Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Ian Fells, Chairman, New and Renewable Energy Centre, and Professor of Energy Conversion at Newcastle University

  1.  One NorthEast, the RDA, has made available £12 million over the next three years for NaREC.More than half this sum is capital expenditure for building test facilities for renewable energy systems. These include the largest wave tank in Europe (now almost complete), electrical laboratories for new generator systems and so on. This will make available test facilities for companies and universities working on wavepower, tidal stream systems and on- and offshore wind; in other words marine renewables, building on the unique offshore engineering skills available on Tyneside and Teesside and in the five universities. In addition work will be carried out at NaREC or commissioned in the universities, on biomass, solar energy and CHP. The aim is to work closely with industry in the North East and elsewhere to get renewable energy to the market as soon as possible.

  2.  There is some confusion in the renewable energy community over which technologies should be receiving support. A variety of initiatives announced by DEFRA, the Carbon Trust, DTI, Transport together with the research councils, indicate a "scatter gun" approach, leading to university researchers and others applying for whatever money seems to be on offer. As far as research and demonstration are concerned we have prioritised our approach at NaREC to concentrate on marine based renewables, biomass-particularly crops for transport fuels, solar applications in buildings and remote areas, hydrogen production from renewables, clean coal technology with carbon dioxide sequestration and later, in conjunction with the nuclear industry, the deployment of the next generation nuclear reactors. CLEAN TECHNOLOGY, that is renewables together with nuclear, is the route to a non-carbon economy.

  3.  The skills base for renewables is poor; too many chemists and environmental scientists, although interested in renewables research, are un-numerate and unable to make a contribution to the demonstration and application of the technologies. The situation is worse in nuclear technology, which is hardly taught even as part of chemical and mechanical engineering courses and staff have little or no interest in the subject as a research topic.

  4.  I have no idea how DTI, DEFRA etc develop a coherent RD&D strategy, I see no signs of any co-ordination in their disparate approaches, nor does there seem to be any co-ordination with OFGEM. In the 1970s the CEGB set up an Electricity Supply Research Council consisting of experienced senior academics and engineers. It was a very effective body meeting five times a year and steering CEGB research very effectively, it was disbanded on privatisation of the industry. An Energy Supply Research Council could be set up with advantage and perform a co-ordinating role for energy supply R&D and dealing specifically with low carbon technologies, amongst other things.

  5.  The EU has a series of prioritised energy research programmes, though they are heavily bureaucratised with many committees; the UK feeds into these programmes. The American Department of Energy has its own R&D programme, which is well funded.

  6.  The effect of liberalisation of the energy market, specifically the electricity and gas supply industry, on R and D in those industries has been almost wholly malign. The internationally known work of the Gas Council and the CEGB was abandoned on privatisation and has not been picked up by the new, private, energy companies; the oil industry, always in the private sector, has a rather better record.

  7.  Comparison with overseas competitors is disappointing, bearing in mind that we were leaders up to and including the 1980s. The real disappointment has been the reluctance of private industry to spend money on research with an eye to the future; perhaps the dominance of the CEGB and British Gas in the past made UK energy industry complacent compared with companies like Siemens who have always spent around 3% of turnover on research. The government has supported work on renewable energy almost exclusively but with little return as the UK has one of the worst records in Europe with only just over 1% of UK energy coming from renewable sources

14 August 2002

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