Select Committee on Environmental Audit Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers


  This statement has been prepared to present the Institution of Mechanical Engineer's current attitude to the supply of renewable electrical energy in the UK. The Institution represents over 80,000 professional engineers involved in a wide range of governmental, commercial, industrial and charitable work. Many have expertise and experience within the industries and activities associated with the supply and use of electricity in the UK, including that generated by renewables.


  Hydro has been the dominant renewable source of electricity in the UK for several decades. However, by comparison with nuclear, coal and gas, it plays a very minor role, accounting for only 1 per cent of electricity supplied in 2000. Options for expansion in hydro capacity are limited.

  Wind and solar photovoltaic technologies only accounted for around 0.25 per cent of all electricity supplied in the UK in 2000, though this figure has grown quite rapidly in recent years. The UK has, potentially, enough wind energy on and around its shores to meet all its electricity needs many times over. The technologies to exploit that resource, cleanly, efficiently and safely exist, though have been developed largely by non-UK companies, which represents a lost opportunity for UK industry. But it is not too late. Costs of producing electricity by these means have fallen considerably and are likely to continue to do so, to the extent that they are competitive with other forms of electricity supply. We believe the UK should aspire to a position of world leadership in wind energy technologies, particularly offshore. The UK government must do more to promote a market for wind energy in the UK. The New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA) are particularly unhelpful in regard to encouraging such a market.

  Solar energy can make a significant contribution to the UK's medium and long-term electricity needs, as well as those of many other countries, and its development and use should also be encouraged. At present, however, the large quantities of energy needed to manufacture the panels makes them potentially less attractive than other renewable sources in terms of net CO2 emissions (assuming some or all of the energy used in manufacture comes from fossil fuels).

  We do not believe there is a likelihood of other non-thermal electricity supply technologies, such as waves, tidal barrages, tidal flow devices and geo-thermal sources, playing a major role in the short to medium term. Expertise in many of these technologies, often world leading, exists within the UK science and engineering base. They might be able to compete with wind, solar and other technologies in the longer term, so support is needed now for research, development and/or demonstration projects.

  There is considerable uncertainty at present as to the effects generating large quantities of electricity intermittently, and from regions far removed from areas of high demand, will have on grid stability and security of supply. Whilst it seems unlikely that major problems will occur within the next 10 or 20 years, expansion in the use of wind and solar energy beyond about 20-30 per cent of all electricity supplied might well cause difficulties. Further research is needed into this area, particularly into modernising the national transmission system to better cope with intermittent and dispersed supply, and support is needed for the development and demonstration of effective energy storage systems, a field in which the UK has considerable expertise.

  The combustion of landfill gas, sewage sludge, refuse, agricultural waste and "energy" crops supplied just over one per cent of the UK's electricity in 2000. The combustion of other waste products, such as coke oven and blast furnace gas, supplied a similar amount.

  The collection and combustion of landfill gas, in particular, for generating electricity is desirable for many reasons, including safety, economic and environmental. Its continued expansion should be encouraged, but the resource available in the UK is quite limited, so landfill gas and other wastes will not be able to supply more than a few per cent of the UK's electricity needs.

  Energy crops have far greater potential to supply a significant proportion of the UK's electricity. The main crop suitable for the UK is willow grown as short rotation coppice. We believe that significant expansion in the UK's production and use of energy crops is both technically feasible and desirable. As well as the environmental benefits of this broadly carbon-neutral technology, it has the potential to stimulate growth and prosperity in many rural communities. It can also be used to generate electricity constantly, unlike intermittent sources such as wind and solar power.

  The commercial and policy environment is absolutely critical to the successful expansion in capacity and supply of energy from renewable sources, both thermal and non-thermal. We urge the Government to construct a commercial environment, be it through taxation, levies, trading agreements or other means, that genuinely encourages the development of all sustainable energy technologies. As stated previously, we do not believe, in particular, the New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA) are adequate in this regard.


  Renewable energy sources, particularly offshore wind and energy crops offer real potential to replace fossil-fuel and nuclear based generation of electricity in the medium and long term. They should be the major focus for research, development and demonstration funding and other government support. The current target of 10 per cent of the UK's electricity needs to be supplied by renewables by 2010 will be extremely difficult to achieve without that major focus. Targets for substantial expansion in the renewables sector well beyond 2010 should be established soon, to provide the long-term commitment and market stability that investors need, and thus to exploit the huge opportunities for UK manufacturers and energy service providers.

  Greater Government support is needed for research, development and demonstration (R, D & D) projects within the electricity field. Priority technologies for R, D & D funding are offshore wind power, energy crops, energy storage, grid stability, hydrogen fuel cells, "clean coal", "carbon capture" and photovoltaics.

January 2002

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