🕒 Article read time: 4 minutes
In profile: Graeme Cooper, Head of Future Markets, National Grid
Although a civil engineer by training, Graeme Cooper’s career to date can be neatly divided into two disruptive industries: telecoms and energy.
When he graduated from university during the 1990s recession, there was very little civil engineering work about, but one thing that was exploding at the time was the growth of telecoms. He spent the best part of a decade in the sector, installing the masts and coverage infrastructure needed to service the burgeoning mobile phone market.
FROM TELECOMS TO WIND FARMS
His next move was to become a wind farmer. While the two sectors do not at first glance appear related, he believes they share much in common: “If we think about the growth in telecoms, there are five key attributes: it is a technology disrupter, pushed by government, pulled by the consumer, needing significant infrastructure and a strong regulator.”
The same attributes, he argues, applied to the renewables sector. “I’d just started a family and I wanted a job with a little bit more of an ethical interest, something that my kids could be proud of,” he said, “To me the wind industry, if you squinted, looks very similar: big things, working at height in remote locations.”
His first job in the energy sector was for the not-for-profit British Wind Energy Association (now RenewableUK), a trade body where he got to understand the politics of the sector and meet its key players. The growth in wind was huge at this point, and Cooper soon found himself part of building eight large-scale commercial wind farms, projects worth a little more than half a billion pounds.
While he describes wind as “a beautiful and elegant way of making electricity”, by the time he had completed his eighth wind farm, it was time to move on. In 2017 he rejoined National Grid, where he had worked on the telecoms side a decade earlier, as Head of Future Markets leading on transport decarbonisation.
His return to the company was an unconventional one, however. As a wind farmer he was frustrated by the time it took to establish a grid connection. After writing what he describes as a “professionally obnoxious” letter to National Grid’s CEO John Pettigrew, which Cooper said was designed to make for uncomfortable reading, he was unexpectedly invited to share his experiences with National Grid’s entire leadership team.
Off the back of that conversation they asked him to come and work for them and utilise his experience of being a National Grid customer in a disruptive sector.
So, by November 2017, Cooper found himself in charge of the challenging transport decarbonisation brief at National Grid. While he does not claim that decarbonising transport is simple, he does believe that it is the easiest sector to make the cleanest in the fastest time.
When Cooper took the transport brief at National Grid, he soon realised that three industries would have to be brought together to decarbonise transport: energy, transport and digital.
“You’re bringing three sectors together and you need them to collaborate really well for this to be a success,” he said.
“Don’t forget National Grid has served longstanding, established industries. Decarbonising transport is a whole new ball game. Our only experience of decarbonising transport is that we provide the traction current for Network Rail. So we’ve been doing it only through a very narrow lens.”
In his first months in the job, Cooper met with nearly 400 people in the transport sector and asked them what they were trying to achieve, what was preventing them from getting there, what National Grid could do to help and crucially areas they would like National Grid to avoid.
“You get some really interesting feedback,” he said, “because as a price-regulated monopoly, I wasn’t competing with any of them so they were very generous with their hopes and fears, the business models that they were expecting to be challenged, how they were going to make their money, how they were going to survive. That gave me an incredibly useful lens on where National Grid, and the energy networks industry, can help the transport sector in its broadest sense.”
These conversations convinced Cooper that it was not as simple as switching from diesel to electric: “There’s a paradigm shift happening here, but we can’t do it on our own, we need to do it together.”
DECARBONISING THE GRID
Contrary to popular belief, National Grid does not buy, sell or make electricity, it is simply a conduit from where energy is made to where it is consumed.
“If you think about the journey to net zero,” Cooper said, “you need lots of primary energy to be green – wind and solar. We’re the bit that then takes it to where it’s then consumed in the heat and transport industries, we’re critical to that success.”
In 2007, when Cooper built his first transmission connected wind farm, he was told by a former National Grid employee that wind and renewables could not make up more than 4% of Britain’s power otherwise the lights would go out.
By 2020 electricity generation from renewables had overtaken fossil fuels in the UK for the first time. And at lunchtime on Easter Monday this year, it was estimated that almost 80% of Britain’s power came from low carbon sources.
“Half of electricity generation is being run on wind and solar right now which shows you how far we’ve come in such a short time,” Cooper said, “This kind of transition can, has and will work. We’ve gone through those big paradigm shifts. Will the grid cope with this? Yes – the reason being that the grid networks are living, breathing things. We are growing and changing and modifying what is happening in the market. Don’t forget we don’t make the market, we respond to the market.”
Traditionally National Grid built wires to nuclear power stations and coal plants. “We’ve been evolving as a grid network from a principally coal-based energy system 20 years ago to a largely clean and renewable based energy system today. And guess what? The lights have stayed on.”
ROAD TO ZERO
In the broader energy landscape, road transport represents up to 10 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption. However, according to figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), it accounts for around a third of emissions, most of which are road-based emissions.
Cooper believes that logistics professionals view the decarbonisation challenge through the lens of logistics and the vehicles that enable that to work. “But if you take the blinkers off and just look a little bit wider you realise what’s driving the change,” he said, “Then you realise that there’s a lot to collaborate on. I don’t profess to know much at all about logistics, but I know how important it is to the criticality of running the country. At the same time I also know how critically important it is to meet our air quality objectives, our climate change objectives. We’re all in this together.”
Cooper estimates that 40 gigawatts of wind will be enough to power all the UK’s surface transport and that this capacity will be on the bars within the next nine years. However, he predicts that it will take at least 20 years to decarbonise transport.
BAN ON NEW PETROL AND DIESEL CARS AND VANS
Cooper argues that bringing forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans to 2030 (2035 for hybrids) has acted as an incredibly important catalyst to decarbonise road transport.
“Industry can work with anything as long as there is certainty,” he said, “Because uncertainty has a cost. If there is a clear signal, a clear timeline and a clear trajectory, then business, finance, industry, will plan.”
Before this announcement, Cooper believed that the previous 2040 deadline was too woolly and too far in the future to be meaningful. “What’s nice is that we now have some clarity,” he said. “There’s a timeline and an action.”
“The typical life of a car in the UK is 13.7 years,” he continued, “which means theoretically you could get to a pretty clean fleet in about 15 years, which is what’s driving the 2030 ban on internal combustion engine sales.”
DECARBONISING HEAVY VEHICLES
As HGVs are widely accepted to be among the most difficult part of the commercial vehicle fleet to decarbonise, what does Cooper think are the frontrunner fuels for these vehicles?
“Having the right grid infrastructure is important,” he said. “What the users of the road network need to procure a vehicle of the future is confidence. How do you have confidence? What you need is consistency and continuity of refuelling.”
Cooper argues that the solution is the same whether you are driving a battery-, hydrogen- or overhead catenary-powered vehicle: “What is common with all those three technologies is you need an adequate grid connection. That’s where I come in because National Grid by its operating licence needs to be technology agnostic. I can’t pick winners. I have to treat everyone the same. And that goes for the technology choices for trucking.”
He estimates that it will take two or three years to install grid capacity evenly across the motorway network. “I don’t need to know now whether catenary wins, hydrogen wins or battery wins, or it’s a blend of all three,” he said, “because the one thing you need with any combination of those is the right grid capacity.”
TRANSPORT DECARBONISATION PLAN
The Department for Transport’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan has been long awaited by the logistics industry and Cooper predicts that it will be published sometime between now and 22 July, which is when Parliament begins its summer recess.
“I think we will be the first G7 economy to actually have a plan,” he said, “That’s significant, it shows that we’re a leader. Don’t forget I’m not speaking for government here, but the important thing for me is that we’re demonstrating leadership. Whether you agree that the plan is right or wrong, it’s important that there is a plan.”
He expects the plan to look at all forms of travel and transport – active, assisted, public, shared and owned, and to cover everything from walking, road and rail to aviation and maritime.
“I’m told by the person holding the pen over the document is that it is going to be incredibly ambitious but ultimately achievable,” he said, “Now the interesting debate will be how achievable and for whom. Let’s have the document, let’s see what it says – that’s where collaboration happens.”
As there is cross-party support for the journey to net zero Cooper said that it is not the case that a different parliament will gives a different answer, but he believes the attitude of business towards adopting the plan’s recommendations will be key
“Do you wait as a fleet logistics individual and say I’m not moving until I’m forced to, in which case this could be a very expensive ‘told you so moment’?” he asks, “Or do you try and look for the opportunities to take the earliest step forward, in which case you’re a pioneer?”
“I’m not saying this is easy but I just think there will be those who just dig their heels in and I think that could be an incredibly short-sighted way to go, because the weight of science, the weight of policy, the weight of legislation is coming and it will overtake you if you don’t engage.”
FUTURE LOGISTICS CONFERENCE
National Grid is a commercial partner of the forthcoming ITT Hub to be held in Farnborough on 30 June and 1 July. Cooper believes that the event, which will play host to Logistics UK’s Future Logistics Conference, is “absolutely the right melting pot for bringing energy, transport and digital together.”
Scheduled to speak at the Future Logistics Conference on 1 July, what does Cooper hope delegates will take away from his session on the help industry needs from government to achieve net zero?
“Firstly there’s the element of myth busting,” he said, “there’s that typical one: well we would go all electric but the grid can’t cope. I’m there to be the voice of science.”
Cooper is also hoping that the Transport Decarbonisation Plan will be published by the time of the conference, so expects to be explaining how the energy sector is observing the transport plan. He will also make a plea for cross-sector collaboration.
“I know lots about the power generation sector but I’m not a fleet logistics person. So how do we collaborate?” he asked, “I can tell you all there is to know about energy, you tell me all there is to know about logistics and between us we’ll work out where those opportunities are to create the value and to de-risk the journey that we’re on.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Some commentators have described the next ten years as the critical decade for the decarbonisation challenge. What does Cooper hope and expect to see during that time?
“Firstly, for us to hit net zero in 2050 by the mid-2030s we need to be significantly on our way,” he said. “When I say significantly on our way that means that the things that can go cleaner and greener where there is a technology answer – they have to be largely underway. I would argue that for surface transport we know what the answers are. You can reasonably foresee a battery-, catenary- or hydrogen-powered truck.”
Cooper is also optimistic about the broader benefits of decarbonisation for the wider environment and public health: “What I expect by 2030 and beyond? I expect much quieter roads, because the vehicles are quieter, I would expect cleaner air because we’re not burning hydrocarbons. I would like to think that people have greater life expectancy because of cleaner air.”
He expects too that there will be a dawning realisation that it is not just about the vehicle itself: “If you understand the vehicle and how its fuelled and where that energy comes from, then there’s a richer narrative.”
Fixating on which future fuel will be the ultimate winner in the journey to net zero misses the wider point about transport decarbonisation, Cooper believes.
“We’re all in this together,” he said, “It is not technology fighting technology. Which is why I get frustrated when it’s the hydrogen lobby fighting the electricity lobby. It is the future fighting the status quo.”
Even relatively modest steps towards cleaner fuels are worth taking, he believes: “If you’re buying a truck today and you’ve got a source of cleaner CNG, it’s cleaner than the status quo, so it’s a step in the right direction. So don’t wait, take the step.”
His final point is to underline the importance of collaboration: “There’s a lot to be positive about. The reason that the Future Logistics Conference is important, the reason why it’s at ITT Hub is that this is about collaboration. Where else are you expecting to see the energy sector and the utility sector turn up to a fleet logistics commercial vehicle event? It proves that we are all in this together.”
Graeme Cooper will be speaking at the Future Logistics Conference on 1 July 2021. He will be speaking at the session titled Public sector support: what does industry need from government to achieve net zero?
Published On: 10/06/2021 17:00:14