Azara Blog: Jim Skea gives talk in Cambridge about energy research

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Date published: 2006/01/17

Jim Skea, the research director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), gave a talk in Cambridge this afternoon with title "The Renaissance of UK energy research?" The UKERC is a recent addition to UK energy research whose purpose seems to be to both conduct research and to coordinate other UK energy research (via the "National Energy Research Network" due to be launched in a few days time).

He started by showing a graph of UK R&D expenditure on energy research. Amazingly it was over one billion pounds in the 1970s (mostly spent on nuclear fission) but after Thatcher took over the money was slashed dramatically until it is only around 40 million pounds today (mostly split between nuclear fusion and renewable energy). Apparently the US and Japan each spend a couple of billion dollars per year, so the UK is seriously lagging (even per capita). Although, as Skea pointed out, the question is not so much how much you spend as what you get out of the money spent (in terms of innovation). (And he said that it would seem that some of the US R&D spend was just Congress showering its friends in industry with corporate welfare.) Apparently the UK will spend around 70 million pounds by 2007-8.

He then discussed what is going to happen in the forthcoming energy review which the UK government has announced. The UK media, egged on by the so-called environmentalists, have tended to call it a "nuclear" review rather than an "energy" review, but needless to say all aspects of energy will be looked at, with particular regard to seeing how the goals of the energy white paper from three years ago are coming along. Worryingly, apparently there might be public consulatations about this all. What a waste of time and money that is. The government did this with GM crops a couple of years ago and the meetings were just hijacked by ignorant so-called environmentalists, and the same would happen with these meetings. The middle class activists would pretend they represent the public where they most certainly do not.

Apparently there are four objectives of the review:

Apparently the International Energy Agency (IEA) is predicting that global emissions will rise by more than 60% by 2030 if we continue with "business as usual". And most of that increase will come from non-OECD countries. Of course the current mantra (from the comfortable middle classes) is that we cannot continue with "business as usual". Well any prediction for 2030 is bound to be wrong, and large energy price increases will obviously hit demand.

Skea said he thought research was needed both to improve technology (in energy supply, demand and infrastructure) and to "inform policies that promote behavioural change". Of course that last bit just means that the ordinary people of Britain should have their energy consumption hammered. No more holiday flights. Only the middle class (i.e. the rich) will have that privilege (and many others) in future.

Skea talked about an IEA workshop that was held at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (home of a US government research site). It sounds like the workshop was held so that Oak Ridge could try to get other people to use its facilities, so it could justify its (large) budget to Congress. But anyway, it seems that the number one problem most people agreed about in energy research was how to make energy storage (both electrical and chemical) more efficient and feasible. But there were other big problems: "intelligent" management of networks with distributed energy generation and intermittency (e.g. solar and wind power), improving catalysis, carbon capture and storage, "making the hydrogen economy economic", etc.

The storage problem is one reason the hydrogen economy is not economic. Unfortunately in this world, even in research, there are these dreadful bandwagons that catch the eye of government or the research council. Hydrogen seems to be one of those. The "hydrogen economy" is not anywhere near being feasible, and after all the hype turns sour people will no doubt turn to the next hype. (Apparently Downing Street was keen on hydrogen already for some time but the DTI and Department of Transport less so because they were more worried about current issues.) Apparently a cynical comment about hydrogen was that the best way to store it currently was to add carbon and convert it to petrol.

It seems that "whole systems" research was something else being plugged at Oak Ridge. And it seems that Skea is keen on this concept as well. It just seems to be a code phrase which means that technologists should not just be allowed to get on with it, we must throw in "environmental, social and economic challenges", i.e. let useless so-called environmental consultants (and other busy bodies) interfere with research to make it politically correct. (E.g. nuclear bad, wind good. By definition.) Unfortunately Skea implied that the research councils are jumping on this (yet another) bandwagon. You can almost guarantee this will lead to a lot of money wasted on useless "research".

Well, Skea tried to make a serious point here. He said, for example, that transport research is divided into multiple camps, most of which do not talk to each other. He mentioned, for example, car engine research and congestion research. But why should these people talk to each other, they are completely orthogonal concepts. We would like more efficient engines and less congestion on the roads. But they have nothing much to do with each other. (Well, if we assume that people are stuck in traffic half their journey, then that might skew how engines should be designed, but that is rather tenuous.) (Unlike engine work, in which everyone is a winner, congestion research is one of those horrid areas where the researchers have every incentive to cheer for congestion in order to justify their existence. Why would you want to build new roads when you can instead make money charging the victims of congestion for the effects of congestion.)

Much of energy research is obviously an important area of science and engineering. But is it sexy enough to attract the best young minds? It's hard to see how, when there is so much else out there to do, and given that much of energy research is political rather than technical (people who talk rather than do).

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