Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-139)

10 MARCH 2004

Professor Sir David King, Mr Nick Grout, Mr John Holmes and Mr Simon Crabbe

  Q120  Lord Crickhowell: The second part of my question was: what can the EU do really to get the kind of scale of research? That is not, I suspect, a question of funding from the EU.

  Sir David King: No, it is not. The answer to that is to draw attention to the carbon emissions trading scheme, which we know will come into play on 1 January 2005. It is imminent. I was delighted when Prodi made a statement which was the clearest possible support for the trading scheme. I think some of our partners in Europe were beginning to wobble a bit and Prodi said, "We will not back down in the fight against human-induced climate change. The Kyoto Protocol represents a significant first step towards realising the goal of stabilising atmospheric levels", and so on. Prodi has provided leadership on these issues. Our expectation, and we are working within the UK Government very strongly towards this, is that trading will in fact come into place in 2005. That trading, I suggest, is an important part of this because we need the economic drivers for the R&D that will be required to develop these disruptive technologies that will displace the carbon-based technologies.

  Chairman: We have a witness coming in two weeks' time to talk to us specifically about carbon trading and how it will develop.

  Q121  Lord Crickhowell: I take the point that that practical action to reduce the CO2 and so on will stimulate its own industrial research. You lay great emphasis on the UK research programme, and quite rightly on the work of Hadley and Tyndall and the National Energy Research Centre staff and so on. I hope there are comparable efforts going on in other European countries. My question is: is it right that it all should go separately perhaps and in competition or can the EU co-ordinate a more effective total research programme in any way?

  Sir David King: There is no doubt in my mind that the European Union can and does co-ordinate that sort of action. I think that the networking interaction across national boundaries in the European Union is improving year on year, and not just in these fields of research. I really think there has been a massive transformation over the last 10 years in interaction across European boundaries, largely driven by mobility funding, which leads to people at post-doctoral level moving from one country to another. That carries the skills base and all the knowledge transfer that is required in the process. I do think there has been this transformation. Perhaps I could just inject in here that I have just completed an analysis of the scientific wealth of nations taking us up to 2002. The European Union on my analysis, based on citations, is now level-pegging with the United States in terms of scientific output. I think that is very largely due to this networking across boundaries driven by the Union.

  Q122  Lord Livsey of Talgarth: May I quote to you from your memo to us about budgets for research where you say: "It is disappointing that the budget for research, technology development and demonstration type activities in the area of sustainable energy systems has been cut from that available under the Fifth Framework Programme . . ." You have underlined that this morning. Could you tell us, therefore, what are the most important areas of R&D funding for the EU to support as opposed to individual Member States?

  Sir David King: The current emphasis is very much on solar energy and the hydrogen economy: hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen production. There is no European-wide emphasis on a piece of research that is proving very fruitful in the UK, which is in tidal turbines and in wave transformation. I do think that the European Union needs to broaden its emphasis to include these new and unforeseen energy resources. At the moment, we do have a listing I think of six areas that the EU is funding, and it would be useful to see that broadened. Of course, I believe that the UK development of tidal and wave energy power is going to give us a very significant economic advantage because we have several companies coming through there. This could be a more significant renewable source of energy, particularly for the UK but for other countries as well, than, for example, wind power. Wind power is intermittent. The moon is rather reliable. Tidal energy is there for the taking 24 hours a day.

  Q123  Lord Livsey of Talgarth: Could you make a case, particularly in the area of tidal power, for the new set-up as it will be in the EU after the elections to increase the budget of the EU; and would that be the area that you would favour for the budget increase of the EU?

  Sir David King: Yes, it is. It is one area I would favour. We are currently preparing the British position for the negotiations on Framework Seven. The idea is that we should get ahead of the game. We are preparing our position. By July this year, we will have crystallised that position. We are going to send a document out for consultation generally in the country, but this means that over the summer we will sort out precisely what the British negotiating position is and then I would be able to answer you more clearly. Off the cuff, my remark is that I would like to see increases in those areas.

  Q124  Earl Peel: Sir David, is pretty clear from the evidence that we have received to date that there is reluctance, which I suppose one can understand in political terms, to try and deal with other causes of climate change, such as transport. I am just wondering what your opinion is about the possible technical solutions—and you have already made reference to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles—and how these might be able to play a part in actually reducing transport emissions; what is the likely timing of such technologies; and what are the possible constraints to their introduction?

  Sir David King: The first thing is to welcome any technological development that results in a reduction of emissions from road vehicles because that really is the largest source of emissions. For example, the Toyota Prius is advertised as a car that will emit on average 100 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre. That is a very substantial reduction over the normal vehicle, which is about 250. We have an agreement with the Japanese and Korean car manufacturers to invest in car manufacturing that will lead us to low emission technology cars. I think all of this is welcome and I do not think we can say that in the marketplace there is no single right answer. What R&D must do is provide a whole menu of possibilities for the marketplace to play with. In the long run, my belief is that the development of fuel cell technology provides the best opportunity for the transport system to come on line. We have got a long way to go because the current cost of a hydrogen fuel cell driven motor vehicle is high, simply because of the platinum loading on the fuel cell membranes. The amount of platinum going into each vehicle is quite high, and this provides an expense and there is a question mark eventually about the provision of the amount of platinum required worldwide. Platinum reduction, incidentally, in fuel cells is a British speciality. The current leader is Johnson Matthey in the UK. Just developing the answer, I do think we have to support all sorts of technologies that will lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

  Q125  Chairman: You say you have agreements to investigate this with Japanese and Korean car manufacturers, but what about European car manufacturers?

  Sir David King: My apologies. I should have said that they are included. I have just returned from Japan.

  Q126  Lord Carter: The technology that you mention, as you say, is for the long run but of course there is a simple technology which is immediately available, which is the use of biofuels. There is a debate, as I am sure you know, at the moment within government between the Department of Transport, Defra and the Treasury on this subject. I actually moved an amendment at the Committee Stage of the Energy Bill, which is before the House at the moment, to probe the issue of a renewable transport fuel obligation. I understand that the oil companies are prepared to consider this. What is your view?

  Sir David King: Biofuels will in future be added to petrol so as to increase the amount that comes in from that area. Of course, there will be a reduction in cost in taxation to encourage this. I do think, once again, that we need this broad menu approach. Biofuels across Europe is seen to be a big step forward in this way. We do have to recall just the one limitation here, and this is around the question of land use. If we are moving away from farming for food production, then biofuels might be a good way to move into land use.

  Q127  Lord Carter: There are very large areas at the moment which have nothing growing on them at all, which are in set-aside and could be used for biofuels?

  Sir David King: Biofuels are considerably smarter that set-aside, yes.

  Q128  Earl Peel: May I just go back to clarify a point on the question that I asked? On this question of constraints that may exist at the moment, do you feel there are constraints that are preventing new technologies from developing? Do you think there is anything that the EU or governments could be doing to encourage and enhance?

  Sir David King: I think that is a very good question because if there are such constraints, then we ought to be trying to remove them. We have been working at creating incentives, but your question is a little different from that.

  Q129  Earl Peel: You have to look at both sides of the coin?

  Sir David King: Yes, you have to do that. I have no top-of-the-head answer to that question.

  Q130  Earl Peel: Perhaps you would like to give it some thought and come back to us?

  Sir David King: Yes.

  Q131  Lord Lewis of Newnham: The big disadvantage of using hydrogen is that very often in the generation of it you are still producing CO2 but it is at a point source rather than at a diffuse source and so you are more in control of it. How far are people actually doing this? How far are they recovering or dealing with the CO2 that is being produced in producing hydrogen and things of this nature?

  Sir David King: Your question is related to sequestration of carbon dioxide. We are supporting carbon dioxide sequestration research and one of the big technological programmes in the United States is looking into carbon dioxide sequestration as a means of keeping their coal mining business going in the light of carbon dioxide emission reduction. If I interpret your question as meaning "what chance is there of having a safe sequestration process that will also be economic?", I would have to say that I think the judgment is still out. The use of dried up oil wells has been posed. Economically, this is very good if you are using carbon dioxide to press out the last oil from the oil well; you put it under pressure and then you are pumping the carbon dioxide in and sealing it up. The cost, however, if you are not benefiting from the oil coming out, may be a significant deterrent in that kind of sequestration. There are also questions to be asked about the possible leakage of the carbon dioxide back out. It would be very good for inorganic chemists to look at sequestration in such a way that we put it into the solid state, Lord Lewis.

  Q132  Lord Lewis of Newnham: In fact, you can go to carbon dioxide hydrate systems, which are pressurised systems, which of course are solids. The difficulty there is that that may be providing you with a problem in future, just as the methane hydrate is a problem for the future. As you were referring to in the Gulf Stream situation. The question that worries me is that the people in Norway have actually sequestrated CO2 very effectively in using the natural gas and removing CO2 but of course their real drive for this was the carbon tax. They were able to recover their money very quickly by reducing the amount of CO2 that they were having to pay for and so the reduction there was driven by taxation. The real problem I have here is this balance between the economic side of it and the scientific side of it.

  Sir David King: I think the only answer to this is going to be when the carbon trading comes into place, we will know the cost of carbon dioxide emissions and you then know whether carbon dioxide sequestration is going to be economically viable or not. If it is not, then we have to look at economic alternatives. I think that the question of hydrogen production is one of the most interesting questions—hydrogen production without CO2 production. Electrolysis is an obvious way forward. Then the question is: how do you produce the electricity? The smart way to do it is with nuclear fusion power. You may know I am spending quite a lot of effort in getting an international fusion project off the ground. With fusion you are running an energy source at high temperature, a temperature sufficiently high—it is above 800o centigrade—that you dissociate water thermally and so you produce hydrogen and oxygen. As a by-product of the electricity production, you get hydrogen production as well. You can do the same with nuclear fission power as well.

  Q133  Chairman: Just on that, I notice in your written evidence you talk about the development of ITER, testing the feasibility of fusion power generation. This is a European project, is it not? Does it look good at this stage?

  Sir David King: ITER is the single subject that I have probably spent most time on over the last three years. This is a project which was originally a joint project between the European Union, Japan, Russia and the United States. The United States then backed out of the agreement in 1999 and the project just continued with those three partners: Russia, Japan and the European Union. The joint European TORUS in Oxfordshire at Culham is the major output of that programme to date and JET at Culham has now produced everything for which it was designed. Your question is: is this a viable way forward? I think that JET has demonstrated that we have viability and ITER is the next stage on from JET, which is a much larger fusion power project, that will produce ten times as much power out as in. If I say to you that the two material inputs for the energy here are lithium and deuterium from sea water, the lithium in your mobile phone plus the water in your bath would provide enough energy to keep all of your energy requirements going as an individual for 120 years using the fusion power station. That is the promise of the fusion power station, it is that we would have enough lithium and deuterium to provide the energy resource needed for the world for at least 2,000 years. It is a project that I think is well worth funding and we are moving on to this international phase of the project. I have been travelling round the world very heavily to get back-up for it, and we now have the United States back on board and, in addition, China and Korea. It is now the biggest ever science and technology international project that the world will have seen. The total building cost will be around

5 billion. The big argument at the moment is where it should be sited. Should it be in Japan or the European Union?

  Q134  Chairman: How very interesting. Is lithium a light metal?

  Sir David King: Yes, and essentially lithium when struck with neutrons produces tritium. Two times tritium gives lithium, so if you split the lithium you get tritium. You surround the plasma with a lithium blanket; the neutrons produced in the plasma, which is just operating as the sun does, hit the lithium blanket; this produces the tritium which keeps the whole thing going and you feed deuterium in to keep it going as well. Down at Culham they have had it operating. It burns at 100 million degrees centigrade, so it is quite hot. It generates therefore enough heat to drive electricity power, but also to split water, so that you get hydrogen out of this as well. My expectation would be fusion power stations, unless we increase funding very substantially, in about 35 years' time. In terms of the global warning scenario, that is certainly not too soon.

  Q135  Baroness Billingham: In your memorandum you refer to something you have already touched on: The Environmental Technologies Action Plan for the European Union. You have already talked about some of the technologies contained in it. I wonder if you would like to expand upon that because it does seem to me to be at the core of some of the things we are looking at in this inquiry.

  Sir David King: Yes. I am going to kick off by saying that this is an issue that Defra lead on. My job here in government is to oversee work in government departments, and if a department is doing well, I stand back and leave it to do it. Defra is doing this. If you are going to see a senior person from Defra, please do ask him that question. The idea in the EU Environmental Technologies Action Plan is to provide horizontal transfer of information. Again, it is this knowledge transfer process, so that each country benefits from what the other is doing on this environmental technologies platform. I think that is the major action plan. It does focus on hydrogen and fuel cells and on solar photovoltaics. Those are the two technologies that currently are the focus of that horizontal knowledge transfer process.

  Q136  Lord Carter: Among all the technologies that you have mentioned, which sound extremely exciting, are any of them dangerous?

  Sir David King: That is a very good question. One of the major advantages of the fusion project is that the ash of the process is non-radioactive. The ash is helium gas, so all that emerges from the process is helium gas and helium gas escapes into the outer atmosphere. It has no deleterious effect.

  Q137  Lord Carter: Could it explode or blow up or something?

  Sir David King: If it should blow up, and again this is a major advantage of this, the plasma running at 100 million degrees centigrade sounds dangerous because it is hot but it is a very low density plasma. The big problem of JET has been to stabilise the plasma. The plasma literally goes unstable. It is contained within a magnetic field. The sun has the advantage of gravity, holding it together. We cannot make an object that big but gravity holds it together here and so we have to use magnetic forces. This plasma literally just moves around in an unstable fashion and the instabilities have to be corrected with the magnetic field, but it always, at the moment, goes unstable fairly quickly, and then it just pops and cools down in a matter of microseconds. Equally, if, for example, there was an explosion and the thing split open, before it had broken open, it would be totally cold. It does have really distinct technological advantages. However, I would have to tell you that these neutrons that split the lithium also will interact with the steel container and will convert it into radioactive material. You do produce radioactivity in the container. We are working in a materials programme on finding materials with very short half-lives; these are low mass material such as germanium and silicon based materials, so that at the end of the lifetime of a fusion power station, you leave it until it has cooled down, and then you can dismantle it easily.

  Q138  Lord Crickhowell: We have been hearing in fascinating detail about what I call high technology, but one of the things that keeps coming up in our general inquiry across the whole operation of policy is the question of data reliability and monitoring. So much of EU policy depends on monitoring of information and a good deal, I suspect, of the work in which you are involved depends on reliable data. It is a subject that Lord Lewis has referred to. Have you particular concerns or are there ways in which you think we could across Europe get more reliable data? Am I right in thinking that it is very important to the progress that we make in the scientific field as well as in the effective implementation of policies that we do it on the basis of sound data?

  Sir David King: You are absolutely right, and you are right that we should worry about it. Of course, when data needs to be gathered, the Commission sets off the process and, on the whole, I think that works pretty well. For example, if we want to know how each country in Europe is doing in terms of renewables on the electricity grid, that was a question your Committee asked, there has now been a detailed report and so we have country-by-country analysis, including the new states coming on board. I do think the Commission has got in process a system of data gathering that, in my experience, eventually produces the answer. The key word there is "eventually".

  Q139  Baroness Maddock: Continuing with European policies, a lot of emphasis has been put on reducing carbon dioxide, but of course another part of the Kyoto Protocol was looking at other greenhouse gases, and they list five, as I understand it, in one of the annexes. How important do you think this is and what should we be doing in the EU to reduce these other gases?

  Sir David King: I think it is very important. The greenhouse gases include all of the non-homonuclear diatomics, if I can use that phrase, and so nitrogen and oxygen do not absorb in the infrared but any larger molecule will absorb in the infrared, and it is infrared absorption that we are talking about. So we do have to worry particularly about methane emissions, sulphur dioxide emissions, NOx emissions and substitutes for CFCs, which are now becoming worrisome greenhouse gases. Just to put it in context, though, the major forcer is carbon dioxide and there is another factor of carbon dioxide emission which we really have to take into account, and this is why much of the focus of attention is on it: the retention of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is very long term. In other words, if we should go up to 550 parts per million and then stop all carbon dioxide emissions, it will stay at 550 parts per million, whereas if we reduce methane emissions, it will come down again in a relatively short—perhaps 20 to 40 year—time scale. There are differences and good reasons for focusing on carbon dioxide, but per molecule, methane is a more serious greenhouse gas and so we do have to worry about it. Part of this is that perhaps we ought to move to being more of a vegetarian society, since it is animal food production that is a big part of methane production.

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