As countries strive for sustainability, zero emissions and cleaner living, the stage is set for another global industrial revolution. But this time it’s green.

In November 2020 the UK Government set out a 10-point plan for its ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. The goal of the ambitious initiative is for the country to (among other things) recover from COVID-19, support green jobs and set out a route to net zero. The plan covers initiatives in a wide range of market sectors, including offshore wind, hydrogen, nuclear power, zero emissions vehicles and greener public transport.

Routes to Net Zero Image 1

Also listed within the future blueprint are: greener ships and buildings; investment in carbon capture; protection of the natural environment, and green finance and innovation. As a diverse organisation operating in many of those industries, Ricardo welcomed the plan and its objectives.

It is keen to expand its work with government and industry to help achieve the goals, with the overall aim of getting to net zero emissions. “Countries around the world had signed up to achieving net zero before 2050 but the reality is that their plans did not go far enough to achieve their goals,” says Mike Bell, Ricardo’s Group Strategy and Transformation Director. “We have seen that things aren’t happening fast enough and, with COVID-19 and the need to stimulate the economy, governments around the world are putting their bets on the green recovery as part of their plan. It’s a case of new jobs in new areas, rather than propping up legacy industries.”

“when it comes to transport, there is the ongoing need to reduce the use of oil”


One of the biggest areas of focus within Ricardo is decarbonisation – an initiative driven by factors such as EU regulations and the realisation that fossil fuels will not be a viable energy source for much longer. The UK has led the way in decarbonisation, not least in the electricity market, which has seen wind and solar taking an increasing share of the power mix. When it comes to transport, there is the ongoing need to reduce the use of oil. “The UK’s 10-point industrial plan has a big focus on transport and the greening of it,” says Bell..

Routes to Net Zero Image 2

One subject highlighted in the 10-point plan that Ricardo isn’t directly involved in is nuclear power, but Bell is ruling nothing out. “From an environmental point of view, people – not surprisingly – view nuclear with suspicion because, while it doesn’t create CO2, it has many other long-term legacy effects,” he says. “I try to be more pragmatic about it because although we can generate lots of energy from wind and increasing use of solar, they are limited by time and natural resources. When there’s no sun or wind, you’ve got nothing to back it up.”

“freight trains present the greatest challenges for rail decarbonisation”

Routes to Zero Image 4

The nuclear-plus-hydrogen option is to run a nuclear plant as base load and convert some power to hydrogen when demand is low, such as evenings and weekends. Bell said: “We want to be seen to be helping governments and organisations decarbonise and help achieve net zero,” he says. “That’s achieved by supporting policy work, through the consulting side and onto engineering elements of the business. From a transportation perspective, the first main area we’re looking at is the transition from the internal combustion engine to electrification. Then the focus will be on the move to full battery transport and also hydrogen in the more ‘hard to decarbonise’ applications. As our global snapshot shows, Ricardo is involved in a wide range of projects that are helping industries, governments and organisations achieve their net zero carbon emission goal of transport and, as part of the jigsaw, there is a need to kickstart green energy generation. If we are to use hydrogen to power vehicles, we need the infrastructure in place –unlike gas and oil, it isn’t an untapped resource. We need to create it,” said Bell. At the moment, 99 per cent of all hydrogen is generated from natural gas or coal gasification, so it’s currently not ‘green’. “If you’ve got a truck to run on hydrogen it’s great because it only emits water, but we’ve generated much more CO2 creating the hydrogen,” reasons Bell.

A greener future for rail

Decarbonisation challenges

Freight trains present the greatest challenges for rail decarbonisation: they are long, heavy, need ‘go anywhere’ capability and are typically powered by the most polluting fuel, diesel. Ricardo has completed a policy study for the Rail Safety and Standards Board to look at options, including the use of electric, battery, hydrogen or biofuels, to find a way forward. The chosen power source had to be practical, given the heavy loads – and it proved a difficult question to answer. It would also require major investment in rail electrification, or a readymade supply of the fuel near the network – as seen with diesel. One option being investigated is whether the railway could carry hydrogen (or ammonia) onboard, reducing the need for extensive electrification. Ricardo is currently looking for partners in the project who would be interested in exploring potential solutions.

“solutions are being developed to connect medium-scale solar photovoltaic plants – and maybe wind plants – directly to the railway”

Route to Zero Image 5

Electricity sourcing

Another project using capability from across the Ricardo business is with Riding Sunbeams. Network Rail is the single biggest user of electricity in the UK and also has key targets for decarbonisation.

Routes to zero image 6

The collaboration with Riding Sunbeams is developing the technical and commercial solutions to connect medium-scale solar photovoltaic plants – and maybe wind plants – directly to the railway. Located one to two kilometres from the railway, future rail systems will have direct access to affordable zero carbon electricity. Feasibility studies have led to a small system being trialled at Aldershot station.

Following this successful demonstration, Riding Sunbeams won a grant to take forward the first full-scale project of a four-megawatt site near Cuckmere, East Sussex. Ricardo is providing technical support to connect this solar plant to the Eastbourne to London line.

Routes to zero image 7

On-track charging Decarbonisation of the railway will not be straightforward, hence Ricardo is looking at a wide range of approaches. There are a number of hurdles such as the weight of batteries, as well as storage and recharging limitations. A concept called ‘discreet electrification’ could help overcome some of these issues: this allows battery powered trains to charge on the move.

A battery powered train has a pantograph that is extended to overhanging electric wires and makes a connection. These wires would be placed every 50 to 60 kilometres and be around five km long. As the train passes through, it will recharge, to enable it to continue its journey without adding time to recharge at stations. One advantage of this initiative is the ability to choose the quickest and cheapest five km along the route – thereby avoiding tunnels and level crossings. It is also the least disruptive measure to the rail network and can avoid areas of outstanding beauty.