Interview: Nigel Brandon on the future of Britain's energy sector

Published on Thursday, 14 November 2013 13:56
Written by Daniel Mason

With energy prices dominating the domestic political agenda, Professor Nigel Brandon – the director of Imperial College London's Energy Futures Lab – discusses green levies, nuclear power, fracking, and why he is optimistic that the UK can meet the challenge of transitioning to a low carbon economy.

Govtoday: What do you make of the current political argument around energy prices and how it has become partly a debate about whether to reduce or scrap green levies?

Nigel Brandon: You've got a number of things to optimise when you look at energy. You've got to think about the sustainability aspect, the security aspect and the affordability aspect. One shouldn't necessarily conflate fuel poverty with energy security and sustainability. If we are going to – as we wish to and need to – transition to a lower carbon energy system, then that will cost money. That's absolutely clear and there's a societal good aspect to that, and there are therefore questions about how society pays for it.

So one side is about the transition to a more sustainable and secure energy supply, the other about fuel poverty and affordability. Those two should be handled separately. Society has to make a choice. We provide, for the very poorest sections of the population, support through a whole range of measures and should continue to do so.

Is there a danger that the public will turn against investment in carbon reduction technologies and related research if they associate it, rightly or wrongly, with rising energy bills?

There is a risk of that, absolutely, because these things are complicated. So the way this is handled and managed and reported – and indeed implemented – these are all important things. This is a societal investment: we are going to pay for a lot of this through funding raised from our taxes and other measures.

As a result society does have, and the community at a large has, a right to a say on what should be done with its money. These are complicated issues and it's absolutely true that they are politically linked. But it's about investing now to save and be in the right place in the longer term. It's whether you choose to make that investment. We live in a democracy and people are going to understandably have a choice through how they vote and what they say.

Is Britain investing enough into researching future energy technologies?

This is about research, which generally has an impact in the medium and longer term. Of course it can have an impact in the shorter term depending on the nature of the work. But lots of the research is more transformational, and clearly if one isn't investing now, one won't reap the benefits of that in the future.

Is there enough funding going into research? Well, we could always be doing more research. It is fair to say that research investment in energy in the UK is generally lower than lots of other countries. If we're looking in terms of benchmarking against other countries, we could be investing more money in this area. And there are many exciting things we could be doing but we're constrained in terms of delivering.

It's also increasingly evident that we should be partnering closely between the research community and making certain the research outcomes are translated up into practice – so it's not just academic research but how that research comes through into industry, or through new companies, through new regulations and so on, and that's how it makes a difference. It's right along the innovation chain that we need to pay attention.

What exactly are the constraints you feel you are working under?

There's only so much we can do with the funding that's available. We can only work at a certain scale. What research investment does – and it's an investment in people and knowledge that we need for the future – we clearly could be doing a lot more. It is fair to say the UK research base is constrained by the amount of money, not by the amount of ideas, so we could be doing a lot more if the funding was available. But the translation of that research so that it makes a difference is also important.

Does the reliance on French and Chinese companies to build the UK's new nuclear power plant demonstrate what happens when you don't sufficiently invest in research?

It's always the case, isn't it, that if you have a world class indigenous industry then clearly you can draw on that when opportunities present themselves. With hindsight perhaps we would have liked to have retained more capability. But we didn't, so we are where we are. It's a lesson for the future. Where we have world class capability we must work hard to retain it, and where new opportunities emerge we must work hard to compete. If you don't nurture that capability then you can't compete when these opportunities come up. When we look 10 or 20 years into the future, it's really important – whether these are emerging technologies like fuel cells or batteries or whatever – it's important that the UK is competing.

But generally you support nuclear being part of our energy mix?

Personally I think it's difficult to see how we'd meet our targets without nuclear being part of that picture. Therefore I'm pleased to see the decision.

What about shale gas and the controversy over fracking? Where do you stand on that?

In the UK currently more than 94 per cent of our primary energy supply comes from fossil resources. We are a fossil economy, we're trying to transition. Many parts of the rest of the world are also fossil dependent and it is quite clear that fossil energy is going to be an extremely important part of the energy mix for many years to come. Of course we should be looking at how we manage that, and things like carbon capture and storage are important enabling technologies to continue to use these fuels in a low carbon society.

Therefore we have to accept the fact that we are going to use and consume fossil energy. So the question then is: where does that come from, at least for the next decade, as other technologies come on stream? What about gas, and where does that gas come from? Well clearly gas is not a zero carbon fuel but it is better than coal in terms of its carbon content. I think it is then about who is producing it as sustainably as possible, or with the minimum environmental impact.

If we're going to use shale gas and tight gas and these sorts of resources I think the question then – for me, there's absolutely no reason why we shouldn't do that, provided we are paying attention to the impacts of its production in terms of the environment.

We are better understanding that, but it is also a case where there is an opportunity for lots more research than has taken place historically. To some extent the technology has moved ahead of the research base. People are working hard on that at the moment. I see no reason why we shouldn't do it, but of course we should be paying attention to local environmental impacts as well as the broader agenda around carbon.

You mentioned carbon capture and storage – where are we with the development of that technology?

It's one of those really challenging areas in that if you see a world continuing to use fossil energy for its electricity production and industrial processes, you simply have to find a way of managing the carbon emissions from that if you're going to address the wider carbon reduction targets. Doing something with that carbon is important, so capturing that carbon, storing it or utilising it to turn it into something else is therefore necessary. The challenge, of course, is that it is expensive, it involves additional processes that consume more fuel and it has to be done on a large scale.

There isn't today a strong market incentive for anyone to actually do that and therein lies the difficulty. We have to learn by doing to drive down the price, so we have to make commitments to do this at scale and we have to find some means to enable the market to support that. It's a difficult challenge, but on the other hand if we don't manage to bring the technology through, then it's very hard to see how we'll meet some of our carbon targets in a world in which fossil fuels will continue to be consumed for decades to come.

How about improving energy efficiency? Is that still the forgotten element of this whole debate?

As part of the conversation it's moved up the agenda significantly in the last five years or so. The Green Deal is an attempt to try to provide the mechanisms for that, the research council has invested in a quite a major programme of research on energy efficiency and energy demand – if we can reduce the demand it's even better.

It was a bit of a forgotten area, but I don't think it is any more. But it's also quite difficult as it is wrapped up in all sorts of attitudes and behaviours. In other words it is not just a technical area. It is as much a social and cultural area as anything else, about managing demand as well as how you deliver efficient energy services.

It is obviously an area in which there is opportunity but because of its diffuse nature – it permeates everything – it is difficult to take a central initiative, it's down to individual practitioners, consumers, businesses to do their best. As long as energy prices continue to rise, which they probably will because of all sorts of reasons, then there is a strong incentive to be more efficient.

How does improving energy security tie in with carbon reduction goals?

The one thing you can say is that while some of the newer low carbon technologies are definitely more expensive today, they do give you some independence from classical concerns over increasingly imported fossil energy. That is an aspect of energy security that's important.

If we were to move to more hydrogen in our energy mix, rather than gasoline, for transport that would make us less dependent on imported gasoline. So there are some solutions that are consistent both with the sustainability agenda and the security agenda. We shouldn't forget that. They will have some cost implications but you need to look at the picture as a whole to see what the overall costs and benefits are.

The other question is about issues of capacity and storage on the network and that is to some extent an issue of the moment. It's an issue to do with how fast we are shutting down plants and building new plants. We need to make certain we are paying to attention to that and continue to pay attention to that as the system evolves over time. Certainly you can look at future options for a low carbon electricity system, a mix of nuclear and wind for example, in which you would also need to think about how flexibility is introduced – hence the interest in technologies like energy storage for example.

There are certainly technologies that need to come through and have a role to play in a future electricity system to ensure that it is secure. That is slightly different though to the slightly broader definition of security, which is about where we get our transport and heating fuels from. So there are two aspects to it – the security of the system that we've built, and the security of our primary energy supply. We can address both of those, we know what the issues are, there are a range of technologies that we can deploy and innovate around to help us address that.

Overall, are you optimistic about the future of Britain's energy sector?

I think I am. We can't be blinkered and underestimate the challenge because we are looking at a substantive transition and these transitions are always difficult. That said, I think there is lots of exciting work going on, lots of exciting innovations, and some really bright, able and keen young people entering the workforce out of universities that are motivated to make a difference. If we can harness all that passion and energy we can certainly move in the right direction. It's a challenge but I think we're up to it.

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