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Professor Neil Beattie

Professor of Energy Innovation, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training
in Renewable Energy Northeast Universities (ReNU)

Training programmes that deliver high-value skills are vital for the UK’s transition to a net zero economy.

 Achieving net zero is a multidimensional challenge involving a range of social and geopolitical factors and a complex network of stakeholders. It not only spans academic disciplines but also requires innovation, policy development and skills training. 

Over the last 14 years, Northumbria University’s Professor Neil Beattie, together with colleagues, has led the creation of a thriving ecosystem of research and teaching excellence in the North East of England, merging these elements to generate real-world impact for a sustainable future.

Decarbonisation: not just a tech challenge

 From zero-emissions transportation to sustainable buildings, renewable energy technologies are crucial to meeting our increasing electricity demands while enabling decarbonisation. “Science and engineering skills at all levels are critical, but technology alone will not solve climate change,” says Beattie, Professor of Energy Innovation

“Success in renewables requires a whole systems approach — overlap with areas including policy, consumer behaviour and law is essential. Transitioning to sustainable practices can be challenging for the average consumer if we don’t consider the barriers to adoption. Negotiating the various systems and processes required to install solar panels with battery storage on homes, for example, can be prohibitive for even the most willing to embrace green technologies. 

“For a sustainable future, our workforce needs talented employees with high-value transferable skills to bring innovation and break barriers. We need highly-skilled people who can handle uncertainty, navigate complexity and understand languages of different disciplines, such as marketing, business and design.” That, as Professor Beattie explains, is where Renewable Energy Northeast Universities (ReNU) comes in.

For a sustainable future, our workforce needs
talented employees with high-value transferable
skills to bring innovation and break barriers.

Training the next generation of clean energy innovators

Driven by industry needs, ReNU is a centre for doctoral training between Northumbria, Newcastle and Durham Universities backed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and a strong portfolio of 27 industry partners. The centre equips a pipeline of doctoral graduates with the skills required to drive UK innovation in renewable and sustainable energy. 

As well as expert guidance from renowned academics at the three universities, ReNU students receive enhanced training to develop business and innovation skills. The four-year course includes an in-built mini MBA, innovation training and projects with industrial clients. “ReNU empowers students to think holistically about the challenge of decarbonisation,” adds Professor Beattie. 

One innovation being developed within the ReNU team is a project to reimagine solar panels for more aesthetic integration into the built environment. “There is a lot of surface area in the built environment that is unsuitable for traditional solar panels. Through a design-led approach, we are exploring new capabilities in slot-die coating and inkjet materials-printing to create patterned solar cells that are unlike anything available today — meaning, they could be seamlessly incorporated into apartment balconies, for example.”

Unlocking talent, fostering opportunities

One area critical to ReNU’s future is developing equal opportunity and diversity across all of its work. “It’s an area we’re committed to continuously learning about; one that will lead to better innovation and further success. 

“Innovation plays a central role in tackling climate change. For better innovation, we need more diverse thinking. To address future skills needs, we need to utilise existing talent — by involving people who are not already engaged in the net zero agenda. This may include those looking to upskill or retrain, such as armed forces veterans or career returners. Currently, we’re missing tricks by not accessing all the talent we have in the UK and beyond. We can do more to bridge that gap, which is an exciting opportunity. 

“Research shows that companies with better diversity and inclusion are more profitable. While economic development is clearly a driver, the link between better diversity and inclusion and sustainability is underexplored. Not only should we be focusing efforts in this area to ensure a fair and equitable energy transition, but also because it will undoubtedly result in better innovation and solutions to the toughest problems,” insists Professor Beattie.

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