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

Memorandum 21

Submission from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE)


  1.  The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) is a professional body representing over 78,000 professional engineers in the UK and overseas. Our membership is involved in all aspects of energy supply, conversion and use. They operate in the automotive, rail and aerospace industries, in construction and building services, in renewable energy, fossil-fuel derived power generation and nuclear power, and in the over-arching field of sustainable development. As a Learned Society, our role is to be a source of considered, balanced, impartial information and advice.


  2.1  As IMechE said in its initial response to the Energy White Paper, the over-riding priority and objective for UK energy policy must be to engage fully and with some urgency in the battle against climate change, through the rapid development and widespread deployment of secure, sustainable, low carbon solutions across the whole energy field, based on a stable, long-term framework and carbon-pricing signals.

  2.2  IMechE believes the Energy Hierarchy provides the most appropriate framework for a truly sustainable, coherent energy policy. It gives priority to demand-side energy conservation and efficiency measures and the development of low carbon, sustainable supply-side measures. It is in the demand-side that the bulk of the opportunities to move quickly and effectively towards a low carbon, secure and sustainable energy future are to be found.

  2.3  As it is impossible to eliminate all demand for energy, the only sensible approach to energy supply is to have a diverse and balanced portfolio of energy sources. The future energy mix should include all sources of renewable power and heat, combined heat and power (CHP), nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage, oil and gas. There is no magic bullet in energy and climate change.

  2.4  It is clear that many low carbon technologies already exist or can be developed, for heat, power and transport. Government must provide a fair and stable framework that allows each and every one of them to realize their potential. IMechE therefore welcome the Science and Technology Committee's inquiry as a timely contribution to the development of this framework.

  2.5  Renewable energy generation is a high-technology sector. It is crucial to many of the Government's strategic priorities, not just the battle against climate change. Indeed, it is crucial to achieving sustainable development, energy security, and the emergence of a competitive, environmentally benign, knowledge-based economy. While many renewable technologies exist, their deployment in the UK has been significantly hampered by a variety of factors, not least planning and grid connection issues, but also inconsistent and inadequate Government policy measures. The climate change imperative, and now the binding EU targets for the sector, dictate that support policies right across the innovation chain, from R&D through demonstration to full-scale deployment, must be developed and implemented quickly. The UK is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy resources; it now needs the political leadership to make the very best use of them.


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

  3.1  Offshore Wind: While there has been a recent increase in the deployment of offshore wind farms, significant barriers still remain. Recent Government announcements on planning and the introduction of a 1.5 ROCs per MWh support level within the Renewables Obligation (RO) will help considerably. R&D support should focus on cost reduction, turbine design, deep-sea operations and reliability, access and maintenance issues.

  3.2  Photovoltaics: PV has significant long-term potential, but has so far achieved very low levels of penetration into UK markets, largely because of its high cost and perceptions of its ineffectiveness in the UK's often cloudy weather. While it can find applications in certain niche markets, it remains a long way from large-scale viability and the focus for government support should therefore be in R&D. Priority issues include cost reduction, cell materials, efficiency improvements and building integration concepts.

  3.3  Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies: This is another sector in need of substantial R&D support to realise any potential for large-scale application. Issues include low carbon hydrogen production, its effective storage and distribution, and fuel cell cost reductions and efficiency improvements.

  3.4  Wave: Wave energy is much nearer to full-scale viability than PV or hydrogen-based technologies, but it will need both government and industry support to get it from small-scale prototype through to large-scale demonstration. The introduction of a 2 ROCs per MWh band for wave energy in the RO is welcome, but will not be sufficient on its own to bring forward large-scale demonstration schemes.

  3.5  Tidal: There are two basic types of tidal energy generation: barrages and tidal stream. Barrages are relatively mature technologies, with very limited application in terms of suitable sites. They do, however, have the potential to deliver very large quantities of energy. The Severn Barrage is one such scheme that has been gaining support over recent years, along with other schemes to exploit the tidal characteristics of the Severn Estuary. The Government should support the development of detailed plans and complete timely assessments of their economic, environmental and social impacts. Tidal stream devices are at a similar stage of development to wave energy devices, and merit similar support measures. As with wave energy, the 2 ROCs per MWh banding for tidal stream devices will not be sufficient on its own to bring forward large-scale demonstration schemes.

  3.6  Bioenergy: This covers a wide range of materials, technologies and applications, but there are some generic issues relevant to most or all bioenergy schemes which we describe here. The first is maximising the availability of biomass (including in "waste" streams) for energy production, not just in terms of growing and using more, but also in developing new crop species. The second is the optimisation of conversion processes and technologies. Finally, there is a need to properly integrate crop production and biomass use with sustainability issues, and within the overall energy system, for example, to exploit fully the opportunities for combined heat and power. Existing Government support measures (largely support for co-firing) have done little to develop indigenous supply chains or conversion technologies. The banding of various bioenergy technologies in the RO, the introduction of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation and the encouragement for Energy from Waste schemes in the Waste Strategy for England are all welcome steps in the right direction.

  3.7  Ground Source Heat Pumps: These (along with air and water source heat pumps) are generally mature technologies that have been deployed in significant quantities overseas, but not in the UK as yet. Installation costs, lack of awareness and lack of available land provide probably the greatest barriers. The main market for heat pumps should be in new build developments, where installation costs can be effectively minimised and systems sized appropriately. There is scope for greater public sector support, through the micro-generation strategy, the development of a strategy for sustainable heat and in the procurement and regulation of housing developments.

  3.8  Intelligent Grid Management and Energy Storage: Aside from the well-established pumped storage used alongside large-scale hydro power schemes, (electrical) energy storage is not widely used. It has enormous potential, however, not just to smooth out supply peaks and troughs from intermittent renewables such as wind energy, but also to transform our electricity supply infrastructure from the current highly inefficient system based on peak demand to a far more efficient one based on average demand. A variety of different technologies have potential and some have even got near to commercial exploitation (eg the Regenysys system). The potential benefits merit significantly higher priority being given to R&D funding in this area. Grid management also needs to be studied and improved, to better integrate distributed and embedded generators, to better cope with intermittent supply sources and to explore new and effective demand-side measures to help provide security of supply.

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

  4.1  In the near-term, offshore wind and bioenergy (particularly energy from biomass waste) are likely to be the most commercially attractive large-scale options, supported by the banded RO. Actions to address planning and grid connection issues, and much greater incentives for combined heat and power schemes for biomass, could also make significant contributions. Ground source heat pumps could also become much more common place over the next decade or so, through measures such as the Code for Sustainable Homes (and a wider Code for Sustainable Buildings) and Building Regulations.

  4.2  Wave and tidal energy technologies have significant potential for large-scale deployment in the period 2015-25, but will need support over and above the RO banding and the modest levels of existing R&D funding. This period is also relevant to intelligent grid management and, possibly, energy storage.

  4.3  Photovoltaics and hydrogen/fuel-cell technologies are unlikely to achieve large-scale deployment much before 2025. In the shorter term, they merit targeted R&D funding to address the issues relevant to them (described above).

  4.4  Not all renewable technologies are sustainable, and not all are necessarily very low carbon. Wind, wave and tidal energy schemes are likely to have the lowest carbon footprint and be most sustainable. Bioenergy has a slightly higher carbon impact, mainly through the fossil fuels used in growing and transporting the crops, and needs to be managed carefully to ensure it meets sustainability criteria by, for example, not being produced at the expense of tropical forests. Ground source heat pumps have a potentially very low carbon impact, if the electricity used to run the pump is from low carbon sources. Hydrogen's carbon footprint depends on where it comes from and, if it comes from fossil fuels, whether the carbon is captured and stored as part of the production process. PV currently has quite a high carbon impact (by renewables standards) due mainly to extraction of silicon and the complicated and energy-intensive manufacturing process.

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

  5.1  There is an overwhelming case for direct Government support for renewable technology development and innovation. As well as stimulating new business opportunities and social benefits, such support has many other benefits, including the development of skills, capacity and collaborative networks. It can also encourage and leverage private-sector investment in R&D.

  5.2  Over recent decades, UK investment in energy sector R&D has been weak. We have fallen behind many other nations in bringing new technologies to market, and our capacity to exploit R&D carried out here or elsewhere has been diminished. While we welcome the recent increases in public R&D funding in the energy sector, and the establishment of the UK Energy Research Centre, the amounts being spent still do not adequately reflect the scale or urgency of the climate change challenge, nor the many potential opportunities for UK plc.

Other possible technologies for renewable energy-generation

  6.1  There are a wide range of new and emerging renewable technologies, not all of which have been mentioned above. Of probably greatest relevance to the UK is Solar Thermal (for heating and cooling). Similar in many ways to Ground Source Heat Pumps, in being well established elsewhere but having not, as yet, achieved significant penetration in to UK markets, solar thermal has tremendous potential in both new build and, crucially, in refurbishment of existing buildings. Barriers at present include the high up-front installation costs and, like PV, misplaced perceptions that solar energy technologies are not effective under UK weather conditions. To realise the potential, and contribute significantly to the 2020 renewable energy targets, support is needed to develop markets and supply chains (eg through Building Regulations, the Code for Sustainable Homes, the micro-generation strategy, public procurement, a sustainable heat strategy, and householder grants and fiscal incentives) and for R&D to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.

July 2007

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