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Innovation: new energy for the UK

By Dave Elliott

Technological innovation is exciting but risky: blue skies thinking can open up possibilities, but they also have to be tested against reality. It’s easy to get deceived by early hopeful predictions of potential success and allegedly ‘game changing’ developments. We are regularly hit by blasts of enthusiastic coverage of hi tech innovations in the energy field, but not all of it will prove to be viableSome of it may be: there is certainly much enthusiasm about using graphene: But some might think that promises of viable fusion are a little premature.

Some of the new ideas may be real, some of it bunk…although positive news, if realistic, is always welcome. However, there has also been some seriously negative news – like the collapse of the Pelamis wave energy company late last year, as I reported in an earlier post. This was followed by the downsizing of Aquamarine, the developer of the in-shore hinged-flap Oyster wave device. The Scottish government did what it could to help, setting up a new technology development body, Wave Energy Scotland, . But initial failures are part of the innovation process – they can be leant from. Even so, wave energy seems to be much harder to harvest than undersea tidal flowsthough, as I also reported, even the tidal turbine option is facing problems, with Siemens seeking to divest itself of the pioneering UK company Marine Current Turbines, which it took over in 2012.

We are at risk of closing down options. Whereas diversity seems a good principle, especially at an early stage in the innovation process, spreading risk across a range of renewable energy projects. So it would arguably be unwise to abandon wave energy – or tidal power. Like wind, which was ignored by the UK in the 1970s in favour of wave and tidal barrages, both could yet prosper, with costs falling. Though it seems clear that wind will do better- especially off shore wind, and floating wind turbines in particular. e.g. see:

Solar energy, in its various guises, also at one time ignored in the UK, is doing well (5 GW so far) and may do even better. There will be more cost-reducing breakthroughs with PV cell technology and, equally important, more incremental development of applications and operational support systems. Innovation is also rife in the biomass field – there are many types of biomass and diverse routes to a variety of end uses.

The UK’s multi-pronged approach to nuclear energy however, allegedly a mature technology, has been challenged, by no less than one-time US energy secretary Steven Chu, as likely to be unnecessarily expensive: rather than focusing on serial production using one proven design, the UK has backed a range of new very different reactor designs – the French EPR, the Japanese ABWR, the US AP1000 and maybe even Candu and Prism, a widely divergent programme that might cost much more:

However, even sticking with just one reactor type may not avoid cost escalations, as the delayed construction and cost over-run problems with the EPRs in Finland and France have shown, that, along with EDF and Avera’s financial problems, making the UK £24bn Hinkley project look increasingly insecure.

That doesn’t necessarily mean nuclear is dead in the UK or elsewhere. If Hinkley does not go ahead, it will be harder, but the EC’s acceptance of subsidies for Hinkley sets a precedent, which may lead to other projects here and overseas, if government and investor confidence has not been shaken too much. Though, dare I say that this is one technology where perseverance against all odds is not worthwhile. Even one time nuclear enthusiast, ex-chief scientist Sir David King, seems to be jumping ship, or at least preparing for it.

King said that nuclear might not be needed if storage for renewables was available, and certainly, as I will be looking at in my next two posts, storage has moved up the agenda. Though it’s arguably not the only or even the best way to balance variable renewables. You might need a bit. But Keith Barnham pointed out that the German Kombikraftwerk project showed that, with a range of renewables on the grid, you only need 5% storage capacity to satisfy German electricity demand over a year. That may be pushing it to the maximum, and we may need more innovations to balance grids as and when renewables expand, but they are available or under development. For example large-scale CHP/district heating linked to bulk heat storage, and the wind-to-grid approach, with surplus wind-derived power being converted to storable hydrogen. UK company ITM Power’s PEM wind-to-gas electrolyser is a leader in this field, already being used to feed gas to the German gas main. With ideas like this, the emphasis moves away from devices to system-wide innovation, including smart grid demand-management systems.

All of this involves change and that’s inevitably risky. But we can’t avoid change, we have to learn how to mange risks. The government is well aware of this: see this recent Chief Scientist’s annual report, which covers all areas of technology innovation and risk:

It includes commentary on, amongst other things, energy policy, by Andy Stirling from Sussex University. He argues that one of the key problems is that vested interests in the status quo tend to block change and limit inputs from wider constituencies, focusing instead on technological options which lock us into the established order. Staying with what is and what we know may be one way to avoid risks, but in fact it exposes us to more, as the wider environment changes. Rather than buttressing established approaches, we need to cast the net wider. Albert Einstein summed up the overall point well: ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’, but we may need to go further than that and allow new players to get in to the game. Certainly innovation theory suggests that innovations often emerge from ‘outsiders’ and that they often are destructive to the existing order.

Stirling says ‘It is remarkable how many major global industries are building around once-marginal technologies like wind turbines, ecological farming, super energy-efficient buildings, or green chemistry. All of these owe key elements in their pioneering origins to early development by grassroots social movements. For instance, without the small country of Denmark remaining partly below the radar of international nuclear interests, able to nurture alternative energy strategies in the 1970s that were driven strongly by anti-nuclear social movements, it is arguable that the present global wind industry might never have become competitive. This is just one of the examples of innovations that were systematically marginalized – sometimes actively suppressed – by incumbent interests in science, government and industry’. He does add that ‘It is of course important not to become too romantic about the dynamics of social movements and their favoured innovations. These too warrant exactly the same kinds of healthy scepticism appropriate to other actors in innovation debates.’

Certainly, as argued above we have to be wary of premature optimism. But innovation also needs vision, imagination and drive, which often initially come from outside the established system. Though what happens next is also crucial. Eventually, a new establishment forms. Hopefully though it will avoid choosing inflexible options and the resultant ‘lock in’ to a fixed path…

*The renewables field is bursting with new ideas. If you want an up-to-date guide to renewables, with the basic physics explained, there is now a third revised and expanded edition of the excellent Routledge text book ‘Renewable Energy Resources’ by John Twiddell and Tony Weir.

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