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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  Q20  Dr Gibson: Is that supported by the UK Government?

  Professor Wilson: There is some EPSRC-funded work on the principles. I think that the biggest problem as always is the gap between making a cell that works and then making sure that it is manufacturable.

  Q21  Dr Iddon: Is not one of the problems with photovoltaic technology the payback period? When I visited Woking a few years ago, they were retro-fitting solar panels in quite a big way on existing buildings and the payback period I was quoted was 25 years. Is that not one of the difficulties and is not the real thing that is hindering development of PV technology the fact that people are waiting for the right technology to come along? People do not feel confident with the present technologies?

  Professor Wilson: You have asked two questions. The payback time certainly for traditional single crystal silicone is quite high. I think at the moment people will quote you about five years; it does depend on the site of course because it depends how much you are generating. Conventional crystalline materials and some of the thin-film crystalline materials are high temperature processes, so they are of course energy expensive. The thin-film technologies tend to be closer to 18 months, anything between one year and two years. We have calculated these ourselves in the past and a number of other people have done it in different ways and you get similar answers whether you are looking at the carbon payback or the energy payback. The thin-film technologies certainly will pay back within their lifetime. The other problem that you mention, that people are waiting for the winning technology, is exactly that problem because at the moment we have a rather intermittent process for encouraging people to mount panels domestically and it means that somebody will look at the payback time and prefer to invest their money, though I guess it may change in current years, but it is very much a problem and there should be much more encouragement for the experience to be built up by installations[1].

  Mr Wolfe: May I clarify? I think the figures Professor Wilson was talking about was the energy payback and I suspect that Dr Iddon was asking about the financial cost payback.

  Q22  Dr Iddon: The fitting, yes.

  Professor Wilson: In that case, yes, you are close to the truth.

  Q23  Dr Iddon: Is retro-fitting efficient or should we be encouraging builders to build in solar panels from the beginning? When I visited Japan a few years ago, they were bringing pre-constructed roofs on site—admittedly, it is a different building system in Japan—and just lowering them on to the buildings and connecting them up into the system.

  Mr Loughhead: Perhaps I could make a comment on that. It would be much cheaper to install any of these systems as part of the original build, but you asked the question about payback and, while I realise that your focus is on renewable electricity-generation, probably a much better payback would be obtained at this stage by fitting as original build solar thermal panels for water heating and similar devices, and estimates are that that would probably add £1,000 to £1,500 to the cost of a house as opposed to maybe £6,000 to attempt to retro-fit it.

  Q24  Dr Iddon: If we leave Japan on one side, in Europe, Germany are certainly ahead of most countries in PV technology. You can go and see acres of solar panels in fields in Germany. Why do you think Germany is ramping ahead of all other European countries, especially this one?

  Dr Edge: It is outside of my technology areas but, frankly, they have thrown a lot of money at it in a very conscious attempt to build an industry and I think that is something that you need to take away here. We have not supported our indigenous generation technologies in such a way that we have built an industry around this and, if we are to meet our 20% target, our share of it which I expect to be about 15% overall, we will have to focus much more on how we build an industry to deliver it. Otherwise, if we compete with other countries for the technologies and the equipment like wind turbines, we will likely lose.

  Q25  Dr Iddon: So, it is nothing to do with the availability of the sun in the south of Germany?

  Dr Edge: No.

  Mr Wolfe: It is a lot to do with the availability of feed-in tariffs in Germany.

  Chairman: We are going to come back to feed-in tariffs.

  Q26  Dr Iddon: Is it not something to do with the Green Party?

  Mr Wolfe: The Green Party were instrumental in getting the feed-in tariff introduced, yes.

  Dr Iddon: They have decided not to go nuclear, so they have had to do something else instead. Does politics not come into this?

  Chairman: Dr Edge, I think that is the point you made, is it not? It does require a government very strongly to support which is what has happened in Germany.

  Q27  Dr Iddon: Recently, I attended a very interesting seminar on the use of mirrors in the desert to collect solar energy and heating a large tank of water, generating steam and electricity in the usual way. There is a proposal for a European network coming out of the Sahara and other deserts and California has a working plant and I understand that Algeria has a working plant. Professor Wilson, is this going to overtake use of the sun through traditional PV technology?

  Professor Wilson: Yes. I believe that there is a working plant in Spain for the same sort of principle, obviously it must be in direct sunlight. I am not sure[2]. Probably the energy payback time is quite attractive. It is a central facility of course, so in some ways utilities would prefer that because they know how to manage the supply of electricity into the network. However, I do not think that there are sufficient sites at the moment. There is always the sensitivity of supply if it were to be coming from as far away as Africa of course and I am not sure if the economics are very much better for the net hour cost.

  Chairman: I am going to move on. I am anxious to get in as much as we can in the time we have allowed.

  Q28  Dr Turner: I would like to ask you about your feelings on the timescale for the major deployment of marine energy devices, whether wave or tidal or tidal stream. There have been various estimates of ten to 15 years. It clearly is dependent on policy background as well. May I have your comments on what we can realistically achieve with marine technologies in the next ten to 15 years.

  Mr Loughhead: I think that maybe Gordon and Philip should have a crack at this.

  Dr Edge: Our estimate of what is achievable by 2020 is in the region of 1,500 megawatts of wave and tidal stream all together. Philip alluded earlier to the fact that we have a world-leading technology here in the UK and I think that is absolutely true, but I think that we are in dire danger of losing that if we do not act now to take steps to move the support for these technologies much further and much faster. At the moment, we have the marine renewables deployment fund which, due to various issues, has not yet been taken up fully, but what we really do not have is anything beyond that and what technology developers are seeing is this valley of death beyond the MRDF in which they see no support sufficient to get them through to full-scale commercial deployment and that is a great fear. If we do not take the steps like they have just recently in Ireland where they have been establishing a feed-in tariff of 220 euros per megawatt hour for wave and tidal then we will miss out on this.

  Mr Wolfe: I think that is a very comprehensive answer. It is vital that we do not do to our marine renewables industry what, sadly, we did to the wind industry in the early 1990s and actually lose the world leadership because we did not adequately incentivise the, if you like, pre-commercial stage.

  Q29  Dr Turner: So, it is fair to say that this is not so much a technology issue as a policy issue.

  Mr Wolfe: That is definitely the case.

  Mr Loughhead: I think it is important to briefly add to that that everybody is quite right to say that the UK has a world lead, but it would be wrong to believe that this is currently at a fully commercially developed stage. I think it is very important to accept that. Although there are devices in the water, it is still a long way from saying, "Here is the finished product".

  Q30  Chairman: Gordon's comment is right, is it not? Without that investment, we are never going to get to that.

  Mr Loughhead: Exactly.

  Q31  Chairman: The valley of death continues.

  Mr Loughhead: Yes.

  Q32  Dr Turner: The Royal Society of Edinburgh is a great fan of tidal barrages and they would like to see a system in the Pentland Firth and a barrage on the Severn Estuary. What is your view on the validity of proposals such as the Severn barrage? Is it going to be either economically or technologically viable, never mind the environmental consequences of it?

  Mr Wolfe: Technologically viable, we believe clearly so. The two issues really, as you suggest, are the environmental issue and the economic one. I will begin with the environmental issues. I do think that it is appropriate now to reassess the type of projects that historically we have not been prepared to undertake because of the local environmental consequences. Now that we have a much better view of the, if you like, global environmental consequences of not doing that. So, the balancing act between the greater good of a much higher penetration of renewables compared to the prospective local disadvantages of projects does need to be reassessed now and, in our view, this goes beyond just tidal barrages as well. It may well affect potential large-scale hydro-generation in Scotland. Some sites that have not been developed because of the local environmental issues maybe need reassessing on the same basis. The question of economics clearly is a different one. The SDC suggested that the Severn barrage would need to be funded by the Government and that clearly is one approach. Certainly, it would be a very major cost to undertake a project of that sort of scale and it is questionable whether existing commercial funding models will actually be able to deliver those.

  Q33  Dr Turner: Philip, your Association has stated that the UK has about 50% of Europe's tidal resource and certainly as a sailor I know this. Britain has probably the best and strongest tidal resources of virtually any country in the world. How much of this energy source is potentially exploitable for electricity generation? Can you name the global potential figure?

  Mr Wolfe: Yes. It is not massive. In the context of UK electricity, it is probably only a few per cent, 2 or 3% in total, and that refers to tidal stream energy, that is the turbines on the base of the sea of the type that is now being installed at Strangford Lough, for example. Obviously, the potential for tidal barrages is very much greater; it has been estimated that the Severn barrage can deliver 5% of our electricity and the barrages in Liverpool Bay, for example, could also generate quite significant contributions. So, the total contribution available from tidal is up in the 10 to 15% area. Of that, a smaller proportion from tidal stream, tidal stream of course having rather less environmental downsides, a larger proportion from tidal barrages.

  Q34  Dr Turner: Has anyone actually undertaken a proper study of the potential tidal stream resource? I have to say that I find your estimates on the low side.

  Mr Wolfe: The have been studies carried out and I am aware that one is published on the BERR website. Whether or not those stand up in the light of recent technology is questionable. Most of the studies that were carried out were done some years ago and it may well be that, with new technology, the figures could be increased.

  Dr Edge: I think it is important to point out that the tidal stream resource is extremely concentrated in very few places: areas like the Channel Islands, around Anglesey and in particular in the Pentland Firth. If you are talking about exploiting those kinds of areas, you have to build the infrastructure to them. Pentland Firth would be extremely challenging, it being right in the north of Scotland.

  Q35  Dr Turner: That is a grid problem.

  Dr Edge: It is a grid problem but it is a practical barrier to the full implementation of tidal stream energy. I would agree. I would refer back to the SDC report which said that 5% of our electricity from tidal stream is a feasible resource.

  Q36  Dr Turner: What is your view of the relative stage of development of wave and tidal-stream technologies?

  Dr Edge: To each other?

  Q37  Dr Turner: To each other and to the commercial frontier.

  Mr Wolfe: This is more of a personal view but I would say that arguably wave power is slightly more advanced at the moment. There has been more work done; there will be more devices in the water. Having said that, I believe wave power is inherently rather more difficult in that you have to design machines for environments that have energy several orders of magnitude bigger than they are designed to produce power in whereas tidal stream is a relatively benign environment, you are dealing with plus or minus 10%. My suspicion is that tidal stream might actually advance faster than wave power and my personal guess would be that tidal stream may well be delivering more to the grid faster than wave is in this country.

  Chairman: I am going to leave that there and move on.

  Q38  Mr Cawsey: Now is the time for some hot air and wind! Earlier, it was said that it was important to build an industry around research and development and, as far as wind is concerned, the UK's turbine suppliers source many of the components from outside of the UK. Do you think that this is an area in which the UK should focus on technology procurement rather than providing research funding?

  Dr Edge: It is certainly true to say that onshore wind particularly is quite technologically mature and therefore the contribution of the UK at the R&D level is going to be relatively limited and we are into therefore the areas of industrial policy and looking to encourage companies in the UK, the manufacturing industry, into making components for large-scale wind turbines and therefore bringing in foreign investment to make turbines—assemble them here which is what we have missed out so far because we have not yet had a consistent market which we are now starting to have. When it comes to offshore wind, there are many technological innovations, particularly ones that we can transfer across from the offshore oil and gas industry which need to be done and where there is a definite need for UK R&D and innovation funding to support.

  Q39  Mr Cawsey: This question might be more for Dr Edge again and perhaps Mr Wolfe. How realistic is John Hutton's ambition to deploy 33 gigawatts of offshore power by 2020? Is there sufficient funding available to support technology development on this scale?

  Dr Edge: I think that we need to understand what that 33 gigawatt figure is, which is the eight gigawatts on the round two site awards plus potential further 25 gigawatts—the exact numbers are to be decided in terms of how many more sites will be given out to developers after a strategic environmental assessment which will be carried out this year and the site award process will be started next year. What we are seeing is the start of a process which could allow people to develop sites which could be built in that timescale and what will actually be built in that time is another matter. We have been talking about a figure of 20,000 megawatts of delivered projects. We are very glad that the Government have come out with a higher figure because it gives us something extra to aim for. We think that in terms of building out feasibly in that time, 20,000 megawatts is ambitious but achievable, and it will certainly need extra support in terms of expanding on the Renewables Obligation or adding another mechanism which will allow large-scale offshore wind to be developed at scale.

  Mr Wolfe: I would encourage you to work to the BWEA figures in terms of deployable offshore wind resource and, as Dr Edge suggested, the figure that was widely quoted in the press was not necessarily a deployment figure, it was a total potential figure, but we would agree that 20 gigawatts is a realistic figure.

  Dr Edge: I think I should also point out that we could be getting into the 33 gigawatt figures with a further build out beyond 2020 into the late 2020s because we are looking at, by the time we get to 2020, delivering about 3,000 megawatts a year. If we continue at that level, that is a very encouraging and tempting market for the supply chain to get into.

1   Note from the witness: "According to interest rates". Back

2   Note from the witness: "I am not sure if it is operating now". Back

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