Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

Ty Christopher talks about the role universities can play to work towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals

SDG seven is working towards ‘ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’. Universities play an integral role in this, through research, teaching, community and industry engagement, knowledge exchange, advocacy and of course, campus operations.

The United Nations and its 193 participating countries, including Australia, are aiming to reach the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets by 2030. The goals were developed in 2015, meaning we are over a third of the way to our deadline. 

Universities play an important part in reaching these goals and targets, through research, teaching, community and industry engagement, knowledge exchange, policy, advocacy and operations. In particular, SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy, aiming to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’. 

Setting ambitious targets, whether at an organisational or national level, is an overwhelming concept for some. For most, it’s a necessary sacrifice to ensure we mitigate climate change and improve the health of our planet. 

Mr Ty Christopher, Director of the Energy Futures Network at the University of Wollongong says by setting smaller targets year on year, utilising the expert resources we already have, reinvesting energy savings into areas of energy innovation, we can make headway to reach where we need to be. 

“That’s exactly what I want to do. Success, however, is not going to be achieved by one person alone. Success is going to be hundreds of really smart people at the University who are guided and aligned in their thinking.” 

Ty Christopher, as of last month, has taken the lead on the University’s energy agenda. This role was created as a result of a tremendous amount of pioneering effort and visionary leadership from the former Executive Dean of Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, Professor Valerie Linton, who recently moved on to the University of Auckland. 

“Though Valerie’s vision to establish UOW’s Energy Futures Network, I’ve had the privilege of stepping into this role, to take the baton and keep running.” 

“I see my responsibility as working out how we uplift and grow our own people and organisation and how we then engage external resources to meet these targets.” 

An electrical engineer and a two-time graduate of UOW, Mr Christopher has come from an industry background but has always been a huge supporter of UOW.

 “I’m born and bred locally, and I think it’s wonderful that we’ve got such a world-class facility of research and education right here on our doorstep.” 

“I’ve always had a passion for change in the energy space and trying to drive new thinking and innovation. I’ve kept a close association with UOW through the Australian Power Quality and Reliability Centre.” 

He says that throughout his career in industry he kept that communication bridge between industry and academia open by encouraging interested people from the university to drive change and innovation. 

“While I was with Endeavor Energy I installed the first large-scale network battery for electricity storage and discharge here in NSW. I developed a reputation for being expansive, always pushing for, and trialling new technology that came along to see how it could be put to use.”

In this day and age, we are on an inexorable march towards a renewable energy future for our society, community and country. To do this, we need collaboration across all sectors, and at a University level, across all faculties. 

“That cross-discipline, holistic approach, is the key to what we are really trying to achieve here, and I think the key differentiator in a very competitive energy research funding space that UOW needs to bring to the table.” 

Coming from the corporate sector, Ty acknowledges that in large organisations there is always lots of thinking, talking and even planning, however much of it is siloed. 

“The first step is having awareness of that and at the University I’d like to encourage even more collaboration between our people as well as bridging the gap that can sometimes exist between the administrative and academic structures.” 

“Every time I knock on a door at UOW I find someone who is doing absolutely amazing things in the energy space or in areas that have high applicability to the energy space. Thus far I’ve been quite humbled by everyone’s enthusiasm to become part of this collaborative effort.” 

He says there is massive opportunity for the University to act in two key areas. We have an opportunity to be our own laboratory, leading by example. Further, we can be an independent voice in the energy transformation journey, providing research-based outcomes to help transition our society into a clean energy future, allowing the social aspects of employment and social fairness to have an equal voice with technology and economics. 

In our current environment, low on resources due to the economic impact of the pandemic, and social priorities in areas of health, a clean energy blueprint sounds like it could be a long way away. Ty says that’s not necessarily the case. 

“The affordability question is a very appropriate one in the current times. The reality is a clean energy future, whether for the UOW itself or for our society in general, is the most fiscally responsible outcome. By establishing our university campuses as a proof at scale example of a clean energy transition and harnessing the incredible research capacity which exists across the university, we will be able to attract increased levels of research funding and deliver an environmentally and financially sustainable future.” 

Looking across our community and the country, our energy industry is experiencing a period of unprecedented transformation, with traditional fossil fuel sources reaching end of life and renewables and new fuel sources taking over. 

“Refreshingly, people are now talking about more than one hundred per cent renewables, and I think that’s where we need to get to as a society, because it’s the one hundred percent ‘plus’ that then makes all of the other fuel sources virtually free.” 

“Then you’ve really got the concept of a zero net carbon economy.” 

The aim of a clean energy platform is generating a surplus of energy from solar and wind, likely during the day, generating hydrogen and storage in batteries so that you can have power through the night. By doing this, more energy is being generated during the day than you require. 

“That’s where we need to get to. That extra bit of energy, its marginal cost is minimal, its virtually free and its available because of sun and wind. You then use it to produce hydrogen, and you then use hydrogen for other purposes like manufacturing, heavy vehicle transport, leaving the cars we use every day to run on electricity.” 

Ty says he sees significant opportunity for the University itself to also be generating and recycling its own clean energy. The more that we invest in this, the more economically viable it becomes, as we reinvest the operating cost savings year on year to further the clean energy journey. 

“Facilitating the transition of our society to a clean energy future involves us all. Bringing the people of the University and its research associates together, finding those more than the sum of the parts solutions and being the people who deliver research-based solutions together is our aim. This is a whole of university initiative, and collaboratively, I know we can achieve our goals.”