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

Memorandum 13

Submission from The Royal Society of Edinburgh


  1.  It is hoped that the Inquiry will view renewable technologies in the light of an overall energy strategy. Partitioning of thinking with regard to technology options and choices should be avoided as there are interesting opportunities for making progress towards a much higher degree of sustainability. To prepare for the longer term, investment in the development of alternative sources and cleaner technologies is essential.

  2.  Displacing or supplementing fossil derived energy with renewable derived energy is a truly formidable challenge because of the scale of the problem, the incompatibility of infrastructures required and the complex interactions between technical, policy and economic aspects. The myriad supply and demand-side options require an integrated approach. Solutions need to be pursued at all scales.

  3.  The development of renewables is dependant on the value of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) and to this extent is a distortion of the market in generation.

  4.  Research, development and demonstration of projects are paramount and these aspects should be built-in to a programme and not treated in isolation to one another. Full scale demonstrators are essential if commercialisation is to be achieved.


  5.  The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Inquiry into renewable energy-generation technologies. These comments have been compiled with the assistance of a number of expert Fellows of the RSE, under the direction of the Vice-President, Professor John Mavor.

  6.  The response has been written to correspond with the layout and framework of the points raised by the committee of inquiry. In terms of timescales, near term is deemed as being five years or less, medium term is five to 15 years and long term is beyond 15 years.

  7.  The majority of the UK's natural resources in wind, hydro, marine and biomass energy are found in the north of the UK. This is illustrated by the fact that 50% of the UK renewable energy production is sourced from Scotland.[13] Therefore, it is recognised that renewable sources of energy are a key contributor to energy supply needs because of their low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as well as their abundance. However, it should be recognised that abundance of resource does not necessarily result in its utilisation as that resource must be harnessed effectively and economically.

  8.  Scotland has major research and development strengths across the energy spectrum, including renewable energy-generation technologies, particularly within its institutions. In the UK, the University of Strathclyde, judged in relation to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Carbon Trust research income it receives, is first in electricity transmission and distribution, while the University of Edinburgh is first in ocean energy while the University of St Andrews is second in energy storage. Also, The Sustainable Power Generation and Supply initiative (Supergen) research consortia in marine energy, highly distributed power systems and energy storage is led by Scottish universities. Furthermore, crucial to the pull-through of renewable energy technology is the need for the research and development community to be in close proximity to leading development and demonstration facilities as well as energy sources. In Scotland such facilities include the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), PURE Energy Centre on Unst, Scottish Enterprise Energy Technologies Centre, and the University of Edinburgh's curved wave tank. Furthermore, pull-through and commercialisation is being aided by the Intermediary Technology Institute (ITI) in Energy, based in Aberdeen, which has £150 million to fund and manage early stage research and development programmes across the energy spectrum, including renewables, power networks and energy storage.

Committee Question 1  The current state of UK research and development in, and the deployment of, renewable energy-generation technologies including: offshore wind; photovoltaics, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies; wave; tidal; bioenergy; ground source heat pumps: and intelligent grid management and energy storage.

Offshore wind

  9.  Offshore wind is now a mature technology and the wind industry in the UK is the fastest growing in the world, although the support infrastructure is fragile. Offshore wind installations offer the opportunity for greater wind strength and duration and the absence of visual intrusion in the landscape. The design and placement of large structures offshore is a mature technology and a legacy of the oil and gas industry. However, development of offshore wind generation in the UK is proving excessively slow, such that the enormous potential of the Scottish west coast in particular, and the potential for associated commercial exploitation, risk not being realised. Grid connection issues pose technical challenges. In Scotland, at March 2006, 180 MW had been consented to and a further 10 MW planned. This includes the UK and Europe's flagship Talisman/Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) Deepwater Offshore Windfarm Demonstrator in the Moray Firth, which is currently under construction. If the demonstrator proves successful, a commercial full-scale development could be viable.

Photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal

  10.  The generation and applicability of electrical power photovoltaics has been greatly enhanced by two developments. One is the development of amorphous photovoltaic cells which promise to become much cheaper than existing technology. The other is the development of microelectronic controls which permit domestically-generated electricity to be fed into a national grid. The current collection efficiency of photovoltaic cells is around 10% although the latest technology has an efficiency of 15%. This technology is best incorporated with new build housing and applications remote from the grid. Research is needed to increase efficiencies even higher for this technology.

  11.  On the other hand, solar thermal produces hot water and actually works well in Scotland because although sunnier climates have higher solar radiation levels, Scotland's cooler climate allows us to make good use of the solar heat produced. The technology is simple and well developed.

Hydrogen and fuel cell technologies

  12.  A critical driver for hydrogen and fuel cell technology is to implement renewable energy in mobile applications and hydrogen seems to offer the best solution. Large scale implementation of hydrogen fuel transport is generally accepted to be verging on long term largely due to cost and development needs. Due to the intrinsic high conversion efficiency for electricity production and its scalability, significant stationary fuel cell deployment is anticipated in the near to medium term. This will focus upon distributed generation and combined heat and power (CHP) applications and provides an opportunity to significantly extend dynamic renewable generation through mitigation of intermittency problems. Potential fuels include both fossil sources such as natural gas and coal, biogases from waste and biomass pyrolysis.

  13.  More medium term application of hydrogen for transport include using it in a normal combustion engine. Public transport is particularly amenable to hydrogen fuel cell implementation as there is much less need for a distribution network and storage in buses is easier to implement. As part of the EU CUTE programme, the largest hydrogen bus demonstration in the world, three fuel cell buses are being run by London Transport. These are supplied by the only hydrogen fuelling station in the UK, operated by BP at Hornchurch. Despite its relatively small scale, the PURE Energy Centre on Unst is involved in the research and development of hydrogen technologies, and has utilised wind power to extract hydrogen from sea water and use it in conjunction with a fuel cell. However, the problem of hydrogen storage is the primary issue and work on identifying hydrogen storage materials continues worldwide, including here in Scotland.

  14.  Unfortunately, the recent announcement that BP has decided to cancel plans for its Peterhead hydrogen extraction scheme is an untimely blow as the scheme was a major UK project not only in terms of hydrogen development but also carbon sequestration and enhanced oil recovery.

  15.  As part of its response to the report, A Strategic Framework for Hydrogen in the UK (June 2005), the Government announced a £15 million, four-year programme for hydrogen and fuel cell demonstrations. However, in Scotland, the Hydrogen Energy Group (HEG) established by the Forum for Renewable Energy Development in Scotland (FREDS) has recently published a report, Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Opportunities for Scotland (October 2006) which highlights UK investment in hydrogen and fuel cell technology as being negligible in contrast to the USA, Canada, Germany and Japan. Therefore, more support is needed and as the government appears to view hydrogen energy activity as an important focus, it should press ahead with the establishment of the Hydrogen Coordination Unit (HCU).


  16.  Wave power systems are weather dependent, to at least the same degree as wind turbines. Wave generation is at the development stage and no economic large scale wave energy device has yet been produced. As has been the case in other fields, there have been some well documented and spectacular failures of engineering.

  17.  Scotland has companies involved in the design and construction of wave-energy devices, considerable relevant expertise in its universities and the Scottish Executive has given significant support to the development and implementation of these technologies. Wave energy converters need hydrodynamic characteristics to enable them to operate at maximum efficiency over the normal range of sea conditions, yet they must be robust enough to withstand the worst storms. Edinburgh-based company Ocean Power Delivery's (OPD) Pelamis has been tested and demonstrated at the EMEC in Orkney and is currently being installed off the Portuguese coast. With financial support from the Scottish Executive, there are also plans to utilise Pelamis technology to build the world's largest commercial wave farm in Scotland. However, it should be recognised that this would equate to a capacity of only 3 MW. Therefore, the commercial deployment of wave technology has to be regarded as medium to long term.


  18.  Tidal power output is distinct from wave as it can be predicted to a high degree of certainty. Tidal barrage technology is technically proven; the La Rance scheme in France has provided 240 MW since its construction in 1967. Approximately eight sites have been identified in the UK as suitable for barrages, including the largest proposal, the 9 GW Severn barrage. Estimates suggest that a combination of a barrage system across the River Severn and an under sea, bi-directional, un-enclosed turbine array across 10-20% of the Pentland Firth could meet circa 25% of the UK demand for electrical power. However, to ensure diversity of supply, it would not be appropriate to rely on such a large proportion of supply from such limited number of sources and sites. A barrage scheme, such as the Severn, would have to be regarded as a long term development.

  19.  The proposal for the large Pentland Firth tidal current system is at a very early stage of research and has not progressed much beyond the simple conceptual stage. However, there are other, smaller potential sites for tidal current energy around the coast that would provide a modest contribution in a much-reduced timescale. In this regard, a prototype by Marine Current Turbines has been operating in the Bristol Channel since 2003. With this in mind, tidal current technology deployment would be regarded as near term, provided that the Renewables Obligation can provide the necessary level of support.


  20.  Biomass resources can be used for a number of energy applications including electricity generation, heat, CHP, and the production of fuels for transport. With regard to electricity generation, the co-firing of biomass in existing plant, particularly coal, is currently done relatively quickly and at low cost and can give an immediate reduction in emissions. Furthermore, there are plans for dedicated biomass plants and one such plant is under construction in Lockerbie. The combustion of biomass for electricity generation will therefore occur in the near term. The combustion of biomass and waste is a mature technology and has potential as an energy source for water and space heating. Both energy crops and forestry material are best suited for distributed systems, as opposed to centralised generation, in heat-only or CHP. These systems, which include electricity as well as heating and cooling, cover distributed energy applications ranging from domestic microgeneration to industrial-scale CHP and medium to large scale renewable energy projects.

  21.  While there is always the possibility of incremental improvements in the efficiency of combustion plant, the real technical challenges lie in the advanced technology for producing biofuels. The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation places a requirement on transport fuel suppliers to ensure that 5% of their overall fuel sales is from a renewable source by 2010. The two principal sources at present are bioethanol and biodiesel.

    —  Bioethanol is most efficiently produced from rapidly growing, high carbohydrate content crops. In the UK plants are being developed to produce bioethanol from both wheat and sugar beet. In fact, Ensus has recently announced (March 2007) that it has secured funding to build the UK's first large-scale wheat bioethanol plant, which is due to be operational in 2009.

    —  Biodiesel is produced from oil crops such as rape, linseed and sunflower. There is mounting interest in this area in Scotland. The first large scale commercial biodiesel plant started production in March 2005 at the Argent Energy Plant in Lockerbie. Also, INEOS Enterprise is investing £70 million in a biodiesel production facility at its Grangemouth site. The biodiesel is produced from cooking oil and tallow. However, the biggest potential may be in the form of "second generation" biofuels. These biofuels would be produced from any plant feedstocks other than food crops and use advanced chemical processes to break down the cellulose in the feedstock.

Ground source heat pumps and other microgenerators

  22.  The Scottish Executive launched its draft Energy Efficiency & Microgeneration Strategy in March 2007 with the aim of encouraging a greater uptake of microgeneration. Such technologies include heat pumps, micro-wind, micro-hydro, micro-CHP, biomass, solar PV and solar thermal. These technologies are mature and the Scottish Community and Householders Renewables Initiative (SCHRI) offers advice and grants to help with the installation of microrenewables. The Scottish Executive is developing a renewable heat strategy as the energy used for heating is a significant proportion of energy consumption and to date there has been a tendency to focus upon electricity generation.

Intelligent grid management and energy storage

  23.  With regard to the Grid network, it is likely that in the near future there will be increasing levels of renewable sources of power, producing variable and intermittent supplies. In some ways this will change the operation of the network as the branches of the network will need to be more flexible and have increased capacity to cope with new generation "tapered" towards the periphery. This will require active management of the network and Ofgem has been quite far-sighted by creating a range of incentives for further development and application, such as the Innovation Funding Incentive (IFI) and Registered Power Zones (RPZ) programmes. Short term difficulties in the areas of integration and network management are being solved through this route. Furthermore, the Joint DTI/Ofgem Working group is doing a lot of work in this area and much of the Grid technology needed is already identified. There is on-going R&D activity in the electrical network technology field, including power electronics and active network management systems. University departments working in these fields are probably the principal repositories of expertise since the dismantling of the research base of the power utilities in the previous decades. The main concerns in this area surround the distribution system, particularly in light of increasing levels of distributed energy.

  24.  Major research, development and demonstration in energy storage technologies is needed to meet the needs of increasing intermittent renewables in the system and to balance supply and demand. Pumped storage hydroelectricity is the only proven large scale energy storage mechanism and has been operating for decades using a relatively simple principle. Pumped storage offers a crucial back-up facility at periods of high demand due to its flexibility and could be used to store power from intermittent generators at periods of low demand. There are a range of alternative energy storage technologies being considered such as flywheels, compressed gas and electrochemical technologies.

  25.  Electrochemical technologies provide some of the most practical solutions. For larger scales, redox flow fuel cells have particular potential and are being developed by Plurion in Scotland with support from ITI Energy. For smaller stationary applications and mobile applications in particular, modern battery technology, based on either lithium or on nickel-metal-hydride is being considered. Over the last 10 years, the performance of lithium batteries has improved by approximately 30% in terms of their ability to store energy and over the next 10 years, researchers in Scotland expect a further improvement of 50-100% in density, as well as a tenfold improvement in charge and discharge rate. There is considerable expertise in this field in Scotland in St Andrew's University and the UK should continue to invest in lithium ion technology for batteries. Furthermore, capacitors/supercapacitors are used in conjunction with batteries to provide a power boost, when required.

Committee Question 2  The feasibility, costs, timescales and progress in commercialising renewable technologies as well as their reliability and associated carbon footprints.

  26.  With regard to the commercialisation of offshore wind, wave and tidal technology, many barriers exist. Although, as illustrated above, progress has been made, the gap between capital costs, expected operational costs and revenue still remains too large for substantial industrial commitment, without improvements in the ROC system. Uncertainty about real future costs, particularly the operating and maintenance costs is a major problem. Turbine prices are increasing as global demand expands, reliability is uncertain, raw material prices are high and grid connections are uncertain. It is important that work take place to establish whether some of the above risks can be mitigated, by a regime of capital grants and adjustments to economic instruments.

  27.  The reliability of the performance of large-scale marine power generating plants has still to be tested but there are concerns about the ability of ocean wave and tide generators to operate reliably in the extremely high energy environments in which they will operate. Furthermore, the most likely sources of marine energy in the UK are at some considerable distance from likely large users of electricity. Hence the total costs for design and erection of the energy generators, and the power transmission system must be analysed and estimated in relation to the market, and the price which the market will pay. Too often in the past, seemingly attractive projects have foundered because of over-optimistic initial assumptions and omissions of key cost elements, for example in transmission/distribution. The problem of grid connection is common to all renewable sources as distribution grids tend to be "tapered" towards their periphery, which is often where the renewable energy is available. Therefore, there are important possibilities for applying renewable technologies to produce chemicals close to generation sites, displacing fossil fuel based chemical production in other sites.

  28.  In the case of wave technology, devices that have been developed and demonstrated are highly subsidised. The Pelamis project in Portugal is subject to a guaranteed price for its electricity for 15 years. Therefore, these technologies present a major, medium to long term opportunity for the UK. In the UK, Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) have stimulated the development of onshore wind, being the only technology closest to market, at the expense of other technologies. In the Energy White Paper of 2007 there is a policy proposal to implement a banding regime with regard to the Renewables Obligation. The aim of this is to bring forward emerging renewable technologies. The current proposals indicate that the level of support for emerging technologies would increase to 2 ROCs/MWh. Furthermore, in Scotland, a Marine Supply Obligation (MSO) has been proposed to provide additional encouragement for the development of wave and tidal sources located in Scotland. However, these proposals as they stand may not provide sufficient incentive to make emerging technologies viable propositions.

  29.  An issue that has not been mentioned thus far is that some renewable energy technologies could present considerable challenges to sustainable management of the marine environment. The types of risk to marine wildlife that need most attention involve those concerning some of the most iconic marine species, including large sharks, seals, dolphins and whales, as well as seabirds. The engineering solutions for both tidal and wave power technologies need to include the assessment of environmental risks from an early stage because this could affect both the design and the commercial viability of different designs. The environmental compliance issues are rarely built-in to design briefs in advance of technical feasibility being tested and usually come late in the day, and as an after-thought, during testing. Although current knowledge to help assess relative environmental suitability is poor, developing methods of assessment and accumulating data needs to be an integral part of the development process.

  30.  With regard to hydrogen production, the largest source and cheapest commercial process for the manufacture of hydrogen is by reforming methane, but this may produce CO2 at the point of production unless the precursor carbon monoxide is used in the production of valuable downstream fuels such as methanol. Therefore, it may be more appropriate to use the methane in combustion plant for electricity generation rather than for the manufacture of hydrogen, whilst developing higher efficiency technologies such as fuel cells. Also, since 50% of the world's known gas (methane) supplies are stranded due to lack of infrastructure, methane reforming and processes such as Fischer-Tropsch could be used for gas to liquid transformation, which would allow access to this huge additional resource of high hydrogen, low carbon fuel.

  31.  Production of hydrogen using wind energy is low carbon if not entirely carbon-free, as carbon is produced both during the manufacture and the commissioning stages, and is also an expensive way to produce hydrogen, as is using nuclear energy in the electrolysis of water. There is potential in hydrogen as an energy vector for transport applications in the longer term provided that it is produced from low carbon emissions sources. Widespread applications of hydrogen technology require major investment in production, transport and storage infrastructure, and stimulation of demand. Until costs are reduced and mass production is developed, the evolution of a hydrogen economy will be slow.

  32.  With regard to the commercialisation of bioenergy, the high cost of transport of relatively low energy content means that woody material should be converted to energy within about 50 km of its source. Although this is not an entirely carbon-neutral source of energy, with proper management carbon costs can be kept low. In terms of biofuel, plant oils and crops can fetch a good price for industrial or food uses, therefore the economic case for biofuel production may be weak at present unless farmers get a guaranteed market and price. However, there are global food security concerns as increased use of food crops for biofuel production could lead to food shortages and increased prices which would be felt most by the poorest sections of society. The primary barriers to "second generation" biofuels concern the technology and prohibitively high costs at present.

  33.  As for energy from ground source heat pumps as well as other microrenewables, a primary barrier is the estimated rates of return on capital investment being measured in decades, although this period would be reduced by grants being available. Other issues include limited public awareness of technologies as well as planning and technical constraints. In terms of good practice, it is best to install such technologies as part of a new build. With the market for microrenewables being at a very early stage of development, significant deployment of these technologies falls within the long term timeframe.

  34.  Furthermore, it is the case that one of the major threats to the commercialisation of energy technologies in the UK is the lack of technically-skilled human capital. Young engineers are not entering into programmes of education and training in the energy sector as they once did and this must be rectified if there is to be progress in commercialisation.

Committee Question 3  The UK Government's role in funding research and development for renewable energy-generation technologies and providing incentives for technology transfer and industrial research and development.

  35.  One major casualty of the privatised energy industry has been research, development and demonstration. The world-renowned research carried out by the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) and the South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB) in the 1970s and 1980s has been abandoned by the privatised energy companies. While the Government has stimulated research in renewables to a limited extent, a comprehensive energy supply research programme with a practical demonstration focus needs to be established.

  36.  Therefore, the government should be commended for its proposal to form the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) which focuses on the delivery of usable technology. The priority themes of the ETI include large scale energy supply technologies, support infrastructure and energy security. With the emphasis on a public and private sector partnership, there is scope for truly innovative and rewarding research and development, and this initiative needs to be taken forward urgently. Such support must be far-sighted in nature to provide the incentives and certainty to encourage further investment.

  37.  As part of this, the government must investigate the skills crisis and introduce initiatives to act as a catalyst to introduce new students to energy-related discipline areas. In Scotland, some effort has been made by the Scottish Enterprise, High Technology Talent Strategy Board in this area. The government's Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme is a most effective enabler for knowledge transfer and a flagship programme could usefully be established in the area of new and renewable energy systems. Such an initiative would both bridge the industry/academia gap and help with the training of new graduates.

  38.  To date, UK renewables other than onshore wind have received limited support and the demonstration infrastructure has not been within the remit of the DTI. The average annual per capita R&D spending on renewables 1990-2005 was a little over 0.3 Euros in the UK while in Spain it was about 0.5 Euros, Japan about 0.9 Euros and Germany almost 1 Euro.[14] Indeed, time delays have been observed to place renewable projects in jeopardy: eg the Marine Current Turbines demonstration in Strangford Loch in Northern Ireland. This situation may be contrasted with that which prevails in Portugal where designated sites are made available to developers.

Committee Question 4  Other possible technologies for renewable energy-generation.

  39.  A physical consequence of conventional thermal plants is that high-grade heat has to be rejected. Some of that heat, where appropriate, should be captured in local heating schemes and CHP plants, or used in conjunction with combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT).

  40.  While not a generation technology, active demand-side control (enacted via the Internet for example) is a facilitating technology because it is able to reshape load profiles to better accommodate stochastic renewable supplies while arranging co-operative switching with the public energy supply systems during times of shortfall. There is an opportunity to significantly escalate research in this area.


  Any enquiries about this submission should be addressed to the RSE's Consultations Officer, Mr William Hardie (email:

    —  The Royal Society of Edinburgh response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee Inquiry, The Practicalities of Developing Renewable Energy (October 2003).

    —  Science Scotland, Energy Special, Issue 5 (Spring 2006).

    —  The Royal Society of Edinburgh's Inquiry into Energy Issues for Scotland (June 2006).

    —  Scottish Science Advisory Committee, Scientific Network of Excellence in Energy (December 2006).

    —  The Energy Technologies Partnership, Expression of Interest in Support of the UK Energy Technologies Institute (February 2007).

July 2007

13   The Energy Technologies Partnership Back

14   IEA energy R&D database (Euros based on 2005 prices) Back

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