SWITCH (South Wales Industrial Transition from Carbon Hub)

Combining the research and innovation capability of Flexis and SPECIFIC  SWITCH Connect will be a catalyst for change, nucleating innovation, demonstration and deployment for the total decarbonisation of the industrial base and communities in South Wales removing over 16Mt per annum UK emissions. It will also deliver novel low carbon and net zero products for key manufacturing sectors, delivering sustainable economic growth, to generate and support more than 11000 high value high skilled jobs and support global impact through international decarbonisation research and innovation missions.

The World is at a crossroads, with most Governments having had stark realisation within the pandemic that future economic success can only be based on ‘green recovery’. Climate change is now an accepted phenomenon with actual sea level rises measurable in mm year on year. Decarbonisation and the opportunities in true net zero living are an opportunity for generational change that will have multi-layer technical, economic and societal benefits. Wales as a small nation with both high carbon emissions (ca 12 tonnes per annum per head) major industrial groups pan Wales and an existing research and innovation ecosystem is ideally placed to play a leading role in creating a window on the future for the World by driving a rapid transition to low carbon technology facilitated by close working between academia, industry with local and regional government.

For over ten years significant UKRI and ERDF investment (over £220M) has been placed in the low carbon agenda in South Wales which equip the region with incredible strength and depth in both infrastructure and talent with a pivotal role in the decarbonisation of society. Furthermore, with strengths outlined below, South Wales is well positioned to address the ‘difficult to decarbonise’ sectors, namely heat, industry and transport across the region, whilst supporting on-going challenges such as storage and hydrogen roll-out:

  • Whole Energy systems: led by Cardiff University, the FLEXIS Project promotes a multi-vector approach including networks, heat, transport, industry, infrastructure with embedded societal response. It brings together academia, industrial groups and local authorities to demonstrate at scale opportunities to transition major power infrastructure to lower and net zero carbon technology.
  • Solar Energy and storage: the region hosts one of seven UK Innovation and Knowledge Centres (SPECIFIC) at Swansea University and through targeted collaborations with UK and global research leaders have created an international endeavour based on low cost solar and storage technologies deployed to power buildings (which in the UK account for around 40% emissions).
  • Hydrogen economy: led by the University of South Wales, the region hosts the Hydrogen Research Centre including the first renewable hydrogen filling stations in the UK and key expertise and infrastructure to support demonstration of the potential for hydrogen to become a major energy vector by 2050.
  • Steel technology: the region hosts the UK’s largest Steel Works (and its downstream coating plants) which underpin many key manufacturing and construction businesses and with the National SUSTAIN Future Steel Manufacturing Research Hub leading a UK steel industry partnership focussed on low carbon processing and products linked to our foundation industries.
  • Advanced manufacturing: broad ranging analytical support for example in the open access Advanced Imaging of Materials (AIM) facility, the Welding Institute (TWI) and ASTUTE operation there is an excellent supporting structure for businesses of all sizes to solve problems and create value.
  • Homes, buildings and transport: with both major activities in renewable electricity generation and capability in hydrogen generation and storage the region is uniquely well placed to support a multi-vector approach to decarbonisation of transport and homes with new entities such as the Active Building Centre and the South Wales Low Carbon Transport Hub.
  • Energy and Society: led by Cardiff University, the region has longstanding and unique expertise in understanding how the technical, economic and policy changes needed to meet net-zero in South Wales can align with current societal change, with social scientists as core partners in FLEXIS and the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).

South Wales is uniquely positioned to capitalise on this sustained investment to support transformational change. The aim of SWITCH Connect is to support a significant research, training, innovation and delivery cluster which can rapidly transform the regional carbon performance to drive a healthier, sustainable and economically attractive growth transitioning the industrial heartland to a net positive, resilient and vibrant future with potential for Global impact. This vision is aligned with a period of change in education which is a massive opportunity to shape the workforce, residents and leaders of the future. Through intensive training and engagement the communities of the present and future will be engaged to support and drive change together with local, regional and national government and switch society from main-lining carbon. This will also support high value high skilled job creation required to transform all aspects of energy generation, storage and use in the region together with revolutionising transport.

Figure 1: SWITCH Connect schematic showing themed research areas and cross cutting themes

The SWITCH Connect concept involves the co-creation of a co-ordinated interdisciplinary organisation with a work programme that builds on the existing research and innovation base through providing long-term revenue funding locking expertise in place, creating new innovation spaces and facilities to deliver technology readiness level jumps which otherwise would be linear and iterative. In taking a systems approach to putting together the delivery plan it will also grow areas of new low carbon opportunities and critically create economic growth for the region in both existing companies and new organisations that will be required to transition laboratory ideas into factory products creating high value jobs. In addition, it will support and drive societal changes in terms of delivering net zero heating and transport specifically to accelerate electric and hydrogen based transport options. SWITCH Connect will adopt the best practices of the existing innovation engines (such as FLEXIS and SPECIFIC) supporting their continued success and will also invest in supporting other low carbon facilities being created as part of the City Region deals and Industry Strategy Challenge Funding (for example the Neath Port Talbot Low Carbon Region Programme and the South Wales Industrial Cluster). In addition, SWITCH Connect will also interface with the Compound Semiconductor activity in the region to explore synergies in the advanced materials and applications space and will lead interactions with other UK research and innovation agents such as the Royce Institute, the IDRIC and Catapult network (where there are existing collaborations such as Energy Systems Catapult, AMRC, MPI and WMG).

SWITCH Connect net zero decarbonisation thematic areas are illustrated in Figure 1 and each will be led by international recognised research and innovation leaders. Individual innovation themes each of which with transformative capability will be connected through the SWITCH Connect theme which will support cross-project pollination and foster collaborative networks with other major UK (for example ERA in the West Midlands) and international energy hubs (for example NREL in the USA). The SWITCH Connect theme will also be a key policy interface with local and regional governments and policy makers together with key stakeholders such as the National Grid whose 2050 report will be a major road map for the future to ensure that as technology advances are brought into the adoption phase the regulatory approvals and legislative barriers are switched to an enabling mode to ensure fast adoption.  SWITCH Connect will also act as the focus for human interaction activities and support work to ensure that the changes in energy supply and removal of carbon intensity are also positive movers for social change and mobility. In too many cases industrial change has been mirrored by social dereliction and this is exemplified in the former mining regions and as such the region is uniquely equipped with experiences to ensure that in this fourth industrial revolution all of the communities involved are able to grow sustainably, culturally and economically.

SWITCH Connect will be an innovation ecosystem with industrial technologists and academics supported by business development professionals and underpinned by research students and early career staff ensuring a talent flow. Skills development and training will be a core element of the links to university and college partners to support the creation of a wide ranging skills escalator which can support work based learning and schools engagement all the way to postgraduate research specialisation supported by three existing CDTs. There will be no barriers for personal development and SWITCH Connect will particularly support career migration between the academic and industrial base to maximise the rapid transition of ideas into reality.

With sustained financial support over an initial five-year period SWITCH Connect will be the regional research and innovation powerhouse supporting the societal and industrial decarbonisation in South Wales delivering high value job creation and the transition to net zero living as a global exemplar community.