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

Memorandum 60

Submission from the Institute of Physics (IOP)


  The Institute supports the implementation of present renewable electricity generating plant and also of continued R&D into new and improved renewable electricity-generation technologies. As well as being low carbon energy sources, renewables have a number of advantages. They enhance diversity in energy supply markets, secure long-term sustainable energy supplies, reduce dependency on imported energy supplies, and reduce emissions of local air pollutants. Their dominant use is for grid connected electricity, but in conjunction with storage they can contribute to stand-alone off-grid systems. Hence, renewables are an essential part of present and future electricity generation in the UK.

  The Institute notes the government's commitment to see renewables grow as a proportion of the UK's electricity supplies to 10% by 2010, with an aspiration for 20% by 2020. According to the 2007 Energy White Paper, Meeting the Energy Challenge[231], around 4% of the UK's electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2006, with the percentage contribution gradually increasing.

  The Institute believes that these targets represent significant challenges, especially the 2010 target, when considering present market conditions and planning consents, which are significant barriers to exploitation. However, analyses carried out to support the 2003 Energy White Paper, Our energy future: creating a low carbon economy,[232] suggested that about a third of electricity could be supplied by renewables by 2040, although this could be substantially more if some of the other options for low carbon energy supply were not adopted. For example, renewables could supply up to two thirds of electricity demand if no new nuclear plants were built and carbon capture and storage for fossil fuel-fired plants were not implemented. The modelling work suggested that wind, in particular offshore wind, and biomass would account for a significant proportion of renewable electricity generation. In addition, technologies with a higher cost but sizable potential resource, such as photovoltaics, could also contribute significantly.


  In October 2005, the Institute published its report, The Role of Physics in Renewable Energy RD&D,[233] which was prepared by Future Energy Solutions, AEA Technology Environment. The report set out the challenges facing renewables, the important role of research, development and demonstration (RD&D) in meeting this challenge, and areas where physicists contribute to this RD&D.

  Section 3 of the report (pages 6-20), highlights in detail the progress made in a number of key technologies, including photovoltaics, marine energy, fuel cells, hydrogen infrastructure, electricity transmission and distribution, energy storage, as well as mature technologies. The report provides a robust review of these technologies, citing case studies from UK university departments and offering commentary on the barriers to progression towards RD&D.

  According to the report, the two key areas where the UK has an opportunity to take a lead on are:

    —  the new generation of photovoltaic technologies, although this would require a strong RD&D effort; and

    —  research into wave and tidal energy, where there are a number of universities with significant research capability.

  Ensuring that these RD&D strengths are developed could bring substantial benefits to the UK, both in terms of enabling deployment of these technologies, with subsequent environmental benefits in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and in terms of export earnings as technologies are deployed globally. This will require RD&D support and the availability of suitably qualified individuals to work in these areas.


  The Institute's report revealed that an important area where physicists are contributing to RD&D is in photovoltaics, where they are carrying out much of the fundamental research required to develop novel types of cell that may result in step changes in the cost of photovoltaic generation. Photovoltaics can readily be adapted to suit the diffuse light conditions as evidenced by their widespread use in Germany. There is a strong research effort in the UK but to benefit fully from this vitally important technology, investment in the underpinning science needs to improve considerably.

  Currently, over 95% of photovoltaic modules are made of silicon in its various forms, of which about 5% is non-crystalline silicon (such as amorphous silicon). They convert sunlight into electricity with an efficiency ranging between 13 to 17%.The maximum potential efficiency is only about 25% because only the light with photons of the right energy to generate the charge carriers (the bandgap) is absorbed.

  The vast majority of solar cells on the market today are so-called "first-generation" solar cells made from monocrystalline silicon. However, they are expensive to produce because of the high costs of purifying, crystallizing and sawing electronic-grade crystalline silicon, which is rather fragile and in short supply.

  Furthermore, the POSTnote, Carbon footprint of electricity generation,[234] reported that, "The silicon required for photovoltaic modules is extracted from quartz sand at high temperatures, which is the most energy intensive phase of module production, accounting for 60% of the total energy requirement. However, future reductions in the carbon footprint of photovoltaic cells are expected to be achieved in thin film technologies which use thinner layers of silicon, and with the development new semi-conducting materials (organic cells and nano-rods) which are less energy intensive".

  As detailed in the Institute's report, most physicists are now working on "second-generation" solar cells, which are near market, with the aim of reducing costs by using thin films of crystalline silicon and other semiconductors, such as amorphous silicon, gallium arsenide, copper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride, which are mounted on glass substrates. For the future, physicists are also working on "third-generation" solar cells, such as dye-sensitised photochemical, and quantum/nanotechnology solar cells, which could potentially yield extremely high efficiencies and be as cheap as thin-film devices.

  However, the article, "Bright outlook for solar cells", published in the July 2007 issue of the Institute's membership magazine Physics World,[235] whilst commenting on how future research efforts could transform solar cells from niche products to devices that provide a significant fraction of the world's energy, offers some caution by reporting that building cheap and efficient cheap solar cells does not guarantee that solar power will become a major part of the world's energy mix. Even if these devices can be converted into high-performance commercial products, there remains the problem of actually building and installing the enormous number of panels that would be required. Mankind currently consumes energy at a rate of 13 terawatts, and many experts predict that population growth and economic expansion will increase this figure to around 45 terawatts by 2050. Generating 20 terawatts of that with panels that are around 10% efficient would, according to the 2005 report, Basic Research Needs for Solar Energy Utilization,[236] sponsored by the US Department of Energy, mean installing such panels over 0.16% of the Earth's land surface.

  Nonetheless, commercial forces around the world are participating in and helping to maintain an expansion in photovoltaic installations, for example, with building-integrated photovoltaics. In the UK approximately two thirds of electricity is consumed in residential, public and commercial buildings. At least seven times the solar radiant energy falls on those buildings as the electricity consumed inside. This means that more than three times the current nuclear power contribution could be generated by covering all roof areas and south-facing walls with first and second generation solar cells which are around 13% efficient. Furthermore, as third generation solar cells are 2-3 times more efficient than first and second generation solar cells, smart windows could use transparent lenses as blinds to generate electricity and reduce air-conditioning and interior illumination demand.

  Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is in storing solar electricity, given that the Sun does not shine all the time. Solar energy could be used to pump water up hill when that energy is not needed and the gravitational potential is then discharged when the energy is required (technology that is already used at the Dinorwig Power Station to respond flexibly to rapid changes in demand). It is also possible that developments in batteries or flywheels might help solve this problem, while solar electricity could be used to split water and produce hydrogen.

  Given the possibility that solar power is the only source capable of providing the amounts of electricity that will be demanded by the world's consumers by around 2040 without excessive carbon emissions or limited abundance of fuel, it is imperative that the government removes any remaining barriers to the realisation of this technology.


  Realising the large potential benefits that renewable and other advanced technologies, such as fuel cells, could make to a low carbon economy requires a number of technical, economic, institutional and social constraints to be overcome. The Institute notes that there are a number of key challenges that renewables have to overcome, which includes the limits of support available from the Renewables Obligation.

  The Institute notes that the feed-in tariff system has allowed a number of European countries, such as Germany, to install significantly more renewables capacity than the UK at lower cost; these countries also manufacture photovoltaics at a significant level. The feed-in tariff system guarantees a price for renewable electricity fed back into the grid. In fact, in Germany there has been a dramatic rise in photovoltaic installations as the feed-in tariff system reduces and the market takes over. The UK government is opposed to feed-in tariffs. The 2007 Energy White Paper briefly mentions that other European countries have introduced such schemes but dismisses them by stating that it was, " . . . hard to draw firm conclusions as to the effectiveness of these mechanisms . . .". This ignores the evidence of Germany's lead in the installation of wind and photovoltaics. In the UK, the Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROC) method has clearly failed in comparison with the feed-in tariff system. Therefore, it is vital that the effectiveness of the ROC system is critically reviewed, the reasons for its relatively poor performance established and a new and better system put in its place as soon as possible.

  Other barriers to the deployment of renewables, as highlighted in the Institute's report, include:


  The maturity of renewable technologies varies considerably. While several are commercially proven, others are still at a pre-commercial stage, and some still require quite fundamental R&D.


  In the UK, at current gas prices, without market incentives even mature technologies are not yet competitive with existing gas-fired combined cycle gas turbine plants, although in the medium term (2020) some technologies (eg onshore and offshore wind) could be. Technologies such as photovoltaics are unlikely to be cost-competitive with centralised generation unless a step change in cost-effectiveness is achieved by the new types of solar cells currently under development. They may, however, become competitive in remote off-grid locations in conjunction with storage, where the cost of other stand-alone systems, such as diesel generators, is high. It is also worth noting that as governments seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the emissions will acquire an economic "cost".


  Most renewable technologies, for example, wind power, are variable in output, since they follow the variability of their resource in the environment. The Institute notes that demand is also variable, so that some generating plant has to be kept on standby at all times to meet short-term increases in demand. The present grid-connected system could cope with a very significant contribution of wind power (perhaps 25% of annual demand) without lowering present standards for meeting peak demand. However, this would still require the present fleet of conventional power stations to be available to meet peak demands when necessary. Much larger contributions of wind power would certainly require, in addition, the development of new storage technologies and/or online load management.

Distributed nature

  An individual renewable plant is generally small in scale compared with conventional power stations (typically a gigawatt or so). Therefore, the present network and control systems are able to absorb their power without significant adjustment. Nevertheless, in certain regions, the aggregate renewable power output may be comparable with that from conventional power stations. Here, there will need to be some reconfiguring of the grid or distribution systems. Where major renewable sources are remote from areas of major consumption (eg in remote parts of Scotland), new or increased grid infrastructure will be necessary to transport the power to the load centres.

Social and institutional constraints

  Issues which may hamper development include public acceptability, planning constraints and institutional barriers. For example, lack of clarity over planning consents, permitting of plants, skills issues, and investment regimes. While most renewables are environmentally benign, in that emissions of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants are typically very small (even allowing for their manufacture), they do have a number of other local environmental impacts.

  The Severn barrage plan is a good example of the real social, environmental and political problems encountered in adopting many renewable technologies. The plan to build a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary to produce electricity is, according to the National Assembly for Wales, potentially the largest single renewable source in the UK, which could generate at least 5% of the UK's electricity. However, the plan has received much opposition from environmental pressure groups that claim the barrage could cause irreversible damage to local wildlife.[237]


  A significant problem facing renewable and other low carbon generating technologies is that following the liberalisation of the UK energy market, the current price of electricity is so low that it is not economically viable to develop and introduce new generating technologies to the market, unless they can be developed at a low cost and can provide electricity predictably at competitive wholesale prices.

  The solution to date has been to have UK government incentives for RD&D. Renewables have benefited from these and support must continue to stimulate investment for pilot and full-scale demonstrations of technologies that are sufficiently mature for near-term deployment. Research into technologies for mid-term deployment and "blue sky" development is best undertaken within universities, encouraged and supported by current funding mechanisms operating within a strategic framework that takes due account of national priorities and policies.

  Investment is also required in the development of whole-lifecycle financial models, including full acquisition, operating, distribution, disposal/recycling and environmental costs, for all of the technologies under consideration. Models are also required to predict how significant power levels generated from renewables might change the characteristics of the transmission network planning and operation.

  The Institute's report revealed that renewables RD&D is funded in the UK through a number of routes, the main ones supported by the government and the public sector, together with EU funding. In addition, there is industry funded RD&D, and the commercial deployment of renewables supported by the Renewables Obligation. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee suggested in its report, The practicalities of developing renewable energy,[238] that the level of funding for RD&D is not sufficient if the UK is to meet its renewables targets. While UK expenditure has increased in recent years (from $37 million in 2004 to $68 million in 2005), it is still lower than in some other leading European countries, such as Germany ($115 million in 2005), according to data from the International Energy Agency;[239] US expenditure on renewables RD&D was $255 million in 2005.

  A DTI/Carbon Trust review[240] found that there appears to be a funding gap in moving renewables to the pre-commercial stage, and from the pre-commercial to the supported commercial stage. The review also considered that the current landscape for renewables funding is complex, which suggests that a clearer overall strategy for UK RD&D in both renewable and other new technologies, together with a clearer map of RD&D funding and clearer demarcation of the roles of different funding bodies could be useful. This could be a key activity for the UK Energy Research Centre to undertake.

  Renewables seem to have developed a "low cost" view of their implementation, which will not drive the actual costs of developing electricity sources on the scale needed. There is no clear route to provide a large proportion of the UK's electricity needs by this method. Photovoltaics, for instance, are certainly more appropriate for local power supplies and the concept of using them for large central `power stations' is difficult to support.


  The Institute's report noted that studies which examined the renewables supply chain have reported that several technology and project developers have found a lack of necessary skills in the UK—both general technical skills and also more specialist skills[241], [242]. Developers have remedied this either through in-house training or by recruiting internationally.

  Hence, encouraging physicists, and indeed other scientists and engineers, to consider a career in renewables, could help to plug the skills gap. One option would be to raise awareness of and interest in the physics element in the development of these technologies. This could be achieved by promoting the inclusion of relevant examples on undergraduate physics courses, or even on A-level courses. Another option would be to raise awareness of opportunities for physicists in these areas in careers advice material for physicists, at both graduate and postgraduate level, and in advice provided for mid-career changes.

  There is also concern regarding the shortage of opportunities at postgraduate level for physicists wishing to specialise in these areas. There are a few MSc courses in renewable technologies and fuel cells, but these are, by their very nature, multidisciplinary, and obtaining funding or training bursaries for such courses can be difficult. There are also few PhD research opportunities, again partly due to the difficulty of obtaining funding for interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research topics. A more flexible approach from funding bodies may be required.

January 2008

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240   Renewables Innovation Review, DTI/Carbon Trust, 2004. Back

241   Mott MacDonald 2004 "Renewable energy supply chain analysis", DTI. Back

242   ICCEPT & E4Tech Consulting 2004 "The UK innovation systems for new and renewable energy technologies". A report for the DTI. Back

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