Energy and Natural Environment Panel: A way to go

Energy and Natural Environment Panel: A way to go

Energy and Natural Environment Panel: A way to go

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Foresight Energy and Natural Environment Panel's consultation on A way to go. 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 environment issues.

There are many ways of approaching the problem of sustainable development and the consultation document, though vague in many respects, points out the need for change and provides some sensible proposals for moving forward.

The specific issues identified in the consultation document are addressed below:

The Drivers of Change

Question: Is the picture of drivers from economic and population growth complete?

With respect to drivers of change, it could be useful to consider the effects of the increasing disp

rity 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 than the latter. It might also be helpful to identify the growth in demand for food and fibre in the same context as the growth in transport and cities/settlements. Competition between these needs can be an important element of environmental planning.

Question: Do you agree that the changing market/economic framework is important?

In terms of the market/economic framework for energy, the principal driver for reducing demand will be the cost of energy. Regulation or selective tax levels can be used to drive the method of power generation, with other factors including cost penalties for over-use, and rewards for less use (i.e. energy efficiency measures). A global reduction in demand, however, would not be feasible without the leadership of the USA, as the highest world consumer of energy. From a UK standpoint, our future prosperity depends upon improvements in our international competitiveness. Energy efficiency has a significant part to play in this and at the same time contributes to reducing our adverse impact on the environment.

Question: What other trends are significant for the demands made on natural resources, energy and the natural environment?

Growth in transport is likely to act against efforts to control carbon dioxide emissions. With the North Sea gas resource currently over maximum production, the UK may have to import natural gas from other countries (such as Russia and Iran) before 2005. With the legally binding Kyoto targets for reducing the levels of emission of greenhouse gases, renewable energy has the promise of a useful, if limited, contribution as part of a portfolio of measures to achieve the targets. It is difficult, however, to envisage how the UK can meet Kyoto targets without the building of new nuclear power stations, especially when account is taken of the nuclear plant which is presently scheduled for closure.

In terms of renewable energy, Scotland is fortunate in having a lot of the resources of wind, wave, tidal hydro-electric and even solar energy. However, the present 2%of electricity in the UK generated from renewables is largely from the medium to large size hydroelectric plants, many of which are in Scotland. Given that present levels of hydroelectric generation took decades to install, doubts must exist over the possibility of installing more than double that capacity in other renewable energy forms in less than a decade. The building of new hydro plant will also be limited due to difficulties in obtaining planning permission and large land-based wind farms are likely to experience similar problems.

Most renewables will also be connected to the electricity network at distribution level voltages, so-called "embedded generation". The distribution network was not originally designed to handle such injection of energy and redesign and strengthening of distribution network will need to be undertaken. Large sums of money will have to be spent on this activity and on the development of a control and operational strategy which can cope with this new arrangement of the supply network.

In this context, a serious re-evaluation of the nuclear option should be considered. With improved systems, increased understanding and more open communications, there is no reason why the benefits of nuclear energy and technology cannot greatly outweigh the risks and fears.

Question: All groups such as producers, consumers, and regulators influence the impact on the environment and on energy use. What groups have the most effect and hence should we target?

In domestic and commercial settings the consumption of primary energy in buildings and by transport is largely influenced by short-term expediency. Introducing relatively high cost improvements, for example double-glazed windows, only generates a return over a period of 20 years or more. In the past the Government has promoted home insulation schemes which do not address the structurally limiting constraints on energy conservation built into the housing stock during initial construction. The relatively small turnover of the housing stock in each decade makes these energy losses difficult to contain. The same arguments can be applied to commercial properties. Thus, even well intentioned initiatives in energy conservation started in the 1970s at the time of the world energy crisis, have not often been sustained.

Sustainability is everyone's responsibility and all stakeholders should play a part in this. However, there would be benefit in building a picture of energy inputs and outputs in regional and local economies so that identifiable savings can be targeted over a prescribed planning period. Government could help this process by assisting the conduct of targeted energy analysis in the domestic and commercial sectors.

Stepping Stones to Sustainability

The three steps are logical but are based on the assumption that a "step change" is needed in modes of production, consumption, management and regulation. Arguments for this conclusion are not presented, yet such a radical approach would be difficult to sell to the public. It is more likely that less dramatic but steadily sustained progress toward a target would be successful. By developing a positive culture in the use of natural resources and protection of the environment, everyone will be encouraged to become involved in continuously seeking ways of achieving a greater degree of sustainability.

In the short term, encouraging the movement of freight by rail (and even possibly canal) would be valuable. In terms of reducing the use of fossil fuel, the only current instrument in place is the climate change levy. However, in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions there would be merit in a move to a carbon tax to reward generation systems, such as renewable energy, which produce less carbon dioxide.

The Future: Challenges and Opportunities

Question: Do you agree that these are the major challenges?

One of the key challenges identified by the document is the generation of a positive culture toward the use of natural resources and the protection of the environment. If this issue is not addressed properly, then all other effort is likely to be wasted.

Question: Which are most significant for the application of UK "know-how"?

The challenges of nuclear energy are an area in which Scotland, and the UK, has considerable experience and expertise. That expertise, however, is slowly being dismantled and this trend should be reversed so that a critical mass of expertise can be retained and used to redevelop a new generation of nuclear options.

Question: Which are local and which are widespread - offering large opportunities for application of solutions?
Opportunities are likely to expand for (i) more energy-efficient transport, particularly in urban communities (e.g. light rail/tram); (ii) combined heat and power generation (co-generation, small to mid-scale applications); (iii) renewable energy; and (iv) sustainable and energy-efficient building materials.

Question: In what areas is the UK particularly well advanced?

Britain is well placed geographically for leading research, development, and applications of wind and wave power generation. It also has a strong engineering base to develop hybrid power systems (such as photovoltaic-desiel power systems for remote area power supplies) for which a global demand at many scales is likely.

In agriculture, the UK is also advanced in managing efficient use of fertiliser and pesticides at the farm scale, and there are opportunities to apply this knowledge worldwide for sustainable agriculture. Water management will become an even more important global issue in future and the UK has a very strong reputation for its water resource research and consultancy and should make sure it can respond to increasing demand for these services worldwide.

Research, Development and Demonstration (RDD) Themes

Question: Are there particular themes that you wish to highlight?

Nuclear power
As noted above, the Panel should come to terms with nuclear power, rather than ignoring or dismissing it, as this document does. Without nuclear power, the UK will have little chance of meeting Kyoto obligations on the emissions of greenhouse gases. There should therefore be an R&D programme in this area as there is much room for innovation (e.g. accelerator controlled reactors) which would make nuclear power safer.

Disposal strategies for nuclear waste
The dilemma for the operators of civil nuclear power plants throughout the European Union is that strategies for the intermediate and longer-term storage of nuclear waste materials have not been carried forward to a satisfactory conclusion in any country which has a large dependency on nuclear-generated electricity. In environmental terms the problem should be shared between countries, as there is mutual self-interest in ensuring that there is no carry-over of the effects of this form of industrial pollution from one country to another. It is, therefore, appropriate for the UK to join forces with other countries in the EU, particularly France and Germany, to develop and implement an EU-wide approach. Deep rock monitored storage, using current vitrification technology, is perfectly feasible and provides a level of safety very much higher than that presently demanded for hazardous chemical and biological substances. In addition there are new possibilities for dealing with waste by neutron processing, and for new types of accelerator reactors, which merit R&D investment. Reference should be made to the recent report of a sub-committee of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee on the Management of Nuclear Waste.

Climate Change
The dynamics of the different Greenhouse gases need more research, especially in oceanography, and it is encouraging that carbon cycles are now top of the NERC agenda. Given the gradual nature of the expected climate changes, it should also be possible to achieve a consistency of approach which will enable countries to share their knowledge in a practical way. For example, the vast store of engineering expertise built up in the Netherlands in engineering sea dykes and other coastal defences could be deployed in the UK. Scientists and engineers could also participate in public forums to promote understanding of the social, economic and environmental implications of climatic changes. The concept of risk management should also be developed to place climatic change in a proper perspective.

Question: Which of the assessment criteria in selecting priorities do you consider are the most important?

The RSE believes the list of assessment criteria identified is comprehensive and that there is a need to prioritise the RDD effort.

Barriers to Innovation

Question: Do you recognise the same institutional and other barriers?
High profile approaches that demonstrate UK innovation will be desirable whether they are in the private sector or with government sponsorship. International collaboration will also assist in capturing the global market and Government aid programmes have a useful role in this regard.

Although the UK is a research leader in biotechnology, and genetic engineering applied to agriculture, more applied research in crop and animal production is needed. Both types of research need to proceed together in order to identify how to use the new crops in various environments, particularly when water and nutrients may be limiting.


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