Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. We know whom you are having a crack at. Mr Bronsdon?
  (Mr Bronsdon) Yes, just some brief comments. I believe the level of support that will be required is large. I am not sufficiently well versed actually to put a figure to that, but I would imagine tens, if not hundreds, of millions is something of the order that could be envisaged; but that is dependent also upon the level of exploitation that the UK is hoping to achieve from this resource, and the speed of development at which it hopes it will take off. Now, in terms of the means of assessing what would be a reasonable stage for a device to develop to full scale, one fairly basic measure could be the power output per unit cost, because, in that way, you will be looking actually at not necessarily picking a winner but picking a device that gives the best efficiency or optimum conditions. In terms of the overall driver for where this should be heading, I think it has to be kept in mind that the aim is to try to get the UK to meet emissions reduction targets for carbon dioxide emissions, amongst other things; in that sense, going for larger-scale developments of a number of devices is likely to have a better chance of success than picking one particular winner, as was mentioned previously.

  Chairman: Fine. Now I am going to move on, because we have several more questions to get through before five o'clock. Dr Kumar.

Dr Kumar

  21. Thank you, Chair. Dr Taylor, the electricity privatisation in 1989 was encouraged to develop renewable energy sources, under the banner of Renewables Obligation, to promote renewable energy, and to provide electricity, promoting the UK, for our customers. I wonder if you have any opinion on how successful this approach has been, and if there is anything you would want to change, and anything you would want to promote, or has it failed?
  (Dr Taylor) The principle of a Renewables Obligation is a good one, it is a good principle; however, it has not been banded, so that there is not, within it,—

  22. Why is it a good approach?
  (Dr Taylor) It is very early to see yet what it leads to, because, of course, it has not yet officially come in but, from my discussions with developers, certainly it has the potential to create a market for renewable energy, and it is a premium market that it creates, a small premium price, and that will make a difference for, certainly, onshore wind, which can come in there. The Government has made announcements about how you look at the problems faced by offshore wind, which cannot get into the price that will be achieved under the Obligation, the buy-out price; the problem is even more acute for wave power. And there needs to be things in addition to a blanket Obligation, that is the point I would make, in the context of this inquiry into wave and tidal power. On its own, it would just result in the cheapest and not necessarily the best, in fact it could result in undesirable, technologies. And what we want is that the technologies that have long-term potential, or would have immediate potential but cannot make it, have grants to bring them in; and that could be done either by banding the Obligation and having technology bands within it, or it can be done by having grants to assist technologies to come into that. And it seems to be that the Government is looking towards grants, that is what it is doing with offshore wind, it should certainly be doing that to close the gap for wave power.
  (Mr Bronsdon) I would agree, to some extent, that the premium price is an advantage for those technologies which are nearest the market, if not operating in the market, because the driver for a generation or supply company is to benefit financially from their investment. At the same time, by not banding the Obligation, you are creating a barrier to any technology that is outside that area, so further support would be encouraged. At the same time, that further support could be banded into a reference against the potential of that resource, as its development essentially has shown, to date. Whether or not that will bring sufficient capacity on board in the time that is required is another issue that needs to be taken forward at the same time. Looking back at the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligations and the Scottish Renewables Orders, that were put in place, they were banded Obligations; at the same time, the success of the number of projects that were proposed and accepted, against those that have been commissioned, have not shown the development rate that was anticipated, and that was with a banded Obligation, which gave a preference to certain technologies.

Dr Gibson

  23. We have already touched on this, about how we drive this thing forward and we find champions, and so on. It is often argued, I am sure you are familiar with it, that we are just playing around with this, it is nice to keep it on the back-burner, but we are not really doing it seriously. You have mentioned Denmark several times about; what is the message, what is the crux, in Denmark, that makes the whole thing tick and make it look credible and impressive? What is it, generically, we need to do in this country to pull it together, do you think? If we could do something tomorrow, what would it be?
  (Mr Bronsdon) Taking the Denmark example, I think the reason why they have been far more successful in the approach they have taken is they have a limited resource, and they have only certain options that they can turn to for development, and they have committed themselves to the development of those options. Within the UK, from the historical position, there is a legacy of generation that exists, and there is also a diversity of supply sources. At present, the economics are not on the point of benefiting new and emerging technologies too well, and, also, due to the current lifetime of existing generation plant, there is not perhaps the political signal that is recognised, to stress the urgency that is needed.

  24. You do not think it is because there is a national test facility there; you think it comes from the political dimension perhaps?
  (Mr Bronsdon) That will be an additional factor, that they have recognised that and set that up.

  25. And not here; we could not do it, you think, it would be too troublesome?
  (Mr Bronsdon) No, I believe we could, if we commit ourselves to that route.

  26. Right. Ian Taylor?
  (Dr Taylor) You were saying that Denmark had a limited number of options, so they have had to go for it. I think what that boils down to is that they have had the determination and they have adopted a `can do' attitude. And I have to say that I find that, repeatedly, what comes back from the Department of Trade and Industry, and others, about these situations, is a `cannot do' attitude. I have a letter that was faxed to me this morning, it is from the DTI, which is a reiteration of the position that they do not expect wave power to achieve anything within the next ten years; and that is going to lead to a world-trailing position. And I think a `can do' attitude, that sets up a determination to do it, that signals clearly to investors it is a very clear thing; it needs to be backed up by things like test centres, and all of these other layers.

  27. We all want to improve the London tube, but, the trouble is, everybody is arguing about how you do it, and I think we may be a hundred years waiting for somebody to do it; but if we decide we are going to do it here, who is going to do it, how do we get the partnerships, and who would be in the partnerships, or should Government just take a lead and do it?
  (Dr Taylor) We went to Scotland with the Rainbow Warrior to advertise wave power; and one of the things which is really striking about that, which is really encouraging, is the cross-sectoral and the great enthusiasm for this. And I think there is a moment to be grabbed now, and I would be quite optimistic that there is, in fact, cross-sectoral, cross-party, buy-in, and let us seize the moment. And I think we should not be too hard on ourselves, that, yes, the UK, to a degree, has been bypassed and is now buying Danish technology for wind power; but there are a lot of industrial and academic strengths, and there are people in this room, indeed, who bring great intellectual resources to this, and next week we will be hearing from those that are very strong in entrepreneurial strengths. And I would say that what it needs is just a bit of will power, from Government, up front.

  Dr Gibson: We need a czar, we need a wave and tidal czar; do you think that is what we need?

  Dr Turner: Oh, no.

  Dr Iddon: We have got two.

  Dr Gibson: We have got czars to the right and czars to the left; we have got three, actually. But you know what I mean, you need a champion to drive it, a minister, or somebody, who really commits himself; too dangerous, perhaps?

  Chairman: I think there was a general nod to that, was there not. Dr Kumar, before we go to Mr McWalter.

  Dr Kumar: It is interesting, Chairman, that Dr Gibson, at every meeting, wants a czar for everything; but how lovely that he never lets his czar down.

  Dr Gibson: Or a czarina.

  Chairman: He has forgotten 1917, perhaps.

  Dr Gibson: Never.

Dr Kumar

  28. Dr Taylor, you commented on a `cannot do' approach in the DTI. Do you see that actually as from the civil servants, or do you see that as coming from ministers as well? Why do you think it is, so I will leave it very open and broad for you to comment on, but why is there this `cannot do' approach, because the Government seems to be taking huge leaps on everything else that we see, modernising every aspect of our lives, yet here you are saying, well, we have not got a `can do' approach on this issue?
  (Dr Taylor) I think ministers have attempted to give a good lead, and that it is an immensely cumbersome process and department to deal with. As I said, John Battle launched the renewal of the R&D programme, which is still small. I do not have any special insights on where that state of mind stems from, but I am absolutely sure that it is there and I encounter it again and again. I am fortunate to sit in an organisation that has an international perspective, and I think I would despair, sometimes, if it were not that I have international colleagues, who sit in other countries, where other examples are there and where things are happening, and you can show that it is possible to achieve these solutions, these environmental and industrial solutions.

  Dr Kumar: Perhaps we should send our civil servants to Europe and somewhere else, so that they could feel that?

  Chairman: And not come back. Fine. We must move on. We have got a couple more questions.

Mr McWalter

  29. In a way, you are almost inviting the Government sort of to put the equivalent of the Millennium Dome off the coast of Orkney somewhere, to produce energy for a far greater cost than it is produced through any other mechanism; and, I think, if there were a czar, or a czarina, they might not last very long with the resulting flak. And, also, perhaps rather similar to the Millennium Dome as well, in that, if we then talk to the experts, we are not quite clear what we put in it, which mechanisms for harnessing wave and tidal power we actually utilise. Given all those uncertainties, the enormous expense, and so on, why should the Government commit itself to this, rather than to wind power and other renewable sources, which do not have damaging gaseous consequences but which are quite well proved, and which, clearly, could make a very important contribution to the reduction of those gases?
  (Mr Bronsdon) If I can come back against the uncertainties issue you raised, there is a lot of uncertainty in trying to look at what the impact of developing technology in this area could be; however, you need to frame that against what are the certainties that the UK is facing. Now I have included within my memorandum a look forward at the future for Scotland as a market itself, against the CO2 target that it will try to achieve, and also the energy supply measures that are finite in their lifetime; those are, namely, the two operating nuclear power stations within Scotland. In the next ten years, you are likely to see half of the nuclear power capacity in Scotland move into a decommissioning phase; at the same time, beyond that, in another ten, 15 years' time, the second power station could, at the moment, move into the same decommissioning phase. With each closure you will see a jump in emissions, in the order of around 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. As a result, the drivers for looking at the real implications of development for the future are already on the ground, you can see the cliff face for Scotland and you can see the same kinds of issues, looking at the theoretical and the probable lifetimes for existing plant elsewhere in the UK. Now the only thing I would add onto that is that that cliff face may be moved nearer in time, through the actions of some of the support measures that could be put in place. Developing a resource in an area that is far from the demand centre will incur transmission loss charges; as an operator of a system, it is more beneficial to be closer to the area of demand, because you end up having less of your profit taken. So most new developments would look to locate in the South East of the UK. At the same time, if the zonal charges are introduced, which is being proposed, then existing generators, in some of the more remote areas, ie in Scotland, could be penalised and could have their economics affected, they might close even earlier, which creates even more of a problem. So a coherent approach must address all of these uncertainties.


  30. Have you got a brief comment to add to that?
  (Dr Taylor) Very briefly.

  31. I would be grateful if you would keep it brief.
  (Dr Taylor) We are not asking for a dome, that was a billion; 1 per cent of a dome would be £10 million, that would be more than enough for a test centre, and that would get the British wave industry over a very significant hump, which they might otherwise have to depart to Portugal for.

Mr McWalter

  32. That sounds to me extremely cheap, I have to say, I would want to see the costings of that.
  (Dr Taylor) It is.

  33. But, given that it has got to be in reasonably deep water, this device that you are putting, and the costs—the Danes are finding putting offshore wind turbines in 75 feet of water quite difficult and prohibitive, clearly you need much deeper water than that and a very, very large edifice, I would have thought. I am amazed at your costings, although, of course, I have not seen the justification for that; £50 million seems to me to be way under what I would have expected, and that, surely, is a very important reason why Government would see wind power as more attractive, because you can implement it much more quickly?
  (Dr Taylor) Can I just say, I think that there will be witnesses to follow who could tell you what a test centre might cost.

  34. I will take note of that.
  (Mr Bronsdon) Just to add to that, I think it would be looking at the test centre, rather than looking at the investment it requires to exploit the resource fully; they are different costs.

Dr Iddon

  35. I think my questions should be aimed at Dr Taylor, they are a bit Greenpeacey, I think. All energy generation has an impact on the environment, that is obvious, including, of course, wave and tidal methods. Have you established a hierarchy by which you could tell us which of the wave and tidal methods would create the least negative environmental impact?
  (Dr Taylor) We have not established a hierarchy. There is, I think, very good evidence that wave power can be a very benign source of energy; yes, all sorts of energy do have impacts. The form of wave power that is based on the coast, which is actually built into a cliff face, obviously has a local impact, and there are a limited number of sites, although quite a considerable number of sites, where you could do that. When you go to the longer term, or where the resource really is, offshore, then the one question that somebody raised with me, which I perhaps ought to scotch right now, is will not this turn the UK waters into a sort of sleepy lagoon, to quote a song, will this not extract a significant proportion of the energy; and this will not be the case, and the reason for that is that a very large proportion of the energy that hits our shores comes through in peak events. And anybody who has looked at sedimentology and studied sedimentology—my background is in sedimentology—will know that peak events have a disproportionate impact—just to give an example of why that is so clearly the case, the average energy to the west coast of Scotland, per metre width of wave front, is about 60 or 70 kilowatts, on average, across the year, that is 60, or so, bar fires, to use the normal comparison. Now, in a storm, that will rise to something like 2,000 kilowatts, two megawatts, and, in fact, at a very peak moment, and I have taken these figures from Ocean Power Delivery, that will hit 20 megawatts. Now the point I am making is that your device has to be invisible to those energies, otherwise it will break up; you have got to tune it to the lower energies and detune it to the higher energies, so the energy that mainly impacts on our shorelines has to come through. So perhaps that is just one point which has been raised with me which was worth scotching at the outset.

  36. These devices are going in pretty deep water, we have barnacle growth and other problems of that kind; they will have to be protected by anti-fouling paints, which, at the moment, are pretty toxic, I mention tributyl tin, which we hear a lot about in this place. Have you any comments to make on the impact of the paint on the sea-life?
  (Dr Taylor) Indeed, Greenpeace has campaigned against certain toxic anti-foulants; there are other forms of anti-foulant which are less toxic. But these are issues. They are issues though that are shared between wave power and many other marine applications, they are not unique to wave power or tidal power.

  37. So you are happy to weigh the downside with the upside, unless we can find a replacement paint?
  (Dr Taylor) Yes, and I think that that weighing is something which is not done, generally. When you do impact assessments, one of the problems is that the strategic view is not often taken; the fact that there is a benefit to the climate is not weighted into it. This has been a problem with wind power and we have been trying to institute a proactive approach to these sorts of decisions that weighs in the positive at the outset. And, yes, that has to be weighed against some local impacts, on some occasions.

  38. My final question to Dr Taylor is that these things, obviously, have pretty high-speed moving devices somewhere in the body of them; what about the impact on creatures great and small, in the sea, of course?
  (Dr Taylor) The wave power devices, which I am more aware of, I am not aware of a device that looks like it has potential to chew up fish, or whatever.

  39. Seals?
  (Dr Taylor) There are different technologies that might have different effects if you are looking at installing these devices, if you look at the tidal devices, and you need to look at them technology by technology, I think that they look like they have the potential to be pretty benign; they need to be looked at on the basis of each one. There are not any there yet to be tested, and they need to be tested, obviously, and I think the comment is that I would be optimistic that, with proper monitoring, they do not need to have hugely detrimental effects at all, they look like they can be benign technologies.

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