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The energy sector and UK recovery in the wake of the COVID pandemic

By Sara Walker
Dr Sara Walker, Director of the Newcastle University Centre for Energy


  • The energy sector will need to undergo rapid transformation to meet national targets for net zero greenhouse gas emissions. One way to do this is to integrate different energy systems so that they can provide support to each other in the form of flexibility.
  • Flexibility can also come from our buildings. Better building design and operation can help buildings become “active” and flexibly change demand to support local energy systems. The Active Buildings concept can support local and regional energy transition plans.
  • Buildings can be more than active. By improving the energy efficiency of our building stock, we can address two challenges of reducing strain on energy systems by reducing demand, and reducing the number in fuel poverty by reducing the cost of energy bills. A major building energy efficiency retrofit programme is an excellent opportunity for local job creation.

Need for Change

The COVID pandemic has, for some sectors of UK society and business, brought into sharp relief the need for change. Resilience is today’s buzzword, along side opaque phrases such as “build back better”. How can we clarify societal needs for a “better” future? And what does this mean for energy research at Newcastle University?

Many are likely to be redefining their understanding of key worker as our vital infrastructure keeps the wheels of society turning. In the UK, the National Infrastructure Commission advises Government on aspects of economic infrastructure, defined as energy, transport, water (and wastewater), waste, flood risk management and digital communications. In comparison, the US has 16 critical infrastructures, including the emergency services sector, the healthcare and public health sector, and the food and agriculture sector, for example.

Climate Change Emergency

The energy sector is a critical infrastructure for the UK, confirmed by the UK Government at the height of the COVID lockdown[1]. Whilst our energy utilities focus on keeping the country supplied with electricity, gas, oil and LPG, for example, they do so in a period of uncertain customer demand. There is no historical precedent for the extent of economic lockdown, social distancing, and local lockdown which the UK has experienced.

Whilst we deal with Covid-related pressures in the short term, longer term issues of climate change (see Figure 1) and the Government target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 cannot afford to be ignored.

The Conference of the Parties 2020 in Glasgow may have been postponed for a year, but there is no pause in the evidence of climate change as May 2020 was 0.95°C above the average[2].

Figure 1. National climate policy frameworks aligned to the scope of developed country pathway DD2 for UK Climate Change Act for both 80% & net-zero by 2050 targets [3]

R_CfEnergy_30July2020_Figure_1How to address these long term issues? To look for win-wins with the short term COVID-recovery issue is a start.

The lockdown resulted, across the UK, in dramatic reduction in traffic and air pollution (traffic flow data for Newcastle shown in Figure 2, from Newcastle University’s Urban Observatory COVID dashboard). In the mobility space, the need for physical distancing has opened up conversations about pavement widths, safe space for cycling and redesigning our spaces to enable walking and cycling (see Figure 3) and to enable sufficient physical distancing (see Figure 4).

We could keep these reduced congestion and air pollution benefits through appropriate, permanent support for low emissions forms of travel.

Figure 2. Traffic flow for Sheffield, Hull and the Tyne and Wear authority areas (percentage change compared with pre-COVID levels). 



Figure 3. Proposed increase in public walking and cycling space in Newcastle city centre[4].



Figure 4. Novel analysis by Newcastle University of pedestrian spacing, to evaluate adherence to physical distancing guidelines and identify locations where physical distancing is constrained.



Energy Sector Pressures

With vast numbers working and studying at home, the electricity sector has seen overall demand drop (as industrial and commercial loads reduce) but increases in use at home. Early estimates show: “On the residential side, a day of working from home could increase household energy consumption by between 7% and 23% compared with a day working at the office”[5]. At particular times during the COVID lockdown, we have had periods of relatively low demand for electricity and relatively high proportions of inflexible electricity generation (for example nuclear, wind and solar). This is an issue for supply-demand balancing for electricity in particular, since balancing is needed in order to keep the system frequency within certain quality boundaries.

Balancing is likely to be an issue moving forward with more renewable generation and so we need to identify appropriate sources of flexibility for our energy systems.

10% of UK households (2018 figure) are classed as being in fuel poverty, although up to date figures are unavailable. Longer term impacts to incomes of households during an economic downturn, and increased energy use by households, are likely to push numbers of fuel poor upwards. The UK faces a significant risk, as we move towards colder winter months, of a growth in cold-related illness and excess winter deaths at the same time as our NHS struggles to recover from COVID.

A win-win is to address the poor housing stock in the UK. A retrofit stimulus aimed at the construction sector has a significant advantage in terms of job creation (see Figure 5). Furthermore, these are local jobs, contributing to the Government’s ambition to “level-up” the regions and nations of the UK. Retrofit investment has the potential to move households out of fuel poverty. Energy efficiency has been highlighted by a number of organisations as a vital element of a green economic recovery for the UK [6] [7] [8] [9] [10].

Figure 5. Estimated level of job creation associated with renewable energy and energy efficiency investment [11]


From Newcastle. For Net Zero.

How can Newcastle University contribute to solutions which better enable the country to recover from the economic downturn which we are experiencing?

Figure 6. Themes of research undertaken by members of the Centre for Energy



The case for change in our energy sector was powerful pre-Covid, it is even more so today. The energy transition is no longer an aspiration, it is an imperative.

In light of the Government’s own 2050 target, we must not lose this catalytic moment to take action.  There is much to do, and taking urgent action trumps more debate and prevarication.

We are ideally placed to contribute to this imperative, with expertise across the energy piece and major project investments such as the EPSRC National Centre for Energy Systems Integration, the Supergen Energy Networks Hub, the North East Centre for Energy Materials and the Active Building Centre.

We are delighted to work with academic colleagues, industry stakeholders, as well as the third sector and public sector, to deliver research that is From Newcastle. For Net Zero.

More Information

Major projects at Newcastle University, led by members of the Centre for Energy, which are addressing challenges relevant to the energy sector and the UK recovery in the wake of the COVID pandemic are:

The National Centre for Energy Systems Integration

I mentioned previously the need for flexibility, to help the electricity system to balance supply and demand. One way to do that is to make use of the flexibility available in other energy sectors, such as gas systems or heat systems, through integration across energy types.

At Newcastle University, we lead the National Centre for Energy Systems Integration. The team is looking at the ways in which the different energy sectors currently interact and how they might become more integrated in the future.

The Active Building Centre                                        

The purpose of the Active Building Centre Research Programme (ABC-RP) is to accelerate research and innovation to deliver systemic and scalable solutions for the built environment. By considering the application of new technologies and novel methods for active buildings to deliver flexibility, we will investigate the potential for buildings to contribute to the decarbonisation targets in a manner that will level up the national economy.

As we live through a one in a lifetime opportunity for the recapitalisation and rebuilding of our economy, a series of government-funded retrofit programmes could be one of the most effective mechanisms for redistribution of the national wealth and the pursuit of greater social justice, as well as transforming our existing built environment to accelerate decarbonisation.


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-educational-provision/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-local-authorities-on-maintaining-educational-provision

[2] https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/global-climate-202005

[3] Kevin Anderson, John F. Broderick & Isak Stoddard (2020): A factor of two: how the mitigation plans of ‘climate progressive’ nations fall far short of Paris-compliant pathways, Climate Policy, DOI: 10.1080/14693062.2020.1728209

[4] https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/citylife-news/transport/plans-support-safer-and-greener-city-wide-travel-announced

[5] https://energypost.eu/calculating-the-energy-saved-if-home-working-becomes-the-norm-globally/

[6] https://www.theeeig.co.uk/media/1091/eeig_report_rebuilding_for_resilience_pages_01.pdf

[7] https://www.ecuity.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Local-green-jobs-accelerating-a-sustainable-economic-recovery_final.pdf

[8] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/how-a-post-pandemic-stimulus-can-both-create-jobs-and-help-the-climate#

[9] https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/faster-further-fairer

[10] https://www.cbi.org.uk/media-centre/articles/prioritise-jobs-and-training-for-the-young-to-drive-uk-wide-recovery/

[11] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/how-a-post-pandemic-stimulus-can-both-create-jobs-and-help-the-climate#

Tags: Energy, One Planet, Working with Business, Policy, Covid-19