Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 151)



140.  So what action do you think the Government needs to be taking to get that sort of holistic approach to using renewable energy?

  (Mr Scott) Sending long-term signals that it is serious about transitional support for those energy technologies that are not currently viable. There are good examples that we wrote about in our submission. Jim?
  (Dr Watson) I would just expand on the BP point that you made really. That they have said publicly quite often that if there was a sufficiently big roof programme for PV, and they think our programme at the moment is not sufficiently big, but if there was, they would build a factory tomorrow in the UK. And that is their way of bringing the cost down and so on. So their argument is a fairly simple one actually. It is not that complex.

141.  I presume the point is not just limited to PV and BP?

  (Mr Scott) No, it is just an illustration. It is the same for wind power, for example. The UK had leading wind power expertise in the 1980s. But then the UK more or less killed the wind power research programme and the expertise went elsewhere. Why has Denmark got six of the world's seven largest firms that are building wind turbine generators? It is because they have had a long-term support for that industry in Denmark.

Dr Iddon

142.  Can we just come back to fusion? You produced this table which shows that the countries that belong to the International Energy Agency have nearly all reduced their investment on R & D in energy production. Only Japan has increased by plus 47%. The figures for Britain show that the reduction in this 10 year time scale, which was 1988 to 1999, is minus 87% for Britain. It is the worst in this table, is it not? But the figures end in 1999. I would be interested in seeing the last three years' figures to bring the table up to date, if you are able to supply those, because my feeling is that the figures have got better since this table was given to us by yourselves. Is your real objection, let us get to the bottom line here, to continuing the investment in the fusion project, which, after all, has gone a long way down the road now, purely monetary, or do you just believe that the thing will never become commercially viable?

  (Dr Watson) I just come back to our previous point that it is not a yes or no, it is a proportional question. On the figures point, I am sure there are more recent figures now and I think you are right, you will see a turning of the corner, because it could not go in any other way, to be quite honest, in the UK. If it got any smaller, it would be really quite embarrassing. But it has turned a corner with more injection, for example, into renewable energy R & D. I would not be surprised and certainly if the Committee would like, we would be happy to see if we can update those figures as far as we can.

143.  That would be useful. Can I just suggest that maybe the transfer of the responsibility for fusion R & D to the EPSRC may highlight more, which is what you seem to be asking for, more the deficiencies in investment in other forms of new energy production. Do you see that as a good thing?

  (Professor Hulme) We certainly draw attention to that point.
  (Mr Scott) The majority of the investment in fusion is via Euratom and there seems to be an indication that that is somehow a fixed commitment through the Euratom Treaty. I think I am right in saying that.
  (Dr Watson) It is certainly more fixed than if it was just in the gift of the UK Government on its own.

144.  The problem, if I may so, is we are committed to the ITER Project now and to pull out of the ITER Project would be very difficult for Britain. The US pulled out of it. We are in it, the European countries with Japan, and from what we saw with our visit to Japan, I was quite staggered at the success of the current project, the deuterium fusion project at Naka in Japan. How can we pull out of the ITER Project now? Never mind the treaty.

  (Dr Watson) I think it is in view of those difficulties, particularly those political difficulties, that we would not say let us cut fusion, let us raise the overall budget and get it into a proportionate place.

Bob Spink

145.  The international evidence shows that we are highly unlikely to meet our renewable targets that are mooted in the PIU Report. Given that we need to therefore fill the gap with non-carbon sources, do you think we should be going ahead with some fission, improved fission reactor technology research?

  (Mr Scott) The Chief Scientific Advisor's inquiry into energy R & D, which fed into the PIU Report, did not mention nuclear fission and we did not mention nuclear fission in our submission.

146.  The Chief Scientist has said that he wants to keep the nuclear fission option open and sees it as clearly a stepping stone to help us to meet our quota of targets.

  (Mr Scott) I think in terms of commercial viability nuclear fission has not proved to be a particularly good option and—

147.  Do you know what the French are doing on research in nuclear fission reactor technology at the moment?

  (Mr Scott) Not in detail.
  (Dr Watson) I am sure they are doing quite a lot. They are involved in some—

148.  Almost the whole of their budget.

  (Dr Watson) It is, absolutely. If you were to take nuclear out of the French budget, the French budget would be very small.

149.  I wanted to come onto private investment in energy and talk about the regulatory aspect of it. What changes in regulation do you think would help to improve private investment in energy research, bearing in mind that BNFL Westinghouse are doing most of the fission research on pebble bed at the moment?

  (Dr Watson) I think I could, if I may, expand on the point a little that I made about the networks businesses, for example, in that they are regulated. A lot of this decarbonisation that we see that is necessary hinges on integrating many, many new renewable energy generators, many, many new small power plants, new types of technology like fuel cells and so on, into networks that we have already. Until those companies, or people surrounding those companies, are allowed to do more long term transformational R & D then you might produce all the widgets you like, whether they are renewable, nuclear or whatever, but actually integrating them into this system as a whole is going to be an incredibly tough task. As you have seen by the news about 24/7 today, there is now an inquiry as to why they have not got people's supplies back on after the storms at the weekend.

150.  But with respect, I asked you what changes would you like to see in the regulatory system to encourage more private investment in energy research.

  (Dr Watson) I would like to see, for example, a regulatory change so they are allowed to do R & D and recover the costs from consumers basically. That is the short answer.

151.  What regulatory obstacles do you see to greater public investment in R & D in energy?

  (Dr Watson) I do not really see any. I think it is in terms of will and how much money you want to spend. Any regulatory obstacles, I think, would come from the EU and their State Aid Rules, which obviously have to be taken into account every time we spend money on R & D.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. I am sorry we have to move along. I know it was a bit sticky at times, but you can see what we are after. We are trying to get some way of moving forward from a very poor position perhaps. I think you agree with that. I just hoped you would tell me what it should be, but maybe that is too simplistic. Thank you very much to all three of you for starting us up today.

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