Fuelling the Future

Fuelling the Future

Fuelling the Future

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Foresight Energy Futures Task Force consultation on Fuelling the Future. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience of energy and environmental issues.

The consultation document provides a comprehensive analysis of this complex and wide-ranging subject. However, although the issues involved may be studied on a national basis, many of them are international in character and must be looked at within a larger framework. Nevertheless, there are certain issues which involve Scotland in particular. These are mainly centred around concerns on electricity network expansion and operation, and the environmental impact of large-scale exploitation of renewable energy resources in areas of the country which are cherished for their inherent natural beauty. Another major issue for Scotland is that of nuclear power. At present, Scotland derives more than half of its electricity from nuclear power stations but these have limited licence lifetimes and a future for Scotland which does not include nuclear power will be significantly different in energy terms.

A key point to make is that, at present, the research approach should be broad and non-selective. As the document notes, it is not in the business of picking winners, and in practice it is likely that a mixed-fuel future will develop with a hybrid approach to the supply and use of energy.

The questions identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

Aims and objectives of the Task Force

Have we identified the right technological and social issues?
Energy policy will have an impact not only directly on agriculture, water resources and land use, but also indirectly on the stability of international relations and world order. It could be useful to consider the effects of the increasing disparity in income levels across the community, and the conflict between developed and developing nations, with the former using over 150 times as much energy and water per person as the latter. With regard to specific issues:

Network Issues
For Scotland, this is a particularly serious problem because of the large areas where population density is low. In terms of electrical energy systems, much of the renewable energy resource of Scotland (and indeed of the United Kingdom as a whole) is located in these areas. Issues such as bottlenecks and reinforcements must be addressed as will be the specific technical issues of managing a future network which could be significantly different from the existing network.

Sustainable Electricity Generating Technology
There will be improvements in the technology of generation equipment but even the present level of development would allow a significant change in the way that electricity is supplied to homes. The Society is encouraged to note that the consultation document does not preclude the idea of a future for nuclear energy. The major challenges in this area will be in the field of operation control, monitoring, metering and marketing rather than straightforward technology.

Efficiency in Generation Technology
Generation efficiency will be important, in particular in the field of Combined Heat and Power (CHP) which is highlighted by the consultation document. However, it must be taken in conjunction with the issue of increased end-use efficiency since it is there that potentially very large improvements in the network can be made.

The whole field of transport is one which could be addressed as a separate item to electricity supply. For example, the move towards rail rather than road transport for movement of heavy goods and the electrification of the railways are two fields which will require significant research in the future.

Magnox technology is now at a stage where stations are being decommissioned. This is occurring safely and to budget and much will be learned from the experience of the Magnox Company in the decommissioning of the nuclear power stations. However, the consultation document is correct in highlighting the point that decommissioning applies to all energy intensive equipment. However, why the document limits this to "large" equipment is unclear since, with a potential installation of hundreds or even thousands of renewable energy plants, there will be a serious and widespread need for sensitive decommissioning of such plants in future.

Regulatory Mechanisms
This field is one where there would be merit in collaboration between social scientists, economists and engineers. To date, regulation has been part of a steep learning-curve. The collapse of the pool system for trading electricity and its replacement with New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA) is probably the most obvious example of the failure of a regulatory mechanism. There will be other more subtle examples.

Environmental Regulations
The consultation document discusses emissions trading as one particular challenge for the future. Other challenges exist in terms of the environmental impact of energy related installations. For example, lack of visual immunity, acoustic noise, and inundation of large areas by water, suggest themselves as some of the issues which will have to be researched.

Social Behaviour and Attitudes
This is probably the most under-researched, yet possibly the most important feature of all. The behaviour of customers in the energy market in the past has largely beeninfluenced by self-interest and a media-driven reaction against nuclear energy. Social behaviour and attitudes is the simplest and most effective short-term tool and in the present market-driven operation of the energy industry, it is probably the best tool to use. However, the long-term and sustainable future may only be guaranteed by a change in social behaviour and attitude, as suggested by the consultation document. This is an area where we can learn from experience and research in other countries and, indeed, can trade experience and understanding. The success, or otherwise, of different government regulations must be studied and compared with the success of educational programmes which are designed to engender "understanding and ownership" to quote the Foresight report.

Analysis of arising R&D themes that are suggested by scenario analysis

Do you agree that these are the major R&D challenges for the future? What have we missed? Which do you consider the most important?

As noted above, the research approach should be broad and non-selective and all the research and development challenges identified will be important. While some are already being pursued to a degree, there is scope for all to be addressed more vigorously.

  • Important areas include:
  • improved fossil fuel extraction,
  • carbon dioxide sequestration,
  • renewable energy generation,
  • biomass and waste utilisation,
  • large-scale energy storage,
  • public attitudes to risk,
  • nuclear waste disposal,
  • the financing of multiple user transmission facilities,
  • the storage of energy at a great variety of scales, and
  • social attitudes and behaviours.

Thought should also be given to a clearer distinction between domestic and commercial heating and other uses of electrical energy, even in the absence of the distinction inherent in CHP. The influence of commercial considerations on the present tariff structure prevents it from fully reflecting the cost and pollution penalties of large 'efficient' generating plants. In addition, opportunities for dual- or multi-purpose schemes should be considered, which could be missed by the single-function agencies that sponsor most large-scale development. Examples might include coastal protection and wave energy development derived from a common scheme.

The context for education and training

What steps can be taken to ensure that future leaders and decision-makers are aware of and understand the core issues involved in energy and environment decisions?
Although the study of energy efficiency is, to some extent, included in the curriculum for the relevant professional disciplines, more needs to be done on designing buildings for efficient energy use, and designing equipment for higher efficiencies and longer life. Avenues of public information and debate also require improvement to capture public attention, and if nuclear power is to form part of the energy mix in the medium term, steps need to be taken to ensure the supply of adequately trained people in this area.

Additional Information

In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh publications which are of relevance to this subject: Energy and the Environment (December 1998); New and Renewable Energy (May 1999); Study of Environmental Planning (October 1999); Royal Commission Study of Environmental Planning (July 2000); Energy and Natural Environment: A Way To Go (September 2000) and Wave and Tidal Energy (February 2001).


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