A just transformation for Rugeley, as the power station comes down

As carbon-intensive facilities wind down, systems innovators are looking for opportunities to put these assets to a different use, including as test beds for low-carbon living

At 10:00 a.m. on 13 February, a central section of the Rugeley Power Station came crumbling to the ground. Yet, this was no accident. Rather, it was, to use the phrase of ENGIE, the site’s operator, a “controlled collapse demolition event.”

After half-a-century, this enormous, one-gigawatt coal-fired power plant located in Rugeley, UK, is in the process of being decommissioned. Over the next year or so, a series of similar controlled explosions will see the remainder of the site raised to the ground, including the facility’s iconic cooling towers.

 

Our changing world: Decarbonising heavy-industry  

The decision to decommission the Rugeley site marks a shift by energy and services company ENGIE, away from coal towards cleaner alternatives such as solar, wind, and geothermal.

Other power operators across Europe are also making moves to decarbonise in line with the Paris Agreement—and with ever stricter public policy. The UK, for instance, has banned coal-fired power after 2025.

But what to do with former power generation sites that are now standing empty or soon will be?

As Europe’s efforts to decarbonise accelerate, carbon-intensive facilities of all kinds—from defunct power plants to steel factories and coal mines to oil refineries and smelting plants—now have question-marks hanging over them.

The prospect of simply stepping away and “letting the weeds to grow” is inconceivable, argues Lavinya Kugaswaran, project manager for EIT Climate-KIC’s Deep Demonstration of Just Transformations, a new systems-based initiative designed to support Europe’s heavy-industry heartlands as they decarbonise.

In the immediate term, some sort of provision needs to be made for the workers and communities affected by the closure of these sites. Looking forward, these sites remain substantial economic assets. Just because they are not productive now does not means they cannot return to productivity, albeit of a different kind, in the future.

“With imagination and investment, there’s a massive opportunity to help accelerate the shift towards a low-carbon economy by putting these assets to a different use,” Lavinya states. 

 

Rugeley: From power plant to clean community

It’s with precisely with such an opportunity in mind that ENGIE announced its intention to build a smart and sustainable development on the 139-hectare site outside Rugeley, a small town located in the UK county of Staffordshire between the cities of Stoke and Birmingham.

In late 2018, the company released a masterplan that described its vision for a sustainable, mixed-use community of around 2,300 homes. Additional space is earmarked for commercial properties, intergenerational accommodation, and various community and education facilities. In addition, a 25-hectare stretch along the River Trent (which borders the brownfield site) has been marked out for a natural park for use by local residents.

The proposed development—work on which is planned to start next year—represents a stellar example of “sustainable place-shaping,” according to Christoph Mazur, Energy, Infrastructure & Services Manager at ENGIE. “It promises to be a springboard for the area’s regeneration and a turning point in the fortunes of the area,” he adds.  

He lists off the company’s low-carbon ambitions for the site, which range from renewable energy supply and smart grid infrastructure to sustainable building materials and extensive cycling and pedestrian routes.

The latter points to a key priority for the project: Smart mobility. In a string of public meetings held to discuss its plans and gain input from local residents, ENGIE emphasised its desire for the new development to embrace the very latest in sustainable transport, including early-stage innovations such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence (AI)-led traffic systems.

Mention of ENGIE’s mobility ambitions caused Ian Willetts’ ears to prick up. A Project Manager for EIT Climate-KIC in the West Midlands, he had heard about the proposed project through Energy Capital, a regional innovation partnership to which ENGIE and EIT Climate-KIC both belong.

Ian attended one of the initial public meetings with a view to learning more about ENGIE’s plans and to identifying whether an opportunity might exist for one of EIT Climate-KIC’s regional network of around 50 partner companies to bring their expertise to bear.

He left enthused: “At a systems level, it struck me as a fascinating project. There’s the clean energy piece, the regeneration of a former coal-fired power plant, the link to low-energy housing and sustainable living—it’s all there.”

 

Smart mobility: Tapping local innovation

It occurred to him that Conigital, a Birmingham-based firm specialising in driverless transport and a recipient of an Active Intelligent Mobility grant from EIT Climate-KIC, could be an excellent fit. Since setting up in 2015, Conigital has emerged as one of the UK’s leading innovators in the digital infrastructure required to support advanced, AI-based mobility systems. 

A quick phone call led to a meeting in London between ENGIE’s project management team and Conigital’s founder Don Dhaliwal. Out of that initial discussion emerged the idea for a feasibility study to see if Conigital’s smart transport platform could be adapted for the Rugeley development.

“I knew that Conigital has been involved over the years in a range of large-scale projects, both government-funded and company-backed, so that gave me confidence to put them forward,” Ian notes.

Fast forward a year or so and Conigital has delivered its study to ENGIE and is now in ongoing discussions about how its digital platform might be applied to the new development. One of the exciting learnings to have emerged out of the study (which was funded through a £80,000 grant from EIT Climate-KIC) is how the data streams that underpin Conigital’s driverless vehicle system can be applied to other smart services as well.  

“Imagine a ‘vehicle to grid’ system that could identify which vehicles had extra battery power and arrange for these cars to be moved to a location where this power was needed,” Don says. “Or, more conventionally, picture a power system that could predict when power supply would outstrip demand and could then arrange for this surplus power to be sold to the grid at an optimum price.”

Cities around the world are becoming increasingly ‘switched on’ to the potential of open data systems, Don argues: “This is very much the approach we would take. So sharing enough data to optimise the entire system and make it clear where various assets are, whether they are on or off, whether energy is being used in the right places, whether vehicles are where you need them, and so on.”

A similar systems-based framework governs how Conigital imagines the implementation process of any future smart-mobility system at Rugeley. If autonomous cars are one day going to be safely travelling its streets, then it’s vital now to engage local emergency services, transport companies, regulators and any other relevant party. As he makes clear, for systems-based innovation to work, “the involvement of the wider ecosystem is essential.”

 

Smart city framework: Spreading the learning

Going forward, Conigital believes its digital mobility plan for Rugeley could serve as a framework for similar brownfield developments around the world. To that end, the Birmingham start-up is already in discussions with developers as far afield as Australia, Qatar and India. It’s also talking with tech giants such as ARM, Microsoft and Intel about standardising its digital platform so as to increase its interoperability with other software systems.

Drawing on its partnership with EIT Climate-KIC, Conigital hopes to expand its operations in Europe. The Birmingham-based innovator has ambitions of creating a “living lab” that would enable other innovative solution providers in EIT Climate-KIC’s network to trial and test their smart solutions alongside its mobility system.

“What we bring to the table is a digital platform, together with a bunch of algorithms and vehicles. The beauty of this is that different low-carbon and energy-efficient innovations can then also be deployed in the same city project,” Don states.

Back at Rugeley, ENGIE recently kicked off a two-year, Innovate UK supported design programme to provide the local community with a Smart Local Energy System (SLES). Together with the redevelopment of the coal-fired power station into one of the greenest developments in the country this approach could form a template for similar sites and projects.

Conigital is but one player in the £3 million Zero Carbon Rugeley coalition. Additional partners include Keele University, Staffordshire County Council, the local district council, arts groups, clean energy specialists, regeneration experts, and utility companies, among other.

“That’s as it should be,” says Ian, EIT Climate-KIC’s local coordinator. “In a complex system such as a smart city, no single organisation has all the answers.” Indeed, when it comes to innovating at scale, everyone is learning, he reasons: “The more innovators involved and the more they work together, the quicker the learning and the greater the likelihood of creating options and pathways for others to follow.”

Orchestrated test beds like Rugeley are a critical part of the transition to a net zero world, argues Willets. “The test bed or “super lab” concept is at the heart of a systems innovation approach to tackling climate change. Our own Deep Demonstration projects create deliberate combinations of innovations—e.g. across education, policy, technology, citizen engagement and other relevant levers of change—to catalyse rapid transformations in whole places or sectors. We’re excited to learn from the Rugeley site, and we’ll help to develop actionable intelligence for others who want to transform systems.”

 
Location
United Kingdom
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