Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: I welcome our first panel of witnesses to this our first oral evidence session on an inquiry into renewable electricity-generation technologies and welcome to the Committee Professor John Wilson, the Science Board of the Institute of Physics—welcome to you, John—John Loughhead, the Executive Director of the UK Energy Research Centre—welcome to you, John—Dr Gordon Edge, the Director of Economics and Markets at the British Wind Energy Association—welcome to you, Gordon—and finally to Philip Wolfe, the Chief Executive of the Renewable Energy Association. I would ask you, John, if you would chair your panel if it gets unruly, so you can allocate the most appropriate member of your panel to answer.

  Mr Loughhead: With great pleasure, Chairman.

  Q2  Chairman: We have three-quarters of an hour for this first session, so I would appreciate it if your answers were as brief as possible and clearly to the point. I would like to begin with you, John. We are a little unclear about the targets which the Government have set. 20% cent of energy from renewables by 2020 and Europe has set a similar target by 2020. How much electricity will need to be generated by renewables by 2020 on both the British and the European targets so we know exactly what we are talking about in our discussions this morning? Give us those figures.

  Mr Loughhead: If we assume that the UK adopts the target of 20%—and it is likely that it will be slightly less than that but if we take 20% as a point—it is likely that that will mean that the UK would need to generate between 35 and 40% of its electricity from renewables. The reason for that is that technically it is much less possible to implement renewables in the other sectors of heat and transport in that timescale.

  Q3  Chairman: Is there any statistical research evidence that backs up your 35 to 40%?

  Mr Loughhead: There have been some calculations which have been performed both by the European Commission as to European scale and also by some initial work that has been done by BERR and by ourselves for the UK level. This is not yet complete, so we cannot state that that is a definitive figure, but the indications are the figures that I gave earlier.

  Q4  Chairman: As far as our Committee is concerned, we are better looking at 35 to 40% of electricity generated from renewables to meet those targets than concentrating on 20%?

  Mr Loughhead: Yes.

  Q5  Chairman: Do you all agree with that, Panel? You are looking puzzled, Phil.

  Mr Wolfe: Notwithstanding the remit of this Committee perhaps, I think it is important to remember that we need to expect a contribution from renewable heat and renewables in transport as well and, in a way, it is not always helpful to look at these in silos.

  Q6  Chairman: We are looking specifically at renewable electricity-generation technologies, so it is about producing electricity.

  Mr Wolfe: Yes, but it is important to remember that there are interfaces between these. If you look at renewables in buildings, for example, you can apply heat pumps. Heat pumps consume electricity but generate heat. So, the different technologies are not always readily entirely separated in the way you are perhaps suggesting.

  Q7  Chairman: But you would accept that that does not take us away from the overall targets?

  Mr Wolfe: No, certainly we would accept that the overall target for electricity will have to be in the high 30s.

  Chairman: Just for the record, I notice that Professor Wilson and Dr Edge agreed with the statement.

  Q8  Dr Turner: Looking at these targets, we already know—and I think you, Phil, would be the first to acknowledge—that the target to which we have been working and have accepted over the last two or three years of 20% electrical renewables by 2020 is already looking more than challenging enough at least under business as usual conditions. What is your view of the attainability of the much higher target that the EU overall energy target implies and can you outline the sort of measures that we would need to take to drive the game to the level that would be needed to achieve that?

  Mr Wolfe: We believe the higher target is attainable but only if, as your question suggests, we extend the policy measures into areas which historically we have not addressed. So, historical policy drivers for renewables have been fundamentally in the centralised electricity, the merchant electricity generation area, through the Renewables Obligation and similar measures and we feel that those measures will need to be strengthened to achieve rather more than the 20% that historically has been aimed for. We think it is fundamental that policy now starts to address areas that historically have not really had a focus and that includes particularly things like renewables in buildings through on-site energy generation, both heat and electricity as I suggested earlier on, looking at the contribution of renewables in sectors like agriculture through anaerobic digestion, the processing of waste and biomass fuels into biogas that can then be used for electricity generation but also for other technologies. It is achievable provided that we widen the policy portfolio. We do feel in particular that it is not going to be delivered entirely by the energy sector and that we will need to bring other users into the market and that includes corporate energy users, the large supermarket chains, for example—the large corporates are now looking at their energy profile and the contribution they can make—and also the individual, the consumer in their house and, to bring him into the fold, you probably need a whole new type of incentive measure and the one that has been proven to be most effective has been feed-in tariffs.

  Q9  Chairman: I will come back to feed-in tariffs later. Dr Edge, you may want to come in here. I am particularly interested in this basic question as to whether we do in fact have the renewables at the moment in order to meet today's very advanced targets.

  Dr Edge: This 20% target has very much pushing our policy agenda at BWEA and we have been looking very carefully at what we think is feasible from our technologies, which include wave and tidal stream in that time. We believe that, from onshore wind specifically, 1,300 megawatts is an achievable target—in fact, if some of the planning constraints were lifted, it could be more than that, that could be a conservative figure—which would produce about 10% of our electricity and we are currently at about 2,000 megawatts onshore now. Offshore, with a really big push, we could be getting in excess of 20,000 megawatts which would be producing about 17% of our electricity and the very welcome announcement from the Secretary of State on 10 December for a new round of sites which would facilitate that kind of growth is extremely welcome. It would need, as I have set out in our written evidence, a number of innovations on the technology side but also on the policy side to reach that 20,000 megawatts of offshore wind considering that there is only about 400 megawatts now and only just over 1,000 megawatts globally of offshore wind.

  Q10  Graham Stringer: When you were quoting 13 megawatts, is that total capacity?

  Dr Edge: Gigawatts.

  Q11  Graham Stringer: Is that total capacity and you are not feeding into that a load factor for when the wind does not blow, are you?

  Dr Edge: The 10% of electricity is electrical energy production and that includes a load factor for that. That would be the electricity energy generation from those 13,000 megawatts.

  Q12  Dr Turner: You are assuming a higher name plate capacity?

  Dr Edge: No, 13,000 megawatts of name plate capacity at around 30% load factor would produce the electricity that is 10% of our electricity.

  Q13  Dr Gibson: What is the variation on that? You have obviously done some calculations. What is the variation plus or minus?

  Dr Edge: You would have a variation of somewhere in the region of 10%.

  Q14  Chairman: Professor Wilson, I am anxious to bring you in. Is that really the answer? This is just an opening salvo. Is the answer to go through to known technologies and to concentrate on those over the next 12 years or would we be better looking at longer term technologies that could perhaps give far better payback in plus 2020?

  Professor Wilson: I think that that is the problem. It takes so long to develop the newer technologies that we have to be doing that in parallel. I think it is essential for the year of 2030, if you look another 10 years on, when I think that, by that time, we would have to look at resource limit as well. At the present time, I think the figures show that we can do it by developing what we already know about the alternatives, especially maybe for the photovoltaics which are perhaps the most technically demanding. There is no doubt that, as we go into 2030 and beyond, solar is probably the only resource that is available without having severe environmental problems and resource limitations of fuel and that means that we really have to start developing that much sooner because the principles that will be needed to develop the efficient and low-cost solar cells are really only just coming on to the scientific scene now.

  Q15  Chairman: John, from the point of the UK Energy Research Centre, are there technologies which the UK is a market leader in where the Prime Minister should be saying, "Really put all your eggs in this basket because this is going to be a winner and it will be a global winner"?

  Mr Loughhead: I think our view would be that there will not be a single answer to this question, that it will require a portfolio of different technologies. As far as the UK is concerned, I believe that, in terms of the manufacture and design technologies, it would be difficult to say that we were a clear market leader at an international scale at any of these. I believe that, in terms of designing systems for use and installation, which is an equally important area, we probably have a much stronger position because of the experience gained within the UK over the last 15 years and I think it is important to say that, on the research and development front, the UK remains world competitive in its research and development capability in all of the relevant technologies.

  Mr Wolfe: I think that we can genuinely claim world leadership in the marine renewable technologies, wave and tidal technologies. Yes, they are at a relatively early stage of development but the UK definitely has a world leadership position in that and it is important that we maintain that.

  Q16  Chairman: What about things like Bristol's Space Planes who report that SSP has the potential to provide virtually unlimited clean power? We have the sun producing all this amazing amount of power. Surely we should be risk takers here, should we not?

  Mr Loughhead: I am not sure that I fully understand the question. We all accept that all the power ultimately comes from the sun but which specific application?

  Q17  Chairman: Bristol Space Planes report that SSP has the potential to provide virtually unlimited clean power which is capturing energy in space and then beaming it down, as I understand it.

  Mr Loughhead: Right. I am going to suggest that John answers that.

  Professor Wilson: I am aware that this used to be known as the "Glaser Amazer" from Peter Glaser in the United States who first proposed a similar satellite collection. Certainly, it is a proposal of course that you generate the power where it is not intermittent to the same extent and then you beam it down in laser beam or microwave power. The big problem is always the energy payback and energy consumption of course, calculating carefully the amount of energy investment needed to put that sort of thing into place and then the lifetime. I think at the moment we are not looking for such a desperate measure although it would still drive solar cell development and to a certain extent storage and transmission, but there are a lot of technologies that should be driven on further by that time and expenditure.

  Mr Wolfe: I am not aware that the technology of beaming it down without frying people on the way is yet fully developed.

  Chairman: We will leave that.

  Q18  Dr Iddon: I want to pursue PV technology a little further. We have the traditional silicon PV technology and firms now like Nanosolar—and I quote them as an example—are developing a thin-film technology, crystals of silicon on aluminium foil backing. Which of these is the most efficient and which might win out in the end, Professor Wilson?

  Professor Wilson: There is no doubt at the moment that the crystal technologies produce the better efficiencies. Some of the thin-film technologies are producing similar efficiencies for the modules, that is for the cells fully mounted as a useable unit—they are getting closer—but it is a trade-off between efficiency and cost, and the important thing is perhaps not the peak efficiency but the cost per watt hour which then has to include the balance of systems, the transmission and maybe storage, invertors and so on. What appears to be interesting is that, if you project even ten years and certainly 20 years, at the moment there is not a big difference in what you achieve for the cost of a unit of electricity whether you go for a very high efficient costly cell or a lower efficiency cheaper cell. It depends of course on the site. Obviously with a lower efficiency cell you need much more space and space may be more expensive. It seems that there is not a big change there in what you are paying. The thin-film technologies are the ones that Britain is probably beginning to lead in some areas and it certainly has a strong scientific position and I certainly would say that I have an own interest in that we are trying to develop solar cells on textiles and trying to get away from the idea that photovoltaics are complicated micro-electronic devices. We would rather see them as something closer to painting walls.

  Q19  Dr Gibson: Where does nano-technology fit into all this in terms of UK initiatives?

  Professor Wilson: There are some interesting proposals—the science is looking fairly robust and the technology is not yet there—which allows you to use nano particles in a new way with the organic solar cells, that is the plastic solar cells, which we are hoping will of course produce the answer. If you are using organic solar cells, then there are some new ideas using nano particles that will enable them to overcome the problem of actually collecting the electrical charges in the device.

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