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Exeter Energy, Environment and Economy (4E)

The Exeter Energy, Environment & Economy (4E) research group works in a transdisciplinary way to develop models and tools to assess the environmental, economic and social sustainability of a wide range of sociotechnical systems. The overarching aim is to help governments, industries and the public make more informed decisions with regard to sustainability. The group is based in the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI).

Research areas

Key topics include:

  • Assessing the sustainability of bioenergy pathways, electricity generation technologies, transport options, water systems and resource recovery processes using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
  • Developing novel spatiotemporal dynamical Life Cycle Assessment methods
  • Assessing the impact of energy systems on ecosystem services
  • Modelling the Water-Energy-Food-Environment (WEFE) Nexus
  • Modelling the energy and transport systems
  • Developing new business models based on Circular Economy and Natural Capital

Group members

Current projects

Securing a sustainable supply of water, energy and food while at the same time protecting the environment is a key global issue. Traditionally, policymaking for each sector (food, water, energy and environment) has been designed largely in isolation, without consideration of the synergies and trade-offs between them, leading in some cases to overexploitation of natural resources, increasing competition between sectors and negative externalities. This has been the case for the agricultural expansion planned in Ecuador and Peru during the last decades to take advantage of a growing international market.

By unpacking synergies and trade-offs through a WEFE (Water-Energy-Food-Environment) nexus approach, the aim of the RCUK-CONICYT funded NEXT-AG project is to provide policymakers in those countries with the needed evidence base that will allow them to develop new coordinated policies and programmes for increasing resilience and promoting sustainable economic growth in the context of increasing national and global food demand.

Focusing on Ecuador and Peru, this project will:

  1. Study the implications of increasing food production and associated policies on availability of water, energy and other natural resources for other sectors and the environment;
  2. Develop an integrated modelling framework in collaboration with stakeholders to evaluate how current and future policies will impact on the WEFE nexus for food provision services and the trade-offs in the context of increasing food demand and exports to international markets;
  3. Inform future WEFE policies in the countries under study, leading to the sustainable use of natural resources and economic growth.

Contact: Dr Xiaoyu Yan

Securing a sustainable supply of water, energy and food for all is a key global issue. An increasing demand for land, food, energy and water, urbanisation and the need to limit exploitation of these resources in a move towards a more sustainable economy will increase the strain on local, national and international resources.

Our water, energy, food and waste systems are interconnected, and impacted by climate and demographic change. The nexus seeks to define the interdependencies between the different systems and improve our understanding and hence ability to effectively predict and manage them.

The EPSRC-funded WEFWEBs project addresses the challenges of understanding and hence identifying the dynamic, interlinked inter-dependencies across the nexus networks which are physical (water, waste, energy and food), social and political (individual, regulatory and policy), ecological and digital at multiple, nested scales (local, regional and national) and temporally.

Contact: Dr Xiaoyu Yan

This project is developing new methodologies to address some of the major limitations of the established LCA tools. This includes making LCA more temporally and spatially explicit as well as exploring the propagation of uncertainties in LCA models.

Contact: Atta Ajayebi and

The rare earth elements (REE) are widely used in modern technologies varying from wind turbines to hard disk drives, low energy lighting to electric cars. They are recognised as critical raw materials by the European Commission and other authorities, because of concerns about security of supply.

Recent work has highlighted neodymium (Nd) and the heavy rare earth elements (HREE) as being most at risk of supply disruption in the near future. The major challenge is to develop new Nd and HREE deposits that can be exploited in an environmentally-friendly and economically viable way, so that the use of REE in new technologies can continue to expand.

This PhD project is part of the NERC-funded SoS RARE project and aims to assess and compare the environmental sustainability of new REE extraction and recovery processes.

Contact: Robert Pell

We have two PhD projects on this topic. One is funded by the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership in collaboration with the UK Government's Marine Management Organisation. Using offshore wind energy sector as an example, this project employs Environmentally Extended Input-Output Analysis (EEIO) to explore the links that marine ecosystem services have with the macroeconomy, and how ecosystem services form inputs for other industries.

The other project employs Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) models to evaluate the impact of offshore wind farms on marine ecosystem services. The focus is on the economic impact of offshore wind farms on the energy and fishery sectors in the UK.

Contact: Emily Stebbings and Yang Qu

Many coal mines produce waste which causes acid mine drainage: an acidic metal-rich runoff which can result in severe environmental damage. This drainage can be treated, but most wastes will continue to produce such drainage for hundreds of years. Therefore, longer term, permanent solutions are needed.

At the same time, the pace of development in information technology means most electrical and electronic equipment becomes obsolete within a matter of years. This results in the generation of vast and growing quantities of electronic waste (e-waste) every year. Where this cannot be recycled, this must be discarded. Not only can this result in serious pollution of the environment, but it is also a waste of the valuable metals such material contains.

The EU RFCS-Funded CEReS project will co-process these two waste streams to produce metals and other valuable products,while eliminating their environmental impact at the same time. This industrial ecology approach is key to supporting a circular economy while securing the sustainable supply of critical raw materials.

The role of our group in this project is to evaluate the environmental sustainability of the CEReS process in comparison to the status quo.

Contact: Dr Victor Kouloumpis

The EU Interreg-funded Intelligent Community Energy (ICE) project is dedicated to improving, developing and promoting new smart solutions for energy production, storage and consumption for an island or remote community. Lead by Bretagne Developpement Innovation, nine organisations have partnered up to tackle the challenge of energy vulnerability in areas located at the end of the distribution network and reliant on fossil fuel.

Two pilot sites – the Ushuant Island in Finistere and the University of East Anglia campus in Norfolk – have been selected to test proposed solutions and to develop a methodology to design and implement a smart grid. Demonstration will aim to find the right energy mix adapted to the needs, available resources and production and consumption patterns of the pilot communities. By the end of the project, these new solutions will be included in a full commercial offer that will be proposed to other insular or peripheral territories facing the same energy challenges, in the Channel area and beyond.

The role of our group in this project is to evaluate and compare the environmental implications of various energy system solutions proposed to support decision making by key stakeholders and local communities.

Contact: Dr Victor Kouloumpis

The current mining paradigm promotes extraction from large ‘world-class’ deposits that have required innovations in mining techniques to deal with low grades, large infrastructure to deal with high throughputs and large feasibility studies to prove long-term commercial viability. However, there are problems for critical raw materials that are produced in small quantities relative to traditional metal commodities because the potential return on investment is too low.

The EU H2020-funded IMP@CT project proposes a solution that develops a new switch on-switch off (SOSO) mining paradigm to improve the viability of many critical metal and other small complex deposits.

The whole systems approach that we have adopted to realise the SOSO mining paradigm centres around technological innovations in mining equipment design and mine planning that would reduce the feasibility studies required, throughput of extracted material, infrastructure, land use, resource consumption and waste. Successful business models for SOSO mining require that mining and processing technologies can be adapted to multiple deposits and commodities.

The role of our group in this project is to design a renewables-based energy supply system for the mobile and modular mining plant to maximise its environmental benefits.

Contact: Dr Xiaoyu Yan

The E-IPB project is jointly funded by Innovate UK  and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology. It is a collaboration between the University of Exeter, University of Nottingham, Sichuan University (China), and the industry.

The aim is to develop a low-cost solution for a solar energy system integrated into building facades and/or building roofs, and also evaluate its impact on building energy performance.

The project will:

  1. develop low cost and lightweight thin-film modules for UK and Chinese climatic conditions;
  2. aim to achieve 1.5% higher electrical efficiency compared with the present recorded value of 22.6% developed by Germany's Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW);
  3. demonstrate technical and commercial viability of lightweight glass on glass optical devices integrated with a thin-film PV system with a targeted 2% efficiency enhancement, to allow light, maintain heat loss coefficient and generate electricity at the point of use;
  4. develop an integrated spectral dependent optical-thermal-electrical model for both thin-film and optically enhanced thin-film PV modules.

Contact: Dr Xiaoyu Yan

The EG4B project is jointly funded by the European Structural and Investment Funds. EG4B will work with Cornwall and Isles of Scilly’s  Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to generate environmental and economic growth.

It will work with new and existing businesses, adopting an ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘circular economics’ approach to identifying opportunities for increased productivity and economic resilience through improvements in resource efficiency. Additionally, it will provide opportunities for delivering business-led environmental growth and new opportunities for product and service development in response to regional environmental challenges.

The role of our group in this project is to collect and analyse data on resource use and waste generation from businesses that will feed into the development of a toolkit. This toolkit is expected to help businesses better understand their dependence and impact on natural capital and to identify opportunities for value creation from growing the environmental assets.

Contact: Dr Xiaoyu Yan