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


Memorandum submitted by the Natural Environment Research Council


  1.  NERC is a major funder of research, training and knowledge transfer activities in the environmental sciences. NERC's new five-year strategy, "Science for a sustainable future" has several priority themes of relevance to the Committee's inquiry. These include climate change—predicting and mitigating the impacts; earth's life-support systems—including biogeochemical cycles, such as the carbon cycle; and sustainable economies—including sustainable energy. NERC's Research Centres provide expertise in carbon management and carbon sequestration projects, primarily through the British Geological Survey (BGS) and Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). BGS also provides a UK focus for expertise in radioactive waste management. CEH has expertise in biofuels and hydroelectricity, and has previously undertaken a number of research contracts in these areas.

  2.  Table 6 details NERC's expenditure and energy RD&D from 1998-2003. These figures include thematic and non-thematic grants, studentships and fellowships, and science budget spend on research programmes at NERC supported Research/Collaborative Centres. The footnotes to Table 6 details investments made by other bodies in NERC Research and Collaborative Centres.

  3.  NERC is also a major funder of research activities associated with the extraction of energy resources. The Ocean Margins Programme (£4.5 million invested by NERC matched by industry funding) is a five-year multi-disciplinary LINK programme aimed at improved geological understanding of ocean margins. In partnership with industry, the programme will investigate sustainable management of hydrocarbon resources. NERC has also invested £2.5 million over five years on a programme aimed at Understanding the Micro-Macro Behaviour of Rock-Fluid Systems. This will provide a better understanding of rock-fluid interactions for both hydrocarbon reserves and geothermal sources. Details of annual expenditure on these programmes are detailed below in Table 5. These figures have not been incorporated into Table 6, as they do not represent low or non-carbon energy.

  4.  There was substantial NERC activity in renewable energy research prior to 1991. Most of this was funded outside of the Science Budget, by Government departments and other organisations. For example, NERC's British Geological Survey's (BGS) Kenya Rift Valley Project in the late 1980s sought to research geothermal potential and was funded (budget of £1 million) by the Department for International Development (DfID). Other examples include:

    —  research into biofuels, funded by DETR over a three-year period, completed in 1998 at a total cost of £300k; and

    —  two research programmes looking at small scale hydro projects, funded by the EU and DfID, completed in 2000 at a total cost of £525k.

  5.  Following the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review, NERC took the lead in establishing the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, in partnership with EPSRC, ESRC and DTI, and NERC is investing £5m over a five-year period. Although this investment is not included in NERC's financial tables, paragraphs 4 to 10 and Table 7 (Annex A) summarise the Tyndall Centre's research programmes of relevance to this inquiry.

  6.  NERC was given the lead responsibility in the outcome of the Government's 2000 Spending Review (SR2000) to further cross-Research Council collaboration in the area of technology for sustainability and energy. Recognising the need for additional research and the benefits of bringing together engineers, social and environmental scientists, NERC took the lead in developing a joint Research Council proposal, Towards a sustainable energy economy, for SR2002 (see Annex B). The Government's strategy for science, engineering and technology (Investing in Innovation, July 2002) identifies sustainable energy as an outstanding opportunity for outstanding new area of investment.

  7.  As signalled in NERC's five-year science and innovation strategy Science for a sustainable future, NERC plans to fund a new programme, "Quantifying the Earth System (QUEST)". QUEST will provide a focus within the UK for an Earth system approach to environmental science. Various aspects of the QUEST initiative will aid the development of energy RD&D. For example, QUEST will:

    —  provide answers to key Earth system questions, beginning with global and regional Carbon budgets. A first priority for QUEST will be to inform future Kyoto discussions and decisions by quantifying Carbon budgets and dynamics. Unlike the USA[16], the UK has no scientific co-ordinated effort for quantifying and predicting future Carbon budgets;

    —  provide a capability to predict future Carbon budgets and dynamics—as various energy scenarios are developed.


  8.  The research challenges are many and diverse. Nearly all cross the boundaries of engineering, environmental science, socio-political, and life sciences. Research is also needed to develop methodologies for comparison of different demand and supply options that assess environmental, economic, resource use and societal variations and provide measures of comparative sustainability.

Climate Change

  9.  There is huge potential to build on the UK's internationally recognised expertise in climate change to enable the UK to take the lead in the development of the technology, processes and policies required to respond to a changing climate. If this can be achieved, UK business should be well placed to exploit what is potentially a massive market opportunity to achieve a low carbon future.

  10.  As well as improving our understanding of the drivers and processes associated with climate change, it is important to develop viable mitigating strategies and solutions that address social, environmental and economic considerations.

  11.  NERC supports fundamental climate change research. The NERC Centres for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) carries out the UK's core strategic research programme in atmospheric science—often in partnership with other organisations, such as the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. The research programme aims to improve the understanding of weather and climate with societal and economic impact, particularly in view of the changing atmospheric composition (such as the increasing carbon dioxide). This is being addressed by research in three interlocking themes: climate processes and change, hazardous weather and atmospheric composition (including air quality). The existence of NCAS enables the provision of an integrated, well-managed national capability to conduct excellent atmospheric science research and monitoring.


  12.  Nuclear energy makes a significant contribution to the UK's targets to reduce CO2 emissions. RCEP and the UK Foresight programme have called for a re-appraisal of the role of nuclear energy in filling a potential energy supply gap in the UK. The research challenges require engineers, environmental, social and medical scientists to work together to develop new technologies, concepts and practices which will contribute to improved safety, waste management and decommissioning strategies, and address issues of risk, trust and public acceptability, and economic and market competitiveness.

  13.  The British Geological Survey (BGS) has over 40 years' experience in providing services to the nuclear industry. Most recently, the BGS has provided a wide range of integrated geological, hydrogeological and managerial services to the Nirex investigation of the Sellafield and Dounreay sites as potential locations for a deep repository. The BGS has also carried out relevant geological and hydrogeological investigations relating to nuclear waste at numerous sites overseas, including Spain (El Berrocal), Sweden (Aspo, Stripa), Switzerland (Mont Terri, Grimsel), Belgium (Mol), Japan (Tono, Kamaishi), France (Gard, Bar Le Duc) and Russia (Mayak). NERC's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) RadioEcology section at Meriewood studies terrestrial environment behaviour of alpha-, beta-, and gamma—emitting radionuclides and investigates the various factors which influence the rate at which they move between soils, plants and animals, the application of countermeasures and spatial differences in transfer of radionuclides. Much of their work has focused on emissions from Sellafield and the behaviour of radionuclides released by the Chernobyl accident.

  14.  Radioactive waste disposal and safety issues are key in gaining public acceptance of nuclear energy. While geological storage of radioactive waste seems the safest option, much research and demonstration is needed to develop and communicate a publicly acceptable safety case. The increased threat of global terrorism serves only to emphasise the need to securely store nuclear waste below ground. Geology is important to both surface and underground storage and disposal. Research over the years has provided many insights into how the waste problem can be resolved; the next step would be to build demonstration facilities to prove storage and disposal concepts. If this waste management problem is solved over the next 10 years, public confidence in nuclear technologies is likely to increase and may become acceptable, especially if the cost of other energy technologies rises as other "waste issues" (CO2 removal, scrubbing more expensive fossil fuels, dealing with the environmental impacts of renewables) add costs. The nuclear waste issue is with us regardless of whether we continue with nuclear generation or not. Much of the existing waste is a legacy from the development of nuclear. Modem plants produce 90% less waste than the older ones.


  15.  NERC has identified that sustainable solutions, such as CO2 sequestration and separation, are key areas requiring further research, development and demonstration and should be part of an overall energy research strategy. These technologies will help the UK move towards a low—carbon energy economy: a step on the way to a non—carbon economy. One of the challenges in storing CO2 underground lies in developing long term, but cost effective ways of managing such storage facilities, not only for health and safety reasons but also to validate emission target reductions and carbon permits. We urgently need to develop robust models to predict the benefits of different sequestration systems. The Chief Scientific Adviser's Energy Research Review Group also identified CO2 sequestration as a key area for further research and development.

  16.  In the short to medium terms, geological storage offers a viable technological solution to carbon disposal. For example CO2 can be sequestered by injection into subsurface formations, including oil or gas fields that have already been exhausted. Rock strata beneath the North Sea have the porosity and permeability with theoretically enough capacity to receive all UK CO2 emissions from electricity generation for 1,000 years. Dr Andrew Chadwick of BGS has undertaken substantial preliminary research, and CO2 from natural gas is already being re-injected into a saline aquifer above the Sleipner gas field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. An article on Dr Chadwick's research was recently published on the BBC's website. Significantly more research is needed now to assess larger-scale practicability, potential long-term environmental impacts, and the appropriate economics.

  17.  The British Geological Survey (BGS) has been working closely with the DTI regarding CO2 capture, transport and storage issues for several years. Earlier this year, the British Geological Survey (BGS) was invited to participate in a working group established to advise the Government on the feasibility of carbon dioxide (CO2) capture and storage. The working group includes invited delegates from the power generators (eg Scottish Power, TXU Energy), Oil companies (eg BP and Shell), UK Coal, The Coal Authority, DTI (various sub-departments including the Oil & Gas Directorate and staff responsible for the Energy White Paper), DEFRA, the International Energy Agency, and AEA Technology.

  18.  The remit of the study is to look at:

    —  the environmental impact of storing CO2 underground and any risks of gases leaking back into the atmosphere;

    —  the potential for CO2 being used for Enhanced Oil Recovery thus helping to maximise the benefits the UK can gain from the resource;

    —  the need for further research and development to fully develop the technology;

    —  the potential for collaboration with other countries such as Norway and Denmark who are interested in the technology;

    —  the legal implications for permanently storing CO2 under the seabed of the North Sea's depleted oil and gas wells; and

    —  the economic cost of power generation as a result of capturing the CO2 at the power station site.

  19.  BGS provided advice on the remit of the study and on the current status of CO2 capture, transport and underground storage, and considered the legality of CO2 storage in the context of Ospar and the London Convention. The results of the study will be published next spring.


  20.  If concerns about climate change are to be addressed, the continued use of fossil fuels will only be possible with effective carbon management, particularly through reduction of the associated CO2 emissions. Solutions need to be found which do not lead to other environmental problems, such as increased waste or water pollution. However, the UK is likely to remain predominantly fossil fuel dependent for at least the next two decades whilst fossil fuels remain relatively cheap and available. Therefore it is important that we should be able to utilise fossil fuels efficiently, in a sustainable way and be able to maximise their extraction, particularly in the light of major decommissioning expected in the North Sea oil and gas infrastructure.

  21.  Clean coal technology—coal gasification should be seen as a route not only for cleaner electricity generation from coal but also for providing fuels to the transport sector, hydrogen and chemical products. Some coal gasifyers can also crack waste materials such as car tyres. This versatility needs further investigation, particularly in the context of security of supply. Biomass gasification options are limited by the relatively low energy content of biomass and are not well suited to CO2 capture and storage, unlike fossil fuel gasifyers. Co-gasification of biomass with fossil fuels may provide a wider choice of options. Such technology could result in actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere and provide a variety of chemical bi-products and fuels. The most efficient way to generate hydrogen is through the chemical cracking of hydrocarbons. World coal and gas reserves are abundant, with several centuries of reserves left. These fuels may continue to be the main source of hydrogen, particularly if cheap and abundant supplies of electricity and are not available for electrolysis.

  22.  In the energy sector, enhanced oil recovery (EOR) using CO2 injected into oil reservoirs is a proven technology (developed mainly in the USA). However it has not been deployed in a North Sea offshore oilfield. This is operationally much more difficult. A UK specific need is to demonstrate CO2 EOR in the North Sea. This would be a world first: meeting the UK's need to extract as much oil as is economically possible from its reserves, plus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The window of opportunity to achieve this is short, suitable fields need to be identified urgently, before decommissioning horizons inhibit new investment.

  23.  Another possible major energy resource is clathrates (methane hydrates). Exploitation of this resource is not a simple problem. Clathrates may hold over 50% of all the carbon-based energy on Earth (fossil fuels, plants, animals etc). These therefore represent a potentially huge energy resource that could be exploited provided effective CO2 sequestration, as a solution to the waste problem, is resolved. A pilot study would reveal many of the issues that need to be resolved before exploitation could start.


  24.  Different renewable energy sources are at different stages of development, some are technologically advanced, constrained more by commercial, environmental or social barriers, whereas others require more basic technological research. Many renewable energy sources require further work to determine their energy pay back time. For example, with an expected lifetime of 25 years, a photocell will make only four times more energy than was used to produce it. Wind turbine technology is relatively well developed but deployment offshore will require more robust, larger turbines capable of withstanding extreme environmental conditions. Commercial wave and tidal generation also requires research to underpin the technology and develop the necessary offshore infrastructure. Research is also urgently needed on the likely environmental impacts of large-scale generation plants, particularly wave. There is also potential for more widespread use of low entropy geothermal energy sources for domestic or small-scale commercial usage.


  25.  NERC supports research which helps define and predict the behaviour of coastal and shelf seas and thus the conditions which would determine the choice of sites and viability of wave or tidal power as a source of reliable energy. Examples include: coastal and open ocean wave-field modelling; the development and application of autonomous buoys (Waverider) and radar systems for wave data measurements (Ocean Surface Current Radar Facility); modelling of fine-resolution interactions between waves, currents and water levels in UK waters, with links to the Atlantic-scale European Wave Model developed by the Meteorological Office; measurements of tides and tidal modelling.

  26.  There is a great deal of public concern on the environmental impact of onshore wind farms both in terms of noise pollution and landscape modification. CEH has undertaken a study for ETSU (now AEA Technology Future Energy Solutions) on environmental constraints on the establishment of wind energy farms in the UK. Given the perceived, undesirable, visual impact of hill top wind farms and the high wind speeds found over the sea, there is perhaps a stronger argument for offshore wind power generation.

  27.  Wind, wave and tidal power are proven technologies that could potentially contribute a significant percentage of the UK's electricity requirements. However, research is required to investigate the environmental impacts associated with these technologies. Impacts tend to be site specific but there might also be national planning guidelines that need to be adhered to. The scientific expertise of the Research Councils could be used to inform debates to form such guidelines.


  28.  A report by the International Energy Agency published in 2001 claimed that hydro is the most environmentally friendly of all forms of electricity generation based on categories of emissions (including greenhouse gas emissions). The report stated that hydro currently provides 50% of all renewable energy generation in the UK, and 22% of worldwide production, and it is technically feasible that hydro generation could treble in capacity and so provide 30% of the Government's targets for renewable energy generation by 2010 and 2026 respectively.


  29.  Geothermal energy can be exploited either at a shallow depth (20 metres) or at great depth (1,000 metres). The appropriate technologies are available, as both shallow and deep sources are exploited around the world; however, these will require some adaptation for use in the UK environment. Shallow geothermal energy especially provides efficient space heating using modern heat pump technology. Energy derived from cooling properties in the summer can also be stored underground for winter use. Demonstration projects are urgently required to prove and illustrate these technologies. Rig decommissioning in the North Sea brings a further challenge for R&D to investigate the change of use or adaptation of the North Sea infrastructure to assist in offshore and geothermal renewable generation-transmission. Again the window of opportunity is short.


  30.  CHP is a highly efficient technology for the use of fossil and nuclear fuels and one of the most effective means of limiting the production of greenhouse gases. Both heat and methane gas energy can be derived from old coal mine workings. Research is ongoing in the UK, but the potential for local space heating and combined heat and power methane stations is large. However, as in many areas of technology development, the development of CHP has to be followed by effective demonstration programmes to increase the potential for market penetration.


  31.  Fuel cells have only limited potential to impact on CO2 reduction in the short term because they are likely to use fossil fuels to generate hydrogen. In the longer term they may use sustainably-produced hydrogen and therefore offer highly efficient zero-emission mobile power sources, as well as opportunities for stationary power and heat generation.


  32.  The Chief Scientific Adviser's (CSA) Energy Research Review identifies "renewable energy from biomass and onshore and coastal wind" as having good, medium-term prospects for reduction in carbon emissions. Solar PV, offshore wind, wave and tidal energy were identified as having "good long-term prospects of yielding very large reductions of carbon emissions". Biomass was not, however, included in the Group's research priority list as, in its view, the scope for technological development was unclear. However, NERC believes that further research is required into electricity generation from biomass and waste given that these two sources could help the UK to meet the 2010 renewables target. There is a general recognition that, in order to reduce net greenhouse emissions, systems that employ carbon neutral cycles afford significant benefits over traditional fossil fuel based bulk power generation. One theme of the SUPERGEN programme will examine the potential for power generation systems utilising energy crops and agricultural waste. This research should strive to attain a carbon neutral cycle.


  33.  There is a need for a concerted co-ordinated RD&D programme on sustainable hydrogen energy technology (ie hydrogen created by electrolysis of water with non-fossil fuel generated electricity), and energy storage technologies. If there is to be a move to a hydrogen economy then hydrogen storage and transmission become important issues. Since natural gas requires underground storage facilities in order to meet diurnal and seasonal demands, it is likely that hydrogen will require a similar storage infrastructure. Underground storage of hydrogen therefore presents a major R&D challenge. Both areas have been identified as priorities.


  34.  NERC acknowledges the potential for energy efficiency improvements to lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions. Research on technologies and science for energy efficiency in buildings and transport is an important area that, if successful, would lead to a reduction of demand for energy, making the development of new technology to increase supply less attractive. The Tyndall Centre has invested £240k in a current research programme that is looking at energy efficient and low-emission housing.

  35.  There are a wide range of research challenges related to improvement of existing plant and processes which offer substantial emission savings through energy efficiency, and also considerable potential for joint working between the Research Councils and the Carbon Trust.


  36.  In terms of photovoltaics, research is needed to improve existing technologies, and for the longer term on more radical approaches such as mimicking photosynthesis with synthetic analogues to the light harvesting complexes in plants. In addition to improving conversion efficiencies of photovoltaics the scope for photovoltaics in buildings is huge and largely unexploited on anything but one-off "demonstrations". There are buildings interface issues which need to be addressed.


  37.  Some small-scale renewable technologies are not suited to large-scale generation and distribution through a national grid, but are more appropriate to local networks. It might also be useful to consider how different technologies might be combined, such as combined heat and power schemes (CHP).

  38.  The UK has committed to meet its stated target of 10% of electricity generated from renewables by 2010; currently renewables account for only 2.8%. The Government's £250 million investment into renewables development is intended to help meet the 10% target. Irrespective of the technological, economic, environmental and social barriers associated with specific technologies, the electricity supplied from renewable sources is often intermittent. Generating capacity and actual delivered capacity (significantly less) will increasingly diverge as the most suitable sites for renewable generation are taken up and harder to find. The energy may be renewable but the infrastructure and sites required to capture it are finite particularly the most suitable ones. Scotland and Wales have great potential for renewable energy generation, but many of these sites are disparate from consumers, so grid transmission losses need to be taken into account, as well as the intermittency.

  39.  Finite materials are required to build this infrastructure and in the case of biomass there are ongoing energy costs in the cultivation, harvesting and transport. Unless a holistic view is taken of the energy life cycle the result may be that CO2 emissions (or other more potent greenhouse gases such as methane) are increased rather than avoided.

  40.  Research is urgently needed to find cheap and efficient ways to store such electricity and to ensure that a managed electricity supply can be maintained under a regime of a large number of small, variable output, distributed generation stations. A promising option is the generation of hydrogen from electrolysis or photoelectrolysis for short term and seasonal storage to produce electricity as and when needed through electricity and gas systems. The Government's Embedded Generation Working Group Report (January 2001) has made recommendations relating to the structure and regulatory incentives for the distribution network.


  41.  It has been identified by the Foresight Energy Futures Task Force and in preparations for Framework VI, that the UK should strengthen its nuclear training and education capabilities as it is losing its skill base. NERC has had discussions with the nuclear industry about skills requirements and believe that if this problem is not addressed, the UK will be reliant on American expertise. NERC has stated in its new five-year strategy, "Science for a sustainable future", that within the context of the PIU Energy Review, NERC will work with BNFL, EPSRC and others to address the research needs and skills shortages identified in the review, such as a lack of scientists to address nuclear safety questions.

  42.  NERC agrees with the Chief Scientific Adviser's Energy Research Review Group comment that an Energy Research Centre would signal the importance the UK attaches to energy research, and it would attract high-calibre scientists and graduates into the area.


  43.  NERC recognises the need to achieve greater strategic co-ordination across the individual Research Councils and to strengthen collaborative working. There are a range of organisations currently investing in energy RD&D, and NERC believes an integrated approach will ensure that the Government's key energy policy objectives of secure, diverse and sustainable supplies of energy at competitive prices are realised. Building on UK strengths, it is now timely to bring together the Science and Engineering base, policy makers and business in new partnerships to tackle this multidisciplinary research agenda, and address the environmental, social and economic aspects of energy research. There is a clear need to respond to the reality of global warning, and an opportunity for the UK to take the lead, both in terms of policy and in developing new technologies and management solutions.

  44.  NERC has worked with the other Research Councils, DTI, DEFRA, the Carbon Trust and others to develop proposals for a new SR2002 research and training initiative entitled "Towards a sustainable energy economy" (Annex B). A key element of our proposals is the establishment of a national Energy Research Centre to bring together interdisciplinary teams with expertise in the scientific, technological, social, economic, environmental and health aspects of energy research. It is intended that this Centre would provide a national and possibly European focus to integrate and accelerate research and training in this priority area. Such a Centre should be independent of, and separate from, any Energy Policy Centre.


  45.  It is important that the UK influences international policy both by argument and by example. This must be underpinned by scientific fact and social and economic considerations. There is a key role for scientific research in establishing a basis for national and international action grounded on research evidence on the drivers and their impacts.

  46.  Many aspects of energy RD&L will require international collaboration or agreement. The EU has an important role to play in sustainable energy research. Under Framework V, the EU supports a range of research on clean energy, renewables, and economic and efficient energy under the ENERGIE programme (total budget around £628 million). Nuclear energy R&D (fission and fusion) is funded under the EURATOM treaty (£762 million). Proposals for Framework VI incorporate energy R&D under several priority thematic areas including a new sustainable development and global change component. This has envisaged actions on demonstration projects (renewables, energy economy, energy efficiency priorities), and longer term R&D on fuel cells, hydrogen technology, solar photovoltaics and biomass. Support for nuclear research is also set to continue.

  47.  NERC has provided seed-corn funding to support development of two Framework VI Integrated Project expressions of interest managed by the British Geological Survey (BGS). The CO2 safe (subsurface storage) project will address long-term verification, safety and security issues surrounding CO2 subsurface storage. It will provide information that will underpin decisions made by stakeholders about the potential viability, operation and monitoring of subsurface storage sites used as a greenhouse gas mitigation technology. The project will build on, bring together and take forward outcomes from the several existing Framework V. The RESTORE (renewable energy from the hybrid power, cogeneration and energy storage aspects) project will address renewable energy from the hybrid power, co-generation and energy storage aspects. The project will seek to find and demonstrate pathways for renewables to share and develop from Europe's fossil fuel infrastructure to the benefit of both. It will aim to provide some solutions to address the intermittent supply, storage and conversion of energy, and infrastructure needs associated with renewables.

30 September 2002

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