Buying into energy generation

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2009
Audience voting

Seven power generation technologies ‘bid’ for hypothetical funding from UK organisations at an event that followed the format of UK TV programme Dragon’s Den.

Held on 22 June in London, UK, the exercise enabled speakers from the UK’s marine, fossil, offshore wind, nuclear, biomass/waste, fuel cell and solar photovoltaic (PV) industries to
present their business cases in support of materials R&D in the hope of influencing future strategy. Energy solutions were pitched to the ‘dragons’ comprising the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), Carbon Trust, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

The invited audience of stakeholders and potential investors voted interactively for who they felt should lead and second the funding.

While all agencies agreed to hypothetically support materials research in wind energy and fuel cells, there were mixed responses to the other pitches. All the dragons, with the exception of the ETI, backed solar PVs, while the Carbon Trust stood alone in turning down funding to fossil fuel energy generation, and was unable to support the marine sector. It felt research in the latter is at too early a stage and the impact of materials is as yet unclear.

Empowering industry

Fossil fuel technology, with a strong R&D base and an industry that could support 30,000-60,000 jobs in the UK in 2030, proved attractive to the TSB. Jonathan Wells of RWE nPower argued that, following a step change in the UK’s energy policy on carbon capture and storage (CCS), coal could close the energy gap and help the environment. He said, ‘Coal is going to play a key role with CCS’.

The TSB also agreed to fund materials for energy from waste and biomass if other agencies came on board. Its call was hesitantly answered by the ETI and RDAs, with the audience vote supporting the latter as the primary funder. However Ivan Buckley, representing the RDAs, expressed uncertainty, saying waste as a local issue may require a more localised solution.

Investing in the future

Nearly 70% of delegates felt that the EPSRC should take the lead in nuclear. Speakers William Herbert and Sam Humphry-Baker, both of the University of Oxford, argued that the EPSRC could help reinvigorate this declining industry by funding grants and scholarships. Nuclear power generation is economically viable, they argued, when the price of gas and a CO2 tariff is taken into consideration. This is despite a new nuclear build costing £2bln/GW, higher than the £0.5bln/GW for combined cycle gas turbine plants.

Meanwhile, a lack of harmony in the wind industry is preventing the UK from capitalising on technology ‘at the cutting edge of materials research globally’, said Bruce Valpy, Director
of BVG Associates, London. Materials and their manufacture is a medium- to long-term
priority that could offer reasonable cost savings and enable the supply chain to expand.

Stephen Wilson, Director of Wind and Marine, NaREC, sought support to overcome the challenges of running devices offshore. Four to five prototypes have been installed and around 150-200 devices are in development. However, Wilson added, ‘These dragons can enable [marine] to be a major industry in the UK’. The potential growth is significant – by 2020 one gigawatt of energy could be produced by 1,000 wave/tidal devices, he said.

The event was organised by Materials UK (MatUK), the policy and legislation arm of the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network, and will inform MatUK and potential investors of the technologies that require urgent funding.

Further information: MatUK

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