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

Memorandum 67

Submission from Warwick Institute for Sustainable Energy and Resources, University of Warwick


  1.  The University of Warwick has recently established a multidisciplinary research institute, across campus, which focuses directly on the area of renewable energy and energy efficiency, called WISER (Warwick Institute for Sustainable Energy Research). The main aim is to bring together the wealth of energy related activity from across the University and to bring new academics into the field. The range of expertise includes all areas of engineering, fundamental sciences, business, economics and social sciences. We believe that the challenge of delivering a sustainable energy supply from renewable sources is a crucial long term issue that must have allocated considerable resources (both intellectual and financial) if we are to develop appropriate long term technological solutions and societal vision. We also realise that radical new ideas and the necessary step changes in technology will arise at the interfaces between traditional disciplines and see this to be a great strength of WISER. There is probably no greater challenge to maintaining our way of life than developing these new technologies, and reaping the rewards in producing a new manufacturing revolution.

The current state of UK research and development in, and the deployment of, renewable electricity-generation technologies

  2.  The UK has some world leading companies in the renewable energy area. However, generally speaking, the UK is trailing our international counterparts in many areas with a much smaller level of investment at all levels of research and development and the deployment of technology. The current large investment in wind power being made in the UK, relies on much of the technology being imported from countries where, it has long been realised that there is a real economic and social need for renewable energy technologies as well as a massive business opportunity. Taking photovoltaics as an example, the UK is world leading in some of the 3rd generation technologies which offer a tremendous investment opportunity which, if made, could place the UK in a world leading position.

  3.  One of the UK's major successes in the renewables area is Converteam, which is the UK's largest exporter of renewable energy technology. The company supplies much of the internal workings of wind turbines and other renewable generators. The rate of innovation is impressive and is a model which could be replicated across the UK given the correct investment environment.

International collaboration

  4.  International collaboration is absolutely key if we are to develop new solutions to the world's global energy problems. It is therefore vital that the UK is seen as a leader in renewable energy technologies. This will help set the agenda world wide as well as setting a firm foundation for a growth in UK renewable energy technology related businesses.

Public funding, and other support, for the development of renewable electricity generation technologies and incentives for technology transfer

  5.  The solutions to renewable energy generation will only be realised if a long term strategic vision is maintained over the next 20 years. It is unlikely there will be a "quick-fix" solution; the magnitude of the problem is too large. It must be realised that investment in the basic science and under pinning technologies is just as important as investment in demonstrators if fundamental solutions are to be found and implemented. One example is the electrical energy conversion process, which is common to all renewable electricity generation systems. This determines much of the efficiency of a system, its control and its integration. However, funding of research into this area often falls between the cracks, even though it is an area where industry in the UK has been traditionally very strong in the past. An overview of the development of complete systems needs to undertaken.

The establishment and role of the Energy Technologies Institute

  6.  The ETI is a welcome development in the UK since it helps provide the essential link between research and deployment in terms of development and demonstration of new technologies. It is still not clear, however, exactly how the Institute will operate or what exactly it will fund. It seems to be focussing on near to market technologies which may deliver short term stop-gap technologies. It does not however; seem to offer a strategic long term vision which will deliver long term developments based on new fundamental sciences applied to the problem of energy.

  7.  One issue which seems to be a real problem is that there are many players funding and supporting technologies in the energy and low carbon arenas. Examples are, EPSRC, NERC, UKERC, TSB, Carbon Trust, Energy Savings Trust, Department of Transport, DEFRA and the ETI as well as the Regional Development Agencies. Each has a subtly different rationale but there is also considerable overlap. It would be of great benefit if the activities of these various programmes could be streamlined and coordinated so as to provide a more coherent vision and hopefully better deployment of resources.

Commercialising renewable technologies

  8.  Commercialisation of basic research is an area that has been studied over the last 10 years and indeed universities have become much more aware of the potential for commercialisation. However, most universities have become more aware of potential intellectual property at the expense of collaborative research—a more healthy balance needs to be reached here, so as to maximise the process of taking ideas to industry without unreasonable demands being on the unrealistic value of protected IP.

  9.  WISER at Warwick has as one of its main strengths a good relationship with industry and in conjunction with organisations such as Connect Midlands can see direct synergy between world class university research and incubating new ideas and providing credibility to start up enterprises. The WISER model is to work with industry to drive innovation rather than maximise short term IP revenue.

Intermittency of supply and connection with the national grid

  10.  There is a great analogy between the developments of distributed computing and distributed generation. The computing market has seen unparalleled developments over the past 20 years. The initial catalyst for this rapid growth was the availability of an open standard set out by IBM in the early 80's. This standard meant that many manufacturers could produce compatible equipment that would (in most cases) work harmoniously together when sourced from other manufacturers. This coupled with communications technology has delivered an unprecedented and unpredicted global uptake of the technology. The many innovations have been developed by a large number of companies, rather than a few large suppliers. Before this growth of distributed computing, computers were large expensive and consequently major investments which needed to be tended by teams of dedicated experts.

  11.  This distributed energy market has many parallels here. We are at the start of the development and it is not possible to see what developments will be made. However, it is clear that if a "sea change" is to take place from the current highly centralised system, to a point where individuals or small groups have the possibility to take control of their own energy needs, whilst being able store and export excess energy, then an intervention in the market akin to setting an open standard is required.

  12.  This then, requires the development of standards for energy generation, storage and intelligent connectivity protocols that allow for many manufacturers to enter the market with numerous small innovations. It is possible to imagine energy storage technologies developing in the same way as say memory storage technology, which is still developing at an unstoppable rate. If the same rate of progress could be applied to energy storage then issues of intermittency would be solved by a natural evolution. Compare this with the massively expensive large scale energy storage scheme of today, which require enormously expensive and strategic decisions to be made. If energy storage were distributed amongst consumers, each investment would be smaller and, it would allow for much more rapid innovation and rate of uptake.

Whether the UK has the skills base to underpin the development of renewable technology

  13.  The skills shortage in the UK is clear. Many young people are clearly very enthusiastic about "green" technology, however, there needs to be a strategic decision made at governmental level to encourage young talented people to take up careers in technologies that will underpin the development of sustainable environmental solutions. It would seem appropriate for government to sponsor a significant number of scholarships for courses that address these new and emerging technologies. In the long term it is important that our best young people are engaged with this major global challenge. This has the potential to develop a rapidly growing technology that is critical for the future of our way of life.

  14.  WISER and other similar institutions across the UK are key to delivering what is needed here and should be fully engaged with the delivery of a new generation of scientists, engineers and business men capable of delivering the rate of innovation necessary to ensure the UK can be a player in what will be a new industrial revolution.

January 2008

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