In the first year, students undertake training that allows non-specialists in the built environment to enter the field. They might be physicists, mechanical engineers or social scientists – we show them how they can apply what they’ve previously learned.”

He says that when setting up a PhD, the most important thing is “to make sure everyone is excited about it. You should also be a little scared.” The centre’s team make sure they’ve got the right supervision from the staff side and deliberately align PhDs with research projects. For example, LoLo has benefited from running at the same time as the Energy Institute’s Centre for Energy Epidemiology (CEE) – a major research centre that was funded from 2013–18. Elwell says this was hugely valuable for students, who were able to do related projects, as well as get additional support through the CEE research team.

Next generation leaders

The centre also provides training in academic writing and presentation skills that help students pitch their ideas and findings.

Credit: LoLo

We know it works because they give better presentations than we do.

Cliff Elwell

Next generation leaders

LoLo deliberately aligns PhDs with active research projects.

Credit: LoLo

Professional development

Elwell says the centre has a real focus on skills beyond the purely academic, too. Students get training in how to be a better researcher, on ethics and responsible innovation, and also in academic writing and presentation skills that help them pitch their ideas and findings. They also get a lot of time in front of stakeholders. “We know it works because they give better presentations than we do,” he says.

All of this means that when they come out of their PhD, they’ve had a lot of training that others haven’t. The reason this is possible is because of the large volume of students that LoLo is able to train at the same time – a cohort of roughly five per year at both The Bartlett and Loughborough. The Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) were a way for the EPSRC to test this model. There are 117 in the UK, each aligned to a different topic and the results – measured on PhD completion rates and the impact of students and graduates – have been borne out.

“We perform well on these metrics,” says Elwell. “But I would also argue that this model of training has been especially successful for us because we’re not a high-profile field. We need to attract a lot of physicists and engineers, for example, to a different area than they might expect. A big programme like this helps us do that.” The cohort model also creates the beginnings of professional networks, which Elwell says they can “already see is working very well”.

Building resilience

Today, LoLo’s profile in the sector is high. It receives an ever-increasing number of high-quality applications and its annual colloquium gets bigger each year. It’s this momentum that is allowing it to reinvent itself in 2019 when its first two rounds of EPSRC funding for new students concludes.

A new centre will pick up where LoLo leaves off: Energy Resilience and the Built Environment (ERBE). It will be one of 75 CDTs remaining in the UK, with funding for 50 students over the next five years. ERBE will also forge partnerships with industry, government and NGOs to pursue research that addresses real challenges and opportunities. It will also see The Bartlett and Loughborough bringing in a new academic partner – the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland – which Elwell says expands the possibilities for collaboration for students.

ERBE also marks a shift in focus – from energy efficiency to energy flexibility. This is driven by the huge uptake in renewables like wind and solar energy to decarbonise generation. Elwell explains: “In the old system, you generated the amount of power you needed when you needed it – which came at an environmental cost. In the emerging system, you have to capture the energy from the wind and the sun when it is available, and find ways to store it until it is needed, and/or flex or shift demand to match available supply. But the benefit is clean energy.”

Solving this new equation is key to building a future, affordable, secure, and carbon-free energy system. As Elwell says: “We’re not here to just reduce energy demand, we’re here to help match demand and supply while ensuring that businesses thrive, at the same time, providing comfortable and healthy conditions for people to live and work.”

The Energy Institute delivers world-leading learning, research and policy support on the challenges of climate change and energy security. It is part of The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources (BSEER) in UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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