Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 1

Submission from the Institute of Physics (IOP)


  The Institute supports R&D into new renewable energy technologies. As well as being low carbon energy sources, renewables have a number of other advantages. They can enhance diversity in energy supply markets, secure long-term sustainable energy supplies, reduce dependency on imported energy supplies, and reduce emissions of local air pollutants. Their stand-alone nature also makes them particularly suited for use in remote locations with relatively low demand, which are isolated from national networks. Hence, renewables are an essential part of the future energy mix, but there is a need for increased research and innovation in the relevant R&D sectors in order for the UK to be in a position to respond to the challenges of the medium to long-term future.

  The Institute noted that the recent Energy White Paper, Meeting the Energy Challenge, re-emphasised the government's aspiration to see renewables grow as a proportion of the UK's electricity supplies to 10% by 2010, with an aspiration for this level to double by 2020. These targets represent a significant challenge given that, in the UK, only around 4% of electricity was being generated from renewables in 2006.

  The Institute is of the view that the current target of 10% itself is somewhat unrealistic, as renewables presently suffer from various barriers to exploitation. However, analyses carried out to support the 2003 Energy White Paper, Our energy future: creating a low carbon economy, suggested that about a third of electricity might be supplied by renewables by 2040 although this could be substantially higher if some of the other options for low carbon energy supply were not adopted. For example, renewables might be required to supply up to two thirds of electricity demand if no new nuclear plants were built and carbon capture and storage for fossil fuel fired plant were not implemented. The modelling work suggested that wind, in particular offshore wind, and biomass would account for a significant proportion of renewable energy generation. In addition, technologies with a higher cost but sizable potential resource, such as photovoltaics, could also contribute significantly if other low-carbon options are not available in the future.

Renewable Energy-generation Technologies

  In October 2005, the Institute published its report, The Role of Physics in Renewable Energy RD&D,[1] which was prepared by Future Energy Solutions, AEA Technology Environment. The report set out the challenges facing renewable-energy technologies, the important role of research, development and demonstration (RD&D) in meeting this challenge, and areas where physicists contribute to this RD&D.

  Section 3 of the enclosed report (pages 6-20), highlights in detail the progress made in a number of key technologies, including photovoltaics; marine energy; fuel cells; hydrogen infrastructure; electricity transmission and distribution; energy storage; and mature technologies. The report provides a robust review of these technologies, citing case studies from UK university departments, and offering commentary on the barriers to progression towards RD&D.

  Furthermore, the report emphasises the technologies that are likely to be deployed in the UK, or where there may be significant export opportunities for the UK. According to the report, the two key areas where the UK has an opportunity to take a research lead on are:

    —  the new generation of photovoltaic energy technologies, although this would require a strong RD&D effort; and

    —  wave and tidal energy, where there are a number of universities with significant research capability.

  Ensuring that these RD&D strengths are developed could bring substantial benefits to the UK, both in terms of enabling deployment of these technologies, with subsequent environmental benefits in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and in terms of financial benefits from export earnings as technologies are deployed globally. This will require support of RD&D and the availability of suitably qualified personnel to work in these areas.


  The Institute's report revealed that the most obvious area where physicists are contributing to RD&D is in photovoltaics, where they are carrying out much of the fundamental research required to develop novel types of cell that may result in step changes in the cost of photovoltaic generation. Photovoltaics can readily be adapted to suit the diffuse light conditions found in northern climes as evidenced by their widespread use in Germany. There is a strong research effort in the UK but to benefit fully from this vitally important technology, investment in the underpinning science needs to improve considerably.

  Currently, over 95% of photovoltaic modules are made of silicon in all its forms, of which about 5% is non-crystalline silicon (such as amorphous silicon). They convert sunlight into electricity with an efficiency ranging between 13 to 17%.The maximum potential efficiency is only about 25% because only the light with the right energy to generate the charge carriers (the bandgap) is absorbed.

  The vast majority of solar cells on the market today are so-called "first-generation" cells made from monocrystalline silicon. However, they are expensive to produce because of the high costs of purifying, crystallizing and sawing electronic-grade crystalline silicon, which is rather fragile and in shortage.

  Furthermore, a POSTnote entitled Carbon footprint of electricity generation[2] reported that, "The silicon required for photovoltaic modules is extracted from quartz sand at high temperatures, which is the most energy intensive phase of module production, accounting for 60% of the total energy requirement. However, future reductions in the carbon footprint of photovoltaic cells are expected to be achieved in thin film technologies which use thinner layers of silicon, and with the development new semi-conducting materials (organic cells and nano-rods) which are less energy intensive".

  As detailed in the Institute's report, most physicists are now working on "second-generation" solar cells, which are near market, with the aim of reducing high costs by using thin films of silicon and other semiconductors, such as amorphous silicon, gallium arsenide, copper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride, which are mounted on glass substrates. For the future, physicists are also working on "third-generation" cells, such as dye-sensitised photochemical, and quantum/nanotechnology solar cells, which, if practicable, would yield extremely high efficiencies and be as cheap as thin-film devices.

  However, the article, "Bright outlook for solar cells", published in the July 2007 issue of the Institute's membership magazine Physics World,[3] whilst commenting on how future research efforts could transform solar cells from niche products to devices that provide a significant fraction of the world's energy, offers some caution by reporting that building cheap and efficient photovoltaic cells does not guarantee that solar power will become a major part of the world's energy mix. Even if these devices can be converted into high-performance commercial products there still remains the problem of actually building and installing the enormous number of panels that would be required. Mankind currently consumes energy at a rate of 13 terawatts, and many experts predict that population growth and economic expansion will increase this figure to around 45 terawatts by 2050. Generating 20 terawatts of that with panels that are 10% efficient would, according to the 2005 report, Basic Research Needs for Solar Energy Utilization,[4] sponsored by the US Department of Energy, mean installing such panels over 0.16% of the Earth's land surface. Given that only a fraction of this will be met by installing panels on people's houses, vast "farms" will have to be built in areas with significant amounts of sunshine. Attempting to build such farms in Western countries could, ironically, be opposed on environmental grounds.

  Furthermore, the article reports that another hurdle is the infrastructure needed to deliver the solar electricity to where it is needed (when the cells are built in farms). Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is how to store solar electricity, given that the Sun does not shine all the time. Solar energy could be used to pump water up hill when that energy is not needed and the gravitational potential then discharged when the energy is required (technology that is already used to allow nuclear power stations to respond to peak demand). It is also possible that developments in batteries or flywheels might help solve this problem, while solar electricity could be used to split water and produce hydrogen. However, the infrastructure needed to pump the hydrogen to where it is needed would be extremely expensive.


  Realising the large potential benefits that renewables and other advanced technologies, such as fuel cells, could make to a low carbon economy requires a number of technical, economic, institutional and social constraints to be overcome. The current Energy White Paper recognises the key challenges that renewables have to overcome, namely grid integration, gaining planning consent, scarcity of suitable sites, and limits of support available from the Renewables Obligation.

  Other barriers to the deployment of renewables, as highlighted in the Institute's report, include:


  The maturity of renewables varies considerably. While a number are commercially proven, others are still at a pre-commercial stage, and some still require quite fundamental R&D.


  In the UK, at current gas prices and under current market structures, without subsidy mature technologies are not yet competitive with existing gas fired Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plant, although in the medium term (2020) some technologies (eg onshore and offshore wind) could be. Technologies such as photovoltaics are unlikely to be cost-competitive with centralised generation unless a step change in cost-effectiveness is achieved by the new types of photovoltaic cells currently under development. They may, however, become competitive in remote off-grid locations, where the cost of other stand-alone systems, such as diesel generators, is high. It is also worth noting that as governments seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the emissions will acquire an economic "cost".


  Many of the technologies, for example, wind power (which is particularly unpredictable), are intermittent and thus require energy storage or backup generating capacity to be available on the electricity network.

Distributed nature

  Renewable energy plant are currently generally small in scale—from a few kilowatts for individual photovoltaic installations to tens of megawatts for biomass plant—compared to conventional power stations (typically a gigawatt or so). The small scale has advantages for use in some situations, for example, for stand-alone applications, but in a country like the UK where the transmission grid is designed for distribution of power from a small number of large power stations the incorporation of small, distributed sources raises some technical issues. The bulk of renewable energy resources may also occur in locations which are remote from regions with large energy consumptions (eg remote parts of Scotland), and where grid infrastructure to transport the power is limited or else does not exist.

Social and institutional constraints

  Issues which may hamper development include public acceptability, planning constraints and institutional barriers, for example, lack of clarity over planning consents, permitting of plants, skills issues, and investment regimes. While most renewables are environmentally benign in that emissions of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants associated with them are typically very low (even after allowing for their manufacture), they do have a number of other local environmental impacts.

  The Severn barrage plan is a good example of the real social, environmental and political problems in adopting many renewable technologies. The plan to build a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary to produce renewable energy, according to the National Assembly for Wales, is potentially the largest single renewable energy source in the UK, which could meet about 6% of the present electricity consumption of the UK. However, the plan has received much opposition from environmental pressure groups that claim the barrage could cause irreversible damage to local wildlife.[5]


  A significant problem facing renewables and other low carbon generating technologies is that following the liberalisation of the UK energy market, the current price of electricity is so low that it is not economically viable to develop and introduce new generating technologies to the market, unless they can be developed at a low cost and can provide electricity predictably at competitive wholesale prices.

  The solution to date has been to subsidise RD&D; renewables have benefited from UK government support for RD&D and the support must continue to stimulate investment for pilot and full-scale prototypes/demonstrators of technologies that are sufficiently mature for near-term deployment. Research into technologies for mid-term deployment and "blue sky" development is best undertaken within the universities, encouraged and supported by current funding mechanisms operating within a strategic framework that takes due account of national priorities and policies.

  Investment is also required in the development of whole-lifecycle financial models, including full acquisition, operating, distribution, disposal/recycling and environmental costs, for all of the technologies under consideration. Models are also required to predict how significant power levels generated from renewables might change the characteristics of the transmission network planning and operation.

  The Institute's report revealed that renewables RD&D in the UK is funded through a number of routes, the main ones supported by the government and the public sector, together with EU funding. In addition, there is industry funded RD&D, and commercial deployment of renewables in the UK is supported by the Renewables Obligation.

  The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee suggested in their report, The practicalities of developing renewable energy,[6] that the level of funding for RD&D is not sufficient if the UK is to meet its renewable energy targets. While UK expenditure has increased in recent years (from $36m in 2004 to $66m per annum in 2005), it is still lower than in some other leading European countries, such as Germany ($123m per annum in 2005), according to data from the International Energy Agency;[7] US expenditure on renewables RD&D, on average, is about $250m per annum.

  A DTI/Carbon Trust review[8] found that there appears to be a funding gap in moving renewables to the pre-commercial stage, and from the pre-commercial to the supported commercial stage. They also considered that the current landscape for renewables funding is complex, which suggests that a clearer overall strategy for UK RD&D in both renewables and other new energy technologies, together with a clearer map of RD&D funding and clearer demarcation of the roles of different funding bodies could be useful. This could be a key activity for the UK Energy Research Centre to undertake.

  Renewables seem to have developed a "low cost" view of their implementation, which will not drive the actual costs of developing energy sources on the scale needed. There is no clear route to provide a large percentage of the UK's energy needs by this method. Photovoltaics, for instance, are certainly more appropriate for local power supplies and the concept of using them for large central "power stations" is difficult to support.


  The Institute's report noted that studies which examined the renewables supply chain have reported that several technology and project developers have found a lack of necessary skills in the UK—both general technical skills and also more specialist skills[9], [10] which developers have remedied either through in-house training or by recruiting internationally.

  Hence, encouraging physicists, and indeed other scientists and engineers, to consider a career in renewable energy could help to plug the skills gap. One option would be to raise awareness of and interest in the physics element in the development of these technologies. This could be achieved by promoting the inclusion of examples of "the physics" of renewable energy sources and fuel cells in teaching on undergraduate physics courses, or even on A-level physics and other A-level science courses. Another option would be to raise awareness of opportunities for physicists in these areas in careers advice material for physicists, at both graduate and postgraduate level, and in advice provided for mid-career changes.

  There is also concern regarding the shortage of opportunities at postgraduate level for physicists wishing to specialise in these areas. There are a few MSc courses in renewable-energy technologies and fuel cells, but these are, by their very nature, multidisciplinary, and obtaining funding or training bursaries for such courses can be difficult. There are also few PhD research opportunities, again partly due to the difficulty of obtaining funding for interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research topics. A more flexible approach from funding bodies may be required.

July 2007

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8   Renewables Innovation Review, DTI/Carbon Trust, 2004. Back

9   Mott MacDonald 2004 "Renewable energy supply chain analysis", DTI. Back

10   ICCEPT & E4Tech Consulting 2004 "The UK innovation systems for new and renewable energy technologies". A report for the DTI. Back

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