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

Memorandum 38

Submission from Research Councils UK (RCUK)


  The Research Councils seek to support a full spectrum of energy research and postgraduate training together with expanding UK university research capacity in energy related areas. The Research Councils' Energy Programme builds on a substantive portfolio of activities bringing together researchers from many disciplines to tackle the research challenges involved in developing and exploiting energy technologies and understanding their environmental, economic and social impact. The Energy Programme's vision for energy research is to position the UK to successfully develop and exploit sustainable, low-carbon and/or energy efficient technologies and systems to enable it to meet the Government's midterm and long-term energy and environmental targets.

Recognising the scale and urgency of the energy challenge expenditure on energy research by the Research Councils has increased from £40 million 2004-05 to approximately £77 million in 2007-08. Within this the renewable energy expenditure has increased from £8.3 million to £18.8 million. The development of the Energy Technologies Institute provides an opportunity to further strengthen the pull through from the research base and for accelerated deployment of new energy technologies. However, given the urgent need for increased investment in energy and the focus on applied research, development and early stage demonstration being developed for the Energy Technologies Institute, ETI should be funded to be additional to the current Research Councils' programme and not replace it.

  The Research Councils employ a variety of approaches in support of renewable energy research, in particular the Sustainable Power Generation and Supply (SUPERGEN) initiative has sought to build a critical mass in the UK community through multidisciplinary consortia in themes ranging from Photovoltaics, Fuel Cells and Wind Energy Technologies through to Bioenergy, Hydrogen and Marine. SUPERGEN has brought together both researchers in universities and industry, linking those engaged in novel research with the ability to exploit any potential outcomes.

  A whole systems approach to energy research is also considered by the Research Councils to be important as delivered, for example, through the Towards a Sustainable Energy Economy (TSEC) programme which funds the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC). UKERC has a unique role in integrating the different disciplines of the energy research community, supporting interdisciplinary studentships, developing an energy research atlas and providing authoritative technology and policy assessments.

  The maintenance and development of the skills base in renewable energy research is an objective of the Research Councils' Energy Programme. This occurs through a combination of both responsive and strategic approaches across all of the main renewable energy themes. The research councils all support studentships in renewable energy and the number of students has increased markedly since 2004, in particularly through TSEC, UKERC, and the SUPERGEN consortia. The number of EPSRC project students funded has increased from 37 to over 100 since 2004-05, and there are also a substantial number of other studentships. Also, two EPSRC Science and Innovation awards have been awarded to increase research capacity in identified key renewable energy areas.

  The Research Councils recognise the importance of strong partnerships and engagement with research users such as industry in order to meet their needs and increase knowledge transfer and economic impact. This engagement of industry stakeholders in shaping long-term priorities occurs through a variety of channels including Energy Summits and membership of the Energy Research Partnership. The strategic engagement is coupled with close partnership in delivery through activities such as the Technology Programme and Strategic Partnerships with Industry, for example with, E-ON, ABB, EdF and Scottish Power. The Research Councils will also shortly complete a public dialogue exercise to gain a better understanding of public priorities for future energy research.


  1.  Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership set up to champion the research supported by the seven UK Research Councils. Through RCUK the Research Councils are working together to create a common framework for research, training and knowledge transfer. Further details are available at

  2.  This evidence is submitted by Research Councils UK on behalf of five of the Research Councils (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Natural Environment Research Council, and Science and Technology Facilities Council) and represents their independent views. It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI). RCUK welcomes the opportunity to respond to this inquiry from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

  3.  This memorandum provides evidence from RCUK in response to the questions outlined in the inquiry document, including additional material from:

    —  Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)Annex A —  Economic and Social Research Council  (ESRC)Annex B —  Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)Annex C —  Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)Annex D —  Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)Annex E

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

  4.  The research councils have a key role in supporting the fundamental science that underpins energy research, and precompetitive research that will position the UK to most effectively develop and exploit technology advances. More applied business-led research, development and demonstration is supported by, for example, the Technology Strategy Board, Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR), the Carbon Trust, DEFRA,and RDAs. The Research Councils develop programmes in consultation and sometimes jointly with other funders such as the Carbon Trust, DBERR and the Technology Strategy Board. The Energy Programme's Scientific Advisory Committee includes members from DBERR and DEFRA. EPSRC, on behalf of all the Research Councils, is a member of the Energy Research Partnership and EPSRC has been closely involved with the Energy Research Partnership's work on the energy innovation chain. The development of the Energy Technologies Institute provides an opportunity to further strengthen the pull through from the research base and for accelerated deployment of new energy technologies. However, given the urgent need for increased investment in energy research, development, demonstration and deployment (RDD&D) and the focus on applied research, development and early stage demonstration being developed for the Energy Technologies Institute, ETI should be funded to be additional to the current Research Councils' programme and not replace it.

Fundamental research

  5.  The principal Research Councils supporting energy research are the BBSRC, EPSRC, ESRC, NERC and STFC. In 2005, the Councils established a joint Energy Programme,[55] coordinated by EPSRC. The Programme's vision for energy and climate change research is to position the UK to successfully develop, and exploit sustainable, low-carbon and/or energy-efficient technologies and systems to enable it to meet the Government's midterm and long-term energy and environmental targets. The Energy Programme is steered by the Cross-Council Programme Co-ordination Group (PCG), which has representatives from all five of the above Councils, and is advised by the Cross-Council Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC).

  6.  The Programme builds on an existing substantial portfolio of activities, and brings together researchers from many areas to tackle the research challenges involved in developing new energy technologies and understanding the environmental, economic and social implications. The Councils seek to support a full spectrum of energy research and expand UK university research capacity in energy related areas. Research Councils work in partnership with others to contribute to the postgraduate training needs of energy related business and other key stakeholders and recognise the importance of conducting technology-based research in the context of a thorough understanding of environmental impacts markets, consumer demand and public acceptability; cross-Council initiatives, often in collaboration with stakeholders, play a crucial role.

  7.  Expenditure on energy research by the Research Councils has increased substantially in recent years, from about £40 million in 2004-05 to approximately £77 million in 2007-08. Much of the increase has occurred in the engineering and technology areas although there is also a substantial investment in bioenergy.

  8.  Research Council spend on renewable energy research has increased from £8.3 million in 2000-01 to £18.8 million in 2006-07 (Table 1). Recognising the importance, scale and urgency of the energy challenge, the Research Councils are committed to supporting a full spectrum of renewable energy research.

Table 1



Fuel cells & Hydrogen
Wave & tidal
Other renewable

  9.  The Research Councils' main funding mechanism for renewable energy research is through the directed activities of each Council which include, for example, the SUPERGEN[56] Programme and the TSEC57 Programme, and through the Research Councils Institutes.

    —  TSEC[57] (funded by BBSRC, ESRC, EPSRC and NERC) adopts a multidisciplinary, whole-systems approach to energy research and is a broad-based programme that aims to enable the UK to access a secure, safe, diverse and reliable energy supply at competitive prices, while meeting the challenge of global warming.

    —  SUPERGEN is a multidisciplinary initiative led by EPSRC and involving BBSRC, ESRC, NERC and with funding from the Carbon Trust). The initiative builds critical mass in energy research to help the UK meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets through a radical improvement in the sustainability of power generation and supply. Researchers work in consortia, multidisciplinary partnerships between industry and universities, focused on major programmes of work.

  10.  The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) (funded by ESRC, EPSRC and NERC) is a key component of the Research Councils directed activities. UKERC's mission is to be the UK's pre-eminent centre of research, and source of authoritative information and leadership, on whole system energy research including renewable energy.[58] UKERC seeks to bring together government, industry and the research community; be a networking centre to co-ordinate UK research, facilitate industry collaboration and promote UK participation in international projects; be a centre of excellence in research and training and help maximise returns from research investment. UKERC is making a separate submission to this inquiry.

11.  Additionally a substantial portfolio of renewable energy research is also supported through the Councils' responsive mode activities, which allow novel, blue skies research or more applied proposals to be submitted in any research area within or across the individual Councils' remits. All applications, whether responsive or under directed programmes, are peer reviewed and judged on the basis of scientific excellence.

Skills and capacity

  12.  Skills and training are mainly addresses in two ways; Project studentships and Collaborative Training Accounts (CTAs) [EPSRC] and Masters' courses (NERC, and EPSRC through the CTAs) and Doctoral Training Accounts (DTAs) [EPSRC]. There are also other training activities such as industrial CASE awards that support small number of studentship. CTAs allow a single flexible mechanism for funding all EPSRC schemes that link postgraduate training with the workplace, such as Masters Training Packages, Engineering Doctorate, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, Research Assistants into Industry, Industrial CASE and CASE for New Academics. They provide a responsive approach to training driven by the market needs as they allow universities the flexibility to deploy funds in response to emerging themes and industry needs.

  13.  The Councils the Councils recognise the need for a balanced portfolio of studentships across the main renewable energy themes and strategically intervene where appropriate. An example of this is in the SUPERGEN programme where increased numbers of project studentships have been encouraged, and in the TSEC programme and UKERC. Research Councils also invest in PhD studentships in the renewable energy area through responsive routes

  14.  To further increase capacity in this area EPSRC has made two Science & Innovation (S&I) awards[59] in renewable energy to date: the £3M Centre for Integrated Renewable Energy Generation and Supply (CIREGS), at Cardiff University, and the £2.7 million award to the University of Strathclyde focusing on future trends in power technology. The Research Councils Energy Programme also contributes to the ESRC-led inter-disciplinary early career fellowships scheme.

  15.  In March 2007, BBSRC launched an Initiative in Capacity-building in Bioenergy Research,[60] with up to £20M available to support high-quality applications. The initiative seeks to create greater research capacity in the UK by encouraging collaborative research between biologists, engineers, physical, social and environmental scientists.

  16.  The Research Councils are working closely to help meet the technology, policy and postgraduate training needs of energy-related businesses and other key stakeholders. The recently held third energy Summit consulted with the user community on their postgraduate training needs, and the outputs will be used to advise future training investment. UKERC has established a Research Atlas[61] including an on-line searchable database of energy-related awards and projects and analyses of capabilities and progress by technology that is available to all stakeholders.

Knowledge transfer and collaboration with other stakeholders

  17.  As the Councils fund fundamental science it is important that strong partnerships and increased engagement with research user stakeholders is made in order to improve, and increase, knowledge transfer and economic impact. Within the Energy Programme, and specifically the engineering and physical sciences portfolio on renewables, 45% of projects involve collaboration with industry, resulting in £12.7M of direct and indirect support to UK universities over the lifetime of the projects.

  18.  Engagement of industry stakeholders in shaping the long-term strategic priorities of the Energy Programme has also occurred through three Energy Summits organised by EPSRC. The summits have been designed to gather together key industry opinion formers and seek their views on potential priorities and opportunities for the research base. In May 2007 the most recent Summit focused on business-led requirements for trained people in energy related topics.

  19.  In addition to SUPERGEN and TSEC there are a number of examples of projects supported jointly with stakeholders together with activities to exploit industry-led research priorities appear in the section on specific technologies and the section on feasibility. In summary they include:

    —  Rural Economy & Land Use (RELU) Programme (involving BBSRC, ESRC, NERC, Defra and SEERAD) and designed to study the social, economic and environmental implications of increased land use for energy crops

    —  Technology Programme (TSB, EPSRC) leveraging £11.6M of industry and DTI funding across eight independent renewable energy projects

    —  Industrial Partnership Award Scheme and LINK (BBSRC) to encourage industry participation in bio-related energy research

    —  E.ON, ABB Scottish Power and EdF Strategic Partnerships (EPSRC) undertaking research into active network management for distributed energy generation

    —  Technology Partnership Scheme (STFC) transferring core underpinning capabilities in instrumentation, engineering, sensor technology and Microsystems prototyping to universities and industry

    —  Energy Research Unit (STFC) undertaking collaborative research with university and industry groups as well as provision of a renewable energy test site for use in applied projects.

    —  STFC has invested in the development of new facilities available to stakeholders for research into materials for renewable energy technologies; A facility for the combinatorial synthesis, atomistic characterisation during in situ cycling and synthesis of hydrogen storage materials; A nanostructure facility and a new High Performance Computation facility for investigating novel photovoltaics.

    —  Several of NERC's research and collaborative centres (RCCs) conduct research on or relevant to renewable energy technologies, much of it in collaboration with universities, other institutes and industry.

  20.  The Research Councils are involved with the establishment of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI). The aim of ETI is to accelerate the development and exploitation of new energy technologies. ETI will focus on applied research, development and small scale demonstration. It is important however that public support for the ETI must not be at the expense of basic and strategic long-term research into renewable energy technologies which underpin their development.

International collaboration

  21.  A primary objective for the Research Councils energy programme is to increase the international visibility and level of international collaboration within the UK energy research portfolio. With advice from the SAC an international vision for the energy programme has been developed which has identified target countries for priority action which include, China, India, South African, USA, Europe and Brazil. In addition the Councils have appointed Professor Nigel Brandon, Imperial College, as an energy senior research fellow to be an envoy and advocate for the Research Councils' Energy Programme within the International community.

  22.  UK and Chinese researchers have been brought together in renewable energy through the TSEC "International Networking for Young Scientists Working on Renewable Energy—China:UK Partnership". Also, funding for a follow-up call for research proposals with China and South Africa has been allocated for the second half of 2007.

  23.  Other highlights within the international energy portfolio include:

    —  International development projects in bioenergy for Africa and India; the SCORE project, involving Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as research groups in Africa and India; and a project researching enhanced biomass production for energy generation in water scarce regions of India.

    —  UKERC has bilateral meetings with China, India, Japan and Italy and hosted the pre-Gleneagles G8 summit with a workshop of the G8+5.

    —  Hydrogen scholarships: Involving an exchange of UK students researching hydrogen as an energy vector with the Sandia National Laboratory and US Department of Energy (DoE).

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

  24.  The UK has a strong, internationally leading, research base in most of the key renewable energy technologies. However, many of them require significant progress in underlying engineering physical, biological, natural and social sciences. The Research Councils are committed to supporting a full spectrum of renewable energy research and given the importance, scale and urgency of the challenges relating to energy it is important that investment levels are not only sustained but continue to grow. This section outlines the contribution being made by the Research Councils and their research centres/institutes to research into the specific technologies listed in the Inquiry Announcement.


  25.  Within this technology area significant research challenges exist in improving efficiencies, improving reliability, handling intermittency of supply and environmental issues together with public perception and acceptability.

  26.  The SUPERGEN Wind Energy Technologies Consortium[62] led by the Universities of Strathclyde and Durham consists of nine research groups and brings together wind turbine technology and aerodynamics expertise with other specialists from outside the wind industry in hydrodynamics, materials, electrical machinery and control, reliability and condition monitoring. The Consortium's key objective is to undertake research to improve the cost-effective reliability and availability of existing and future large-scale wind turbine systems in the UK.

  27.  Several NERC research and Collaborative Centres, the British Geological Survey (BGS), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL) and Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), conduct research relevant to the siting and development of offshore wind turbines. For example, the BGS seabed-mapping programme is directly relevant to site investigation, and research is currently in progress studying sandbanks and their historical evolution and movement and potential for future movement. Further information is in Annex D.

  28.  In 2006 UKERC published a highly regarded report on "The Costs and Impacts of Intermittency",[63] dealing largely with the intermittency inherent in wind generators. The report was targeted at non-specialists and policy makers, but also provided new information for the expert community.

  29.  Advanced wind turbine designs are under development through the UpWind project supported by the EU and involving STFC as a partner.

Solar, Especially Photovoltaics (PV)

  30.  In PV technology research challenges exist in materials, efficiency and cost-reduction in photovoltaic technology.

  31.  Dye-sensitized and Organic PV is an area with much active research, it promises cheap lightweight, flexible solar cells that could be used in a huge number of applications. The Excitonic Solar Cell Consortium[64] (SUPERGEN) brings together leading UK researchers from Bath, Imperial College, Edinburgh and Cambridge in this field and is exploring the potential for the next generation of organic and dye-sensitised photovoltaic systems.

  32.  Semiconductor PV challenges are to develop more efficient and cheaper materials. The Photovoltaic Materials for the 21st Century (PV21) Consortium (SUPERGEN) is conducting research into the generation of electrical energy from sunlight using advanced wafer silicon and thin film devices with the primary objective of making a step change in the reduction in the cost of solar cells. The Consortium is lead by the Universities of Bath and Durham and involves four leading academic partners and seven main industrial collaborators.[65]

  33.  Other themes within the solar technologies area include:

    —  Solar concentrators which can be used to focus sunlight onto PV cells, improving efficiencies considerably. However, there are issues with UV radiation and thermal damage. Research in this area is undertaken in conjunction with semiconductor PV research.

    —  Solar thermal concentration, which captures the sun's energy first as heat and then converts it into electricity in a conventional generator, is a relatively well-developed technology, although there is limited application in the UK, and therefore little R&D, because of the climate.

    —  Direct solar conversion is mainly by photosynthesis and electrochemical methods and may be used to generate liquid fuels directly. There is a strong capability in the UK in this area and research is supported by both EPSRC and BBSRC.

  34.  UKERC is investigating PV in its Future Sources of Energy theme. They have mapped the research landscape and a road map for development has been drafted and is undergoing peer review. The topic is led from Loughborough University.

Hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies

  35.  Fuel cells are an area of intense academic and industrial research; the technology is becoming increasingly mature especially for static large facilities, though there are still issues regarding small mobile applications. Research challenges exist with regard to fuel cell integrity, durability, power density and fuel flexibility.

  36.  The Fuel Cells Consortium[66] (SUPERGEN) led by Imperial College London and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne aims to investigate and mitigate some of the key challenges facing fuel cell development. The Consortium, in partnership with Ceres Power, Johnson Matthey, Rolls Royce and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, are researching the production of a thick-film solid oxide fuel cell with "zero" leakage, significant improvement of fuel cell durability by halving the current degradation rate and to substantially improve the power density of existing fuel cells.

  37.  The Biological Fuel Cells Consortium[67] (SUPERGEN) led by the University of Surrey is concerned with the harnessing of biological materials as alternative fuels and catalysts for electrochemical energy generation systems. Unlike conventional fuel cells bio-fuel cells operate at ambient temperatures, atmospheric pressure and neutral pH thus offering potential benefits to the environment, waste management portable electronics and implantable devices.

  38.  Hydrogen is the fuel currently most focused in support of fuel-cell technology. It is a vector rather than an energy source. Research is addressing the technology involved in generating, storing, and distributing hydrogen, as well as the socio-economic impacts of safety, regulation, economics and public acceptability. Efficient and safe storage is critical. Current storage densities are insufficient, though there have been advances in capacity in recent years that indicate that commercially competitive levels of storage should be achievable. Examples of significant projects in hydrogen are:

    —  Sustainable Hydrogen Energy Consortium[68] (UK-SHEC) (SUPERGEN) is conducting novel research into producing, storing, distributing and using sustainable hydrogen as an energy carrier. This project is led by the Universities of Oxford and Bath

    —  A multidisciplinary project on hydrogen production using solar energy has recently been awarded to Imperial College. The project will research the exploitation of low temperature natural biological and photocatalytic processes to develop alternative, and cost effective, methods for harvesting solar energy to produce renewable hydrogen fuels directly, and to explore how these could be embedded within novel, integrated energy production systems, incorporating fuel cell and hydrogen storage technology.

    —  ESRC-funded research at City University has highlighted the importance of creating market niches, partnering in the supply chain, government funding for demonstrations and trials, managed institutional change, and above all the alignment of all these and is currently examining the role played by different kinds of support for field trials and demonstration projects in fuel cells in Europe, the USA and Japan.

    —   Two UKERC studentships at Imperial College, London are addressing the production and use of hydrogen as a fuel. One project is investigating the development of intermediate temperature solid oxide electrolysers for hydrogen production, and another concerns the preparation and characterisation of new materials for hydrogen storage.

  39.  Formic acid (methanoic acid CHOOH) is an alternative to hydrogen and ethanol as an energy storage vector. It has advantages over hydrogen in that it can be stored as a liquid at room temperatures and pressures. It has the benefits of fast oxidation kinetics, but has not been fully tested as a fuel. Research challenges are: efficient catalysis, the use in conventional and new fuel cells, and novel generation methods.

Marine, including wave and tidal

  40.  The marine environment offers some of the greatest potential for renewable-energy generation in the UK, not only from offshore wind turbines, but also from wave-energy devices and tidal power installations.

  41.  To exploit wave energy, research must address the challenges of engineering structures to focus and convert wave energy, and of ensuring that the structures can survive the hostile marine environment. Current important development technologies are the Pelamis device, the Manchester bobber and marine turbines. Industry and government-supported pilot activities are under way with demonstration arrays planned.

  42.  The Marine Energy Research Consortium[69] (SUPERGEN) led by Edinburgh University is increasing knowledge and understanding of the extraction of energy from the sea to reduce investment risk and uncertainty. This will increase confidence for future stakeholders in the development and deployment of the technology.

  43.  The National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS) [NERC/Southampton University] conducts wave climate research in the North Atlantic and British shelf seas, and this is valuable for assessing the "available resource" for wave energy and some of the risks for all offshore installations (including wave and offshore wind). POL conducts offshore wave modelling and near-shore wave measuring—research which could underpin the development of offshore wave power technology.

  44.  UKERC has marine and offshore topics within its Future Sources of Energy and Environmental Sustainability themes. The research landscape has been mapped, peer reviewed and published ( Further studies are looking at the environmental capacity and impact of development.

  45.  The Environmental Mathematics and Statistics programme (NERC, EPSRC) included a grant for research at Sheffield University into waves on shallow coastal waters, which have implications for offshore engineering including renewable energy-generation structures.

  46.  NERC's Research and Collaborative Centres conduct a substantial amount of research relevant to the development of tidal power schemes. Particularly notable is POL's contribution to the DTI's Renewable Energy Atlas.[70] Details of this and other POL research, of BGS's seabed-drilling technology for site investigation, and of SAMS's work on tidal jets are in Annex D. NERC also supports ecological and biodiversity research which would be relevant to the siting of tidal barrages.


  47.  Bioenergy is receiving increasing attention and is now a reasonably developed area, although it is broad and not all technologies are equally advanced. The Councils are involved in research into producing biofuels (including developing and growing energy crops, and culturing marine algae) and into generating energy from them as well as fundamental research on plant breeding and genetics. The main research challenges relate to efficiencies, process intensification and environmental impacts, depending upon the technology.

  48.  Co-firing of woody biomass is already used in UK coal-fired power stations, and direct combustion is the most accessible of the bioenergy technologies. Gasification of biomass produces synthesis gas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) and also liquid fuels. Aerobic and anaerobic bio-technologies are less well developed and there are many challenges in understanding the basic processes, genetic manipulation, process intensification etc. These methods can be used to produce bioethanol, hydrogen and other low-mass chemicals. Research Council supported projects in this area include:

    —  The Bioenergy Consortium (SUPERGEN)[71] led by Aston and Leeds Universities and involving the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) researching and developing power generation and fuel production through thermo-chemical conversion of biomass, particularly from dedicated energy crops such as miscanthus and willow.

    —  The TSEC-BIOSYS Consortium[72] (BBSRC, EPSRC and NERC) coordinated by Imperial College providing authoritative and independent answers on technical, economic, environmental and social issues related to the development of bioenergy in the UK. Specific issues include the potential role of bioenergy in satisfying UK energy demand, the potential contribution of bioenergy to UK Government objectives, and the economic, social and environmental implications of large-scale bioenergy development. The project will integrate research findings from EPSRC SUPERGEN Bioenergy and Distributed Generation, EPSRC Sustainable Urban Environments (SUE), the cross council RELU programme, DEFRA bioenergy crop networks, Carbon Vision activities, as well as relevant information from EU and international bioenergy activities.

    —  UKERC Future Sources of Energy and Environmental Sustainability is looking at life cycle assessment, learning rates and input into whole system models.

    —  The Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) Programme funded by BBSRC, ESRC and NERC, with additional funding from SEERAD and Defra, includes biomass research. The project brings together a wide range of experts from various institutions, including BBSRC's Rothamsted Research and NERC's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, to study the social, economic and environmental implications of increased land use for energy crops. The aim is to provide an integrated, interdisciplinary scientific evaluation of the implications of land conversion to energy crops, focusing on short rotation coppice (SRC) willow and Miscanthus (elephant grass). The project has attracted additional funding from DEFRA. A second RELU project will start later this year to analyse the environmental risks and conduct cost-benefit analysis of anaerobic digestion in on-farm energy production.

    —  BBSRC's Capacity-building in Bioenergy Research Initiative, mentioned in the introduction, seeks to support a multidisciplinary bioenergy research centre, multidisciplinary programme grants with industrial collaboration, and bioenergy networks to build UK research capacity.

    —  BBSRC is also funding long-term research in its research institutes into the improvement of energy crops, and responsive mode research into aspects of plant and microbial science relevant to bioenergy, for example research into the microbial conversion of feedstocks to useful products including fuels.

    —    Two of NERC's collaborative centres, PML and SAMS, are conducting research into the significant potential for generating energy from marine algal biomass. Details are given in Annex D.

    —    BEGIN (Biomass for Energy Genetic Improvement Network). This network is funded by Defra but two of its three research programmes are led by BBSRC's Rothamsted Research. It aims to deliver the breeding programme and plant materials that will allow further improvement of willow for Short Rotation Coppice (SRC). This will be delivered through a targeted breeding programme which uses molecular markers, genetic mapping and genomics to generate optimal varieties of willow. Poplar genomics is also included. However, there is currently some uncertainty about the availability of continued funding for this activity.

    —    A recently announced ESRC-funded research project at Manchester University is comparing innovation processes, challenges and obstacles for transition to a bio-economy, with a particular focus on bioethanol in Brazil, the USA and Europe.

    —    NERC is funding a studentship at the University of Southampton examining the impacts of climate change on the availability of short-rotation-coppice poplar and willow, and one at the Scottish Agricultural College modelling scenarios of the future supply of crop types and forestry for the most efficient production of biofuels.

Ground-source heat pumps

  49.  This is one of the weakest areas of renewable energy research in the UK. The UK investigated its deep geothermal resources in the 1970s and 80s. BGS was involved in the research and development, which came to an end largely due to the low prices of competing energy sources, eg gas. Other countries have continued research and there are now a number of operating geothermal schemes in continental Europe in regions with similar sub-surface temperatures to the UK. The experience of these schemes can be used to reassess the potential for geothermal energy generation in the UK. The biggest challenges in the UK are public perception, industry adoption and market penetration. One of the few examples of larger scale application in the UK—is at CEH in Bangor at the new Environment Centre, Wales (see annex D).

Grid management

  50.  The large-scale use of renewables will involve connecting, controlling and distributing the electricity generated by thousands of small highly distributed facilities rather than the large centralised generating plant we currently have. This will require a radical redesign of the current distribution network and the control systems used to balance and control the load.

  51.  The principal projects supported in this area include:

    —    The SUPERGEN Highly Distributed Power Systems Consortium[73] is assessing the impact of smaller generators and incorporating these into the grid. This project is led by Strathclyde University.

    —    The SUPERGEN Future Network Technologies (FutureNet) Consortium[74] is making a major contribution to understanding how networks need to change so as to support and encourage renewable low carbon energy sources while providing the standards of service that customers expect. This Consortium is led by Imperial College London and the University of Strathclyde.

    —    UKERC's Intermittency report.[75]

Energy storage

  52.  Much progress has been made in developing capacitors, supercapacitors and battery technologies. The research challenges mostly relate to materials research. Whilst energy storage is not a renewable energy technology per se a good system of energy storage is critical for wide scale penetration of the energy market by renewables. This is because energy storage systems can buffer the fluctuating generation of renewable energy. Related to this are hydrogen, ethanol and formic acid. All are energy vectors and can act as energy storage systems and be used in fuel cells or direct electricity generation.

  53.  The Energy Storage Consortium[76] (SUPERGEN) is developing new materials to advance rechargeable lithium ion battery and supercapacitor technologies. This ability to store energy cheaply and efficiently is essential for any power grid that has a contribution of 15% of its energy from renewable sources due to their inherently intermittent nature. This Consortium is led by the Universities of Strathclyde and Surrey together with a number of industrial partners including, AEA Technology, Huntsman, Johnson Matthey, MAST Carbons and Rolls Royce.

  54.  BGS (NERC) provides advice on the geological feasibility of deploying underground storage technologies in the context of British energy and environmental goals, involving the potential of energy storage from renewable sources in the form of compressed air and hydrogen. Such energy storage could help to minimise the temporal mismatch between supply and demand by storing energy produced at times of low demand as compressed air and hydrogen and converting it back to electricity at times of peak demand. The two basic types of facility within the UK for the storage of renewable energies are salt caverns and lined rock caverns.

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

  55.  As indicated in paragraphs 15-19, the Research Councils recognise the importance of working with industry to transfer research knowledge, and have developed a number of productive research partnerships. Involvement of business and other stakeholder throughout research projects from their design to their completion is central to most of the Research Councils managed energy activities.

  56.  Some of the Research Councils are involved in commercialising the outputs of research conducted in their own research centres. However, there are currently no examples in the renewable energy technology area (other than of technologies developed for NERC centres' own use, eg by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), BGS,CEH, and POL—see Annex D).

  57.  Much work into the potential impact and economic viability of renewable energy is being supported. Within TSEC the "Managing Uncertainties" theme investigates the socio-economic challenges and implications of moving towards a sustainable energy economy; and the "Carbon Management" and "Renewable Energy" themes each support a consortium ("Carbon Capture and Storage" and TSEC-BIOSYS respectively). Additionally, UKERC has relevant cross-cutting themes: "Energy Systems and Modelling"; "Environmental Sustainability"; and "Materials for Advanced Energy Systems".

  58.  The NERC Programme "Quantifying and Understanding the Earth System" (QUEST) has agreed to fund a research project to start in late 2007 at Imperial College that will assess the potential of biomass energy solutions (along with avoided deforestation and forest carbon sinks) in the context of sustainability. This project includes socio-economic and biodiversity considerations as well as effectiveness in terms of the carbon cycle and will provide valuable data on the viability of bioenergy.

  59.  The STFC operates a Proof of Concept fund that is available for STFC researchers and their HEI collaborators wishing to take forward ideas to develop new and innovative products and devices. This scheme is available for all areas of STFC's research and development portfolio—indeed funding has recently been awarded to develop an online wind energy forecasting tool created by the STFC's Energy Research Unit.

  60.  Within the TSEC "Managing Uncertainties" theme the Beyond Nimbyism project addresses the issues of public acceptability, perception and engagement and how they affect technology development and diffusion. It seeks to examine a range of technologies which are expected to figure in the UK renewable energy profile to develop a sophisticated understanding of public responses to such technologies in different contexts.

  61.  ESRC has recently commissioned comparative research into the use of renewables demonstrations and trials in North America, Europe and Japan, to examine their effectiveness in terms of accelerating innovation, and the impact of external policy factors.

  62.  ESRC's recently completed Sustainable Technologies Programme included research examining progress in a range of renewable technologies, including microgeneration.[77] The issues covered included areas in which micro-generation (and household energy-saving investments) suffer from an "uneven playing field".

  63.  Under NERC's strategic priority, Sustainable Economies, researchers are investigating the environmental, economic and social impacts of renewable energy sources in terms of their complete generation cycles, including power source, infrastructure, and site impacts. For example:

    —    through collaborative work, POL is seeking to develop models that can demonstrate the impacts of establishing offshore renewable energy operations;

    —    the SAMS artificial reef programme has contributed to the understanding of artificial ecosystem creation and manipulation that will be an essential foundation for offshore wind farms, tidal barrages and wavepower mooring arrangements;

    —    Under the TSEC-BIOSYS and RELU-Biomass projects, CEH is looking specifically at the hydrological implications of and constraints facing bioenergy crops. Field studies of the implications of bioenergy crops on biodiversity have also been undertaken.

  64.  The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (funded by ESRC, EPSRC and NERC) is developing comprehensive and systems-level approaches to decarbonisation both within the UK and within an international framework, working from the level of national energy systems, to carbon-intensive sectors, and to the household level and personal behaviour. One research task is "Avoiding carbon lock-in by industrialising nations" which includes study of the mechanisms for technology transfer and the potential for technological "leap-frogging" of fossil fuelled electricity.

  65.  A number of NERC's research centres are employing renewable energy-generation technologies on their main sites or for field work in remote locations. Details are given in Annex D.

  66.  UKERC is identifying and developing road maps for a number of renewable energy systems in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders. Work on the learning rates for new technology is being undertaken to support modelling using the MARKAL whole system model and other integrated research projects. Learning rates are a key component of the rate of uptake and deployment of novel systems.

Other possible technologies for renewable energy-generation

  67.  Some other technologies have been mentioned above, eg alternatives to hydrogen for fuel cells. Two other areas of research with potential for renewable energy generation are mentioned below, as is some research into low-head hydro schemes.

  68.  There is interest in developing artificial devices for the capture of solar energy, based on the high conversion-efficiency of the light-harvesting complexes that form part of the photosynthetic machinery of plants.

  69.  Thermoelectric materials have the potential to contribute to renewable energy generation. Where there is a thermal gradient, some materials will support an induced electrical current, cf piezoelectric effect. EPSRC has a small portfolio (£1.1 million) of research in this area.

  70.  NERC's CEH is researching (in an interdisciplinary project funded by the Joule Centre) the potential for exploitation of low-head hydro schemes both within UK[78] and abroad. The National River Flow Archive[79] is a database that holds information on a representative set of gauging stations around Britain from which flow duration curves can be obtained for any stretch of water. Software packages (HydrA and Low Flows 2000) have been developed for use in Britain and abroad that provide interpretation and advice on the suitability of sites for different styles of turbine.

Research Councils UK

July 2007

55 Back

56 Back

57 Back

58 Back

59   S&I awards are made by EPSRC to build capacity in strategically important areas of academic research. Back

60 Back

61 Back

62 Back

63,com-docman/task,doc_download/gid,550/ Back

64 Back

65  Back

66 Back

67 Back

68 Back

69 Back

70 Back

71 Back

72 Back

73 Back

74 Back

75,com-docman/task,doc-download/gid,550/ Back

76 Back

77 Back

78 Back

79 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 19 June 2008