Memorandum from The Natural Environment
Research Council to the House of Commons Science and Technology
INQUIRY INTO RENEWABLE ENERGY-GENERATION
1. The Natural Environment Research Council
(NERC) is one of the UK's seven Research Councils. It funds and
carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the
environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental
scientists. Its three strategic research priority areas are: Earth's
life-support systems, climate change, and sustainable economies.
2. Details of NERC's Research and Collaborative
Centres are available at www.nerc.ac.uk.
3. NERC's comments are based on input from
the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), British Geological Survey
(BGS), Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), Plymouth Marine
Laboratory (PML), Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), Scottish
Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and Swindon Office staff.
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
4. NERC funds and carries out a wide range
of research related to renewable energy-generation technologies.
Much of the research is funded under the cross-Council Energy
Programme, in particular the Towards a Sustainable Energy Economy
(TSEC) programme. This programme includes support for the UK Energy
Research Centre (UKERC). NERC leads the Research Councils' administration
and oversight of TSEC and of UKERC, whose progress is monitored
by twice-yearly meetings of a Supervisory Board.
5. The TSEC Programme
(funded by, EPSRC, ESRC, NERC, with contribution from BBSRC and
also involving STFC) was launched following provision of additional
funding in the 2002 Spending Review. The programme was designed
to adopt a multidisciplinary, whole-systems approach to energy
research. The earmarked budget for TSEC was £20 million of
core funding plus £8 million for renewables previously earmarked
following the Performance and Innovation Unit Review of Energy
R&D in 2001. TSEC is a broad-based programme of research which
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. In the event, in order to support a number
of high-quality projects that could not otherwise have been supported,
the TSEC budget was augmented to a total of £36.5 million,
the additional funding being drawn from Research Council baseline
funding and from the additional £30 million funding for energy
announced under the 2004 Spending Review. The TSEC budget was
allocated through five funding streams: establishment of the UK
Energy Research Centre (UKERC); Managing New Uncertainties; Keeping
the Nuclear Option Open; Renewable Energy; and Carbon Management.
One of the TSEC awards is the TSEC-BIOSYS consortium: "A
whole systems approach to bioenergy demand and supply in the UK".
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
6. BGS, PML, POL and SAMS conduct research
relevant to the siting and development of offshore wind turbines.
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. PML is conducting research as part of the
EU project EMPAFISH into the ecological, fisheries and economic
benefits of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in order to develop
operational management tools to support decisions on the design
of MPAs. This research will be of benefit when considering the
development and siting of offshore wind turbines. POL carried
out X-band radar observations in connection with the Scroby Sands
7. NERC is also funding a CASE studentship
at the University of Sheffield (co-supervised by POL) into the
impact of offshore wind turbines on the accuracy and availability
of high-frequency radar ocean surface measurements.
8. CEH researched terrestrial wind power
in the 1980s and 1990s, and has recently carried out impact assessments
of offshore installations.
9. NERC-funded research at NOCS and POL
is particularly relevant. For example, NOCS 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 nearshore wave measuringresearch which could
underpin the development of offshore wave power technology.
10. In addition, the Environmental Mathematics
and Statistics programme included a grant for research at Sheffield
University into waves on shallow coastal waters, which have implications
for offshore engineering including renewable energy-generation
11. BGS has developed seabed drilling technology
for site investigation work in areas with high tidal currents,
and a successful project was recently completed off Orkney. The
BGS seabed-mapping programme is based on collecting new data and
integrating this with existing third party data to produce better
understanding of the seabed, seabed sediments, and sediment movement.
These data are critical to understanding the impacts of tidal
stream and barrage developments. The data underpin site investigation
and is a key contribution to the information required to underpin
marine spatial planning; it is directly relevant to many marine
developments, including all marine renewables, extraction of aggregates
and environmental and conservation issues. BGS has recently undertaken
mapping surveys in the East English Channel, the Bristol Channel,
the Forth, the Clyde, and near Ullapool. BGS has several joint
PhD projects on marine geohazards (landslides and tsunamis) and
geodiversity and marine habitats.
12. NERC has been funding research at SAMS
on the physics of tidal jets in fjords.
This is being used to assess the potential of tidal barrages in
sea loch systems.
13. POL has been involved in producing the
DTI Renewable Energy Atlas
(tidal stream energy) by providing output from state-of-the-art
high-resolution tidal models.
The main tidal resource parameters included in the Atlas are tidal
range, tidal flows and annual tidal power estimates. POL is currently
providing new data to update the Atlas.
14. POL is involved with a proposal for
work with MerseyBasin
called the Mersey Observatory in which one element proposed is
a marine renewable energy generator (mini-barrage, or in-situ
turbine) linked into the national grid.
15. POL (with Liverpool University) is involved
in a project funded by the NW Development Agency and the Joule
Centre (a consortium of North West universities and businesses)
to investigate the tidal power potential of the eastern Irish
Sea. This focuses mainly on the generation of power from tidal
barrages in the estuaries of the Dee, Mersey, Ribble, Solway and
Morecambe Bay, demonstrating how continuous power generation may
be achieved by linking estuaries with different tidal phases.
Other tidal power technologies like free-stream turbines and man-made
lagoons will also be examined. Early estimates suggest that there
is potential to meet at least half of the region's electricity
needs. The study will also examine the impact of a combined tidal
power scheme on the physical and biological environment of Liverpool
Bay via water quality and habitats. Aside from generating energy
from the tides, the barrages could be used to site further wind
or wave power devices, and there would be further potential benefits
like flood protection, transport and leisure amenities.
16. Under the TSEC Programme, NERC is co-funding
the BIOSYS Consortium,
coordinated by Imperial College London. The project brings together
a large partnership with diverse expertise in bioenergy, ranging
from fundamental molecular plant biology through to greenhouse
gas characterisation through to social and policy implications.
17. NERC's Quantifying and Understanding
the Earth System (QUEST) programme has agreed to fund a research
project starting in 20078 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.
18. A working group coordinated by the QUEST
core team and co-sponsored by Volkswagen has also just begun,
and over the coming year will assess how sustainability criteria
influence bioenergy potential.
19. NERC is also 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 a studentship at the Scottish Agricultural College
modelling scenarios of the future supply of crop types and forestry
for the most efficient production of biofuels.
20. CEH has identified two specific tasks
related to bioenergy under the Land Use Change heading in its
Sustainable Monitoring and Management of Land Resources theme:
21. Initial assessments of the UK capacity
for renewable energy production;
22. Assessment of biofuel crop impacts on
23. In addition, much of CEH's other work
is relevant to energy (for example carbon inventory & land
pathways & impacts of atmospheric emissions,
hydrological constraints on biofuel crops
and trends & drivers of change among taxa).
24. CEH is also involved in research into
development of conversion processes looking at the production
of bioethanol from green waste in the Intensified Integrated Bio-refinery
funded by EPSRC.
25. Given the pressure on terrestrial sources
of biomass from the increasing demand for food by a burgeoning
world population, it is improbable that such sources can meet
more than a tiny proportion of demand. The world's oceans cover
over 70% of the earth's surface and are extremely productive.
26. Microalgae have very high growth rates,
utilise a large fraction of incident solar energy (up to 10% can
be fixed into biomass) and can grow in conditions that are not
favourable for terrestrial biomass growth. Many taxa can produce
high levels of oils potentially suitable for use as biodiesels.
Some estimates suggest the yield of oil from algae is over 200
times the yield from the best-performing terrestrial plant oils.
More realistically, microalgae yield can vary from 20-30 times
that of temperate oil crops.
27. Growing seaweed biomass does not compete
with land based agriculture for resources and the productivity
of seaweeds is equal to or greater than that of the most productive
terrestrial crops. Seaweeds do not contain lignin-cellulose complexes
that are limiting in the production of biofuels from terrestrial
28. Anaerobic digestion of seaweed biomass
is equal to or more efficient than using terrestrial biomass.
29. NERC is funding
R&D into Photobioreactor (PBR) Technology by PML Applications,
the Trading subsidiary of PML. This research is primarily focussed
on the growing selected microalgae on a large scale for bioactives.
However PBR technology is a platform technology with many applications.
The drive towards renewable energies has resulted in an increase
in world-wide activity using PBR Technology to grow microalgae
for biofuels. Currently most of this world-wide research is focussed
on biodiesel, however there are possibilities in terms of biogas
(methane, hydrogen and oxygen). Growing microalgae on a large
scale using PBR Technology can also be used to capture waste emission
30. Currently the UK lags behind the rest
of the world in terms of algal biotechnology and PBR technology.
This needs to be addressed especially since the UK has a strong
base in understanding the physiology and biochemistry of microalgae,
and because microalgae have much higher productivities and yields
than land plants.
31. SAMS is participating in EPSRC's renewed
SUPERGEN Bioenergy programme,
in a consortium investigating the potential of marine biomass
to UK energy, fuels and chemicals. It has also been commissioned
by The Crown Estate to undertake a feasibility study into the
use of marine biomass for biofuel and to recommend avenues for
32. The Blue Energy Group at SAMS is concerned
to develop four separate themes relating to marine renewable energy;
the first two are detailed here, the third and fourth in the section
(i) Biodiesels: SAMS's capability includes:
the screening of strains of microalgae held at the Culture Collection
of Algae and Protozoa,
the largest protistan biological records centre in Europe, for
oil production using conventional gas chromatographic (GC) and
high-throughput flow-cytometric approaches; selection and characterising
of suitable production strains using conventional and molecular
DNA-chip technology; process and product optimisation by multivariate
trials involving several parameters identified as potentially
enhancing lipid biosynthesis and cellular productivity; scale
up and process optimisation; knowledge transfer (KT) and intellectual
property (IP) protection.
(ii) Methane and Bioethanol: SAMS is utilising
its expertise in the biology and culture of seaweeds to investigate
the production or harvest of macroalgae as feedstock for biofuel
production. Characteristics of seaweeds vary among species and
over time, environmental conditions etc. Such variation impacts
on the utility of seaweeds as biofuel feedstock. SAMS is active
in species selection and the manipulation of seaweed chemistry
by varying culture conditions, harvest time and post-harvest treatments
so as to optimise the output from anaerobic digestion of macroalgal
biomass. SAMS is also interested in using its track record in
isolating novel microbial strains for industrial applications
to find novel bacteria for the production of ethanol from seaweed
Ground source heat pumps and geothermal
33. 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 utilised to
reassess the potential for geothermal energy generation in the
UK. The UK should also consider supporting the Iceland Deep Drilling
Project, as the UK could become an importer of green electricity
through a cable interconnector.
34. BGS 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
35. PML undertakes research to address issues
related to the impacts of leakage from the geological storage
of CO2. PML has given evidence to OSPAR (Convention for the Protection
of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) and the
London Convention during consideration of the legality of carbon
capture and storage (CCS). PML has also contributed to the UK
Energy Research Council and the UK Consortium on Carbon Capture
and Storage. PML has also interacted with key stakeholders via
a Reference User Group to provide an effective mechanism of delivering
its CCS related science to the heart of government departments,
industry, agencies and NGOs. PML's modelling expertise is heavily
engaged in this research and its models represent the first step
towards a predictive capability to assess the ecosystem consequences
of CO2 leakage from geological storage sites.
The feasibility, costs, timescales and progress
in commercialising renewable technologies as well as their reliability
and associated carbon footprints
36. In addition to funding underpinning
science, NERC runs a number of funding schemes that encourage
collaboration with industrysome examples appear above.
NERC also helps its research centres to commercialise research
outputs where appropriate, and provides some support for early-stage
(pre-) commercialisation activity by researchers whose science
was funded by NERC, eg the Business Plan Competition and the Follow-on-Fund.
37. NERC has funded
the development of a database and software tool for offshore wind
energy resources. A key component of the work is to develop the
ability to better retrieve wind field data from satellite earth
observation technology. The resulting product is expected to be
a statistically significant information service tailored to the
offshore environment providing wind yield variations as well as
average expected supply.
38. CEH has industrial links through projects
such as the Intensified Integrated Bio-refinery project
and hydro-power assessment software.
CEH Lancaster leads the Centre for Sustainable Energy
at the Lancaster Environment Centre and works with commercial
companies in the incubation unit, exchanging skills and information
and seeking joint funding for scientific research.
Sustainability and societal aspects of renewable
39. Under NERC's strategic priority 3 (Sustainable
Economies), NERC-funded 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.
This on-going programme also includes research into the underlying
policy issues and has driven forward policy with such regulators
as The Crown Estate and Fisheries Research Services, Aberdeen;
the TSEC-BIOSYS project is examining
the social and policy implications of large-scale bioenergy deployment
in the UK.
The cross-Council Rural Economy and
Land Use (RELU)
programme Biomass project is also looking at the impacts of increased
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
CEH's internationally renowned monitoring
schemes (such as Countryside Survey
and National River Flow Archive)
identify changes in habitats and ecosystems in response to altered
management such as the introduction of bioenergy crop cultivation.
CEH is also modelling the impact of offshore wind turbines on
scoters and other bird populations.
40. A studentship at Imperial College London
is being funded to examine the potential for international bioenergy
trade and its implications for the UK, and a studentship at Southampton
is focussing on the implications for biodiversity of short-rotation
41. NERC is also funding three studentships
in "Renewable Energy: Technology and Sustainability"
at the University of Reading, which are examining approaches to
minimising the negative impacts of energy production and consumption
on the environment and society.
42. CEH's research is attempting to take
a whole-systems approach to energy looking at the supply chain
and conversion processes of all UK power generation (fossil, nuclear
and renewable) along with the impact of its use. CEH leads the
Environmental Sustainability (ES) theme in the UK Energy Research
This has included collaborative work to map the research landscape
to identify knowledge gaps requiring research.
43. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, CEH
(and the institutes from which it was formed) studied the ecological
impacts for barrage schemes on major estuaries in the UK with
studies including the Severn/Cardiff Bay and Morecambe Bay. Interest
in barrage schemes has begun to grow again, and studies of coastal
habitats (eg saltmarsh)
and wading birds
have developed models that can be applied to analyse potential
44. CEH is looking at the barriers to deployment
of low-head hydro schemes in the northwest of England. It is working
with a number of departments (across disciplines) at Lancaster
University to identify and mitigate the hurdles which prevent
small landowners from using hydro schemes and encourage uptake
in the region. The research has an academic core, identifying
issues, modelling and validating data and advising on interpretation,
but the end product will be a web based tool for public use.
45. The third and fourth concerns of the
Blue Energy Group at SAMS are (iii) the environmental impacts
of offshore engineering-based renewable technologies; and (iv)
policy, marine governance, legal and social impacts of offshore
engineering-based renewable technologies:
(iii) As indicated above, SAMS has skills
and experience in assessing and modelling impacts of a wide range
of inshore and offshore developments including breakwaters, trawling,
oil exploration drilling, sewage dumping, sewage outfalls, marine
fish farming and shellfish farming, mine tailings disposal and
radioactive contamination. This expertise all relates to the development
of sustainable and environmentally sensitive offshore power generation
and SAMS can deliver environmental information (predictions and
measurements) of construction and operational impacts particularly
on benthos, sensitive habitats, and acoustic impacts on marine
animals and fish.
(iv) SAMS undertakes research into national
government and international marine governance measures including
impacts on fishing activities and agreements, conservation and
management methods and their policing and contravention, social
impacts of marine activity and international legal frameworks
for the conservation of living marine resources.
46. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change
Research 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.
is engaged in a number of projects (funded by the EU) examining
the potential impact of offshore renewables, including aerial
surveys of water birds in strategic windfarm areas; the development
of generic guidance for sediment transport monitoring programmes;
methodology for assessing marine navigation safety risks of offshore
windfarms. Other work relevant to marine renewables funded by
DTI includes: evaluating the impacts of offshore renewables on
marine biodiversity, including the potential for habitat enhancement/restoration
through use of No-Take Zones or other management measures; identifying
the potential for aquaculture, including use of shellfish models
to assess carrying capacity; assessment of the impacts of turbines
and other structures on coastal processes, including site-based
hydrodynamic and sediment transport modelling studies; and integration
of socio-economic aspects into developmental appraisal.
48. SAMS is hosting a Masters (by research)
student funded by the European Social Fund to investigate whether
the noise produced by underwater tidal-energy devices is adequate
for marine mammals to detect and then avoid colliding with them.
Utilisation of renewable energy technologies by
NERC and its RCCs
49. A number of NERC's RCCs employ renewable
energy technologies, some of which may be able to serve as demonstration
50. BAS has invested in utilising wind and
solar power in remote locations in the Antarctic for scientific
instrumentation. In 2001-02 it developed a power system for the
remote SODAR and seven Low Power Magnetometers. Other sustainable
solutions for the bases and the Cambridge site are being investigated.
51. BGS has installed a wind turbine at
its Keyworth site, which will generate up to 5% of site electricity.
52. CEH Bangor is housed in the new Environment
Centre Wales building, which has a large atrium covered in photovoltaics
to generate electricity, and a ground source heat pump to drive
the underfloor heating and cooling system. The latter incorporates
150 m boreholes and uses the difference between ground and air
temperature in winter to provide heating and in summer to provide
53. Ground source heat pumps are also being
installed at CEH Wallingford. CEH Lancaster is heated by Lancaster
University's Combined Heat and Power system (CHP), and the university
has purchased land with the intention of growing material to feed
the generator. The Lancaster Environment Centre (LECie
CEH and Lancaster University) is intending to reduce its carbon
footprint by better managing its energy and making improvements
which may include the installation of wind turbines and photovoltaic
systems to act as demonstrators for the commercial firms working
with LEC in its incubator unit.
54. The CEH vehicle fleet is using hybrid
(13) and dual fuel (21) technologies.
55. CEH uses wind and solar power to power
some remote field equipment, generally at around 30W.
56. POL uses solar panels on wave buoys
and has a part-share in a wind turbine located on Hilbre Island,
providing power to POL's Coastal Observatory monitoring system.
57. NERC's head office will shortly be installing
photovoltaic panels to contribute to the office electricity supply.
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
58. NERC is one of the Research Councils
through which the Government, via the Office of Science and Innovation
in the DTI, funds research into renewable energy technologies.
Funding through the Research Councils remains substantial, although
the Government is now also funding renewables research through
the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), a partnership between
the Government, Research Councils and industry. NERC and the other
Research Councils that participate in the cross-Council Energy
Programme were involved in discussions on developing the ETI,
and aim to work closely with it, led by EPSRC. The ETI aims to
stimulate industrial collaboration in energy science and engineering
in the UK; its focus will be on applied research and development
and some small-scale demonstration where appropriate, while the
Research Councils' work remains more focused towards earlier-stage
59. Funding for research in renewables is
also coming from regional sources through the Regional Development
Agencies (RDA). An example is the Joule Centre
sponsored by the North West Development Agency which is funding
research throughout northwest England. A requirement for funding
through Joule is a demonstration of co-funding from other sources
Other possible technologies for renewable energy-generation
60. CEH is researching the potential for
exploitation of low-head hydro schemes both within UK
and abroad. The National River Flow Archive
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.
61. The CEH Wallingford Hydrological Risks
and Resources team is involved in studies looking at high-head
hydro (dam) schemes for water resource management and hydro power
(eg Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique)
80 The Board comprises Research Council officers
and Research Council independent advisors and DTI/OSI liaison
officers, with UKERC Directors in attendance. Back
POL Annual Report 2004-05 Back
www.ceh.ac uk/sections/bef/documents/Airpollutionandvegetation.pdf Back
Under the Small-Business Research Initiative Back
Under the Small Business Research Initiative Back
Kaiser, M J, Caldow, R W G , Sutherland, W J, Elliot, A, Stillman,
R A, Showler, D, Galanidi, M, & Rees, E I S (2005) Predicting
the displacement of common scoter Melanita nigra from benthic
feeding areas due to offshore windfarms. 13pp. Back