Collaborate for change

Co-operation between industry and academia is key to the success of large-scale deployment of renewable energy, says David Clarke

Meeting the 2050 targets for the reduction in CO2 and increase in renewable energy is going to be challenging.

The Institute of Economic Affairs estimates that worldwide we will need to deploy 650,000 wind turbines, put two billion hybrid cars on the road, build 1,000 new nuclear stations, and renovate more than 300 million homes.

These are enormous challenges but present huge business opportunities. There is the prospect of a whole new industrial base opening up, requiring the development of new skills, technologies and supply chains.

Additional large-scale systems integration groups are needed to enable us to create these capabilities effectively and rapidly. Academia, manufacturers and funding bodies will need to work together to make this happen. Only then will fast-developing energy companies be able to take their solutions to market without delay. As companies develop, they will inevitably explore global options for markets and for suppliers, creating further need for effective collaboration skills.

Recent reports from the department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform highlight that some wind turbine blade manufacturers have lead times of two to three years, while key sub-systems such as large bearings are taking up to 32 months to deliver. The manufacturers do not expect any improvement in the lead times before 2010, and the market leader for turbine installation vessels is booked until 2013.

This, combined with the increasing worldwide demand for energy, offers long-term opportunities for new entrants to the energy market. but meanwhile, it is clearly a bottleneck to large-scale deployment.

The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) aims to catalyse development of existing and new entrants to the energy sector and accelerate projects that will contribute initially to the UK’s low-carbon energy targets. It has a strong practical focus, encouraging the creation of project consortiums that have access to all the resources required to take a project to demonstration and, potentially, to commercial deployment.

A key benefit of this approach is that supply chain issues can be anticipated and addressed early on. We at the ETI expect that creating this sort of collaborative regime will help to stimulate the formation of new supply chains appropriate for long-term volume production.

Supply chain capacity issues are not the only constraints that could hinder the scale of industrial activity that is needed. There is also a shortage of experienced project managers and engineers entering the energy sector — and smaller firms in the renewable sector suffer the most. However, it is here that some of the most demanding, exciting and potentially beneficial engineering challenges lie.

The most vital part of the supply chain is people. ETI projects aim to attract people to centres of excellence in low-carbon energy — in academia and industry — and our consortium approach to projects should encourage the formation of new businesses and ventures.

To meet the 2020 target of generating 15 per cent of the UK’s energy needs from renewables, a pool of new suppliers and skilled project managers and engineers is crucial. The ETI and bodies such as the Carbon Trust and the Technology Strategy Board will support delivery of these capabilities and help de-risk new approaches ready for commercialisation.

Ultimately large-scale deployment of renewable energy will depend on our skills as engineers and our ability to create affordable, reliable and maintainable systems.

Dr David Clarke is chief executive of The Energy Technologies Institute