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

Annex D

Memorandum from The Natural Environment Research Council to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee


  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

  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[80].

  5.  The TSEC Programme[81] (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 industry.


  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 wind farm.

  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 measuring—research 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 structures.


  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[82]. 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[83] (tidal stream energy) by providing output from state-of-the-art high-resolution tidal models[84]. 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[85] 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[86], 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[87]:

  21.  Initial assessments of the UK capacity for renewable energy production;

  22.  Assessment of biofuel crop impacts on biodiversity.

  23.  In addition, much of CEH's other work is relevant to energy (for example carbon inventory & land use change[88], pathways & impacts of atmospheric emissions[89], hydrological constraints on biofuel crops[90] 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 project[91] 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 landmass.

  28.  Anaerobic digestion of seaweed biomass is equal to or more efficient than using terrestrial biomass.

  29.  NERC is funding[92] 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 CO2.

  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[93], 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 further research.

  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 on feasibility.

    (i)  Biodiesels: SAMS's capability includes: the screening of strains of microalgae held at the Culture Collection of Algae and Protozoa[94], 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 derived sugars.

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.

Energy storage

  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 caverns.

  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 industry—some 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[95] 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[96] and hydro-power assessment software[97]. CEH Lancaster leads the Centre for Sustainable Energy[98] 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 energy technologies

  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)[99] programme Biomass project is also looking at the impacts of increased biofuel use.

    —  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.

    —  CEH's internationally renowned monitoring schemes (such as Countryside Survey[100] and National River Flow Archive[101]) 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[102].

  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 coppice.

  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 Centre (UKERC)[103]. This has included collaborative work to map the research landscape to identify knowledge gaps requiring research[104].

  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[105]) and wading birds[106] have developed models that can be applied to analyse potential impacts.

  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.

  47.  PML[107] 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[108].

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 projects.


  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 cooling.

  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 (LEC—ie 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.

Swindon Office

  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 development

  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 research.

  59.  Funding for research in renewables is also coming from regional sources through the Regional Development Agencies (RDA). An example is the Joule Centre[109] 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 (usually industrial).

Other possible technologies for renewable energy-generation

Hydro power

  60.  CEH is researching the potential for exploitation of low-head hydro schemes both within UK[110] and abroad. The National River Flow Archive[111] 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)[112]

80   The Board comprises Research Council officers and Research Council independent advisors and DTI/OSI liaison officers, with UKERC Directors in attendance. Back

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84   POL Annual Report 2004-05 Back

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92   Under the Small-Business Research Initiative Back

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102   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

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