Spatial Optimisation of Renewable Energy Deployment in Great Britain: A Natural Capital Analysis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Economics


This studentship is one of eight PhD opportunities that will contribute to the ADVENT (Addressing Valuation of Energy and Nature Together) research project, a research endeavour funded by NERC as part of the RCUK Energy Programme. ADVENT's core objective is to analyse the consequences of prospective UK energy pathways for natural capital.
The programme of PhD studentships is intended to develop future research capacity at the interface of energy and environmental research. ADVENT is also affiliated to the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and the NERC Valuing Nature Programme so there will be opportunities to participate in events run by these initiatives.
This particular PhD studentship will study the optimal spatial design of policies. While the quantitative methods developed in the studentship will be applicable across a broad range of contexts, the particular area of application will concern where to place multiple new energy generation facilities and the transmission infrastructure to connect them to markets. That particular location decision requires trade-offs along multiple dimensions including engineering feasibility, construction costs, market access and, of principal interest, damages to natural capital and the ecosystems services it provides.
This studentship will build on work begun as part of the National Ecosystem Assessment Follow On Project (Bateman, Day et al., 2014) in which techniques of mathematical programming were employed to design optimal spatial policies for the siting of new woodlands in the UK (Day and De Gol, in preparation). Moreover, the studentship will break new academic ground by exploring methods of robust spatial optimization, methods that specifically acknowledge uncertainties in the costs and benefits of the environmental impacts of energy infrastructure siting decisions. The robust optimization routines will search for a spatial configuration of the energy system that, while seeking to optimize net benefits, protects against excessive losses if the costs of ecosystem service damages turn out to be at the extremes of expected ranges.
The studentship will be supervised across two institutions with the student based at the University of Exeter under the supervision of Professor Brett Day with Professor Ian Bateman of the University of Exeter and Dr Paolo Agnolucci of UCL forming the rest of the supervisory team. That team of supervisors spans disciplinary fields providing the student with expertise both in the valuation of ecosystem services but also in the modelling of environmental and energy systems. Over the course of the studentship, the selected student will develop advanced skills in all those areas with particular emphasis on methods for solving problems of optimal spatial policy design under conditions of uncertainty.

Planned Impact

In addition to the academic community, we envisage three groups of key beneficiaries from the research: (i) government departments and public policy makers; (ii) private sector companies in the energy, water and agriculture sectors; and (iii) the public and society more generally. Our communication, engagement and dissemination plans are described in the Pathways to Impact document. Here we outline the expected impacts of these combined activities.

National Decision-Makers:

A fundamental objective of this project is to quantify and value the natural capital and ecosystem services impacts of different energy pathways. Moreover, based on that knowledge, the project will develop decision-support tools that provide a whole-system assessment of different energy futures. Accordingly, the project's outputs will have direct importance to numerous decision-making agencies including the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Each of those agencies has immediate needs for tools that will allow them to assess and compare different possible energy pathways across both the energy and environment spheres. The project will also provide inputs for agencies involved in national policy making regarding natural capital, particularly the on-going development of natural capital accounts being pursued by the National Capital Committee (NCC), Office of National Statistics (ONS) and HM Treasury (HMT). The research team have long track-records of collaboration with each of these organisations ensuring the project's findings will have a pathway for direct dissemination to the relevant decision-making bodies.

Regional Decision-Makers:

In addition, the project will undertake a number of case studies whose regional focus will provide valuable input to local decision-makers. For instance, research on public attitudes to potential marine energy developments in the Bristol Channel-Severn Estuary (WP5.6) will be of interest to Local Enterprise Partnerships given the economic importance of tourism in the region. Similarly, the work on implications of changes in energy consumption in north-eastern Scotland will be of relevance to unitary authorities within the region with respect to strategic planning and decisions regarding future infrastructure investments.

Private Sector:

Outputs of the project will also be of direct relevance to a number of businesses and organisations in the private sector. The strategic planning of energy companies will be particularly enhanced by better understanding of potential environmental impacts from their operations and how natural capital considerations might constrain these in the future. Similarly, the water supply industry has an obvious interest in the implications of future energy pathways for water resources and how these could influence future investments in abstraction, treatment and distribution infrastructure. The agricultural sector also stand to benefit from project's outputs. In particular, the project will provide insights into possible future demands for bioenergy and spatial variations in the availability of water for irrigation purposes. In addition, the project will provide information directly relevant to businesses in the energy, water and food sectors with interests in developing corporate natural capital accounts.

Public and Wider Society:

The final group to be impacted by the project will be society more generally. The project's outputs will help ensure that the public's valuation of important natural assets such as green spaces used for recreation and landscapes enjoyed for their visual amenity are meaningfully represented in decisions concerning future energy pathways. These insights will also be relevant to the work of many environmental NGOs such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and county wildlife trusts.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/M019713/1 30/06/2015 31/08/2021
1924218 Studentship NE/M019713/1 01/10/2016 13/08/2021 Gemma Delafield
Description As part of NERC's Addressing the Valuation of Energy and Nature Together (ADVENT) project, a national-scale spatially disaggregated integrated model has been developed to spatialize the output of energy models. The modelling framework uses various spatial optimization techniques to determine the least cost locations for multiple renewable energy technologies.
Exploitation Route The land use change associated with transitioning to a decentralised low carbon energy system has the potential to result in far-reaching ramifications for the natural environment. The outputs from the modelling work may in the future be used to explore the technological, economic, environmental and social feasibility of different UK energy pathways and therefore help inform future energy policy.
Sectors Energy,Environment