Generating ideas

4 min read

Prof Nick Jenkins of the Joule Energy Research Centre is pioneering low-carbon technologies, as well as smart systems to improve local energy efficiency. Christopher Sell reports.

While the dominant flavour of last month’s energy review was nuclear, the report was not without hope for the renewables lobby. Suggesting that electricity companies will have to provide 20 per cent of energy from renewables, the report also zeroed in on the potential of small-scale, local renewable schemes to help alleviate the UK’s burgeoning energy crisis. This emphasis on local solutions chimes nicely with the aims of a newly launched energy research facility at Manchester University, funded by the Northwest Development Agency. Headed by Prof Nick Jenkins, the £10m Joule Centre for Energy Researchhas been set up to pioneer a number of low-carbon technologies, including new wave, tidal and micro-hydro technologies and technologies aimed at improving energy efficiency in the home and industry. With a career that has included time at BP Solar, the Wind Energy Group, and five years in developing regions of Bangladesh and Pakistan, Jenkins is well placed to head a centre dedicated to pursuing sustainable energy technologies. He explained that the centre’s work is split into two main areas: supply and demand. In the case of demand, this incorporates energy assessment and modelling, as well as participating in national energy policy and demand reduction. The centre’s work on supply deals with energy technology research into areas such as offshore generation, energy infrastructure and fuel cells. ‘We work in a similar method to EPSRC,’ said Jenkins. ‘We ask colleagues in regional universities for proposals, we evaluate them, get referee comments, and re-evaluate. The only difference is the evaluation criteria emphasises benefits to the north west and collaboration with regional industries.’ Current research includes a project led by Prof Richard Burrows of Liverpool University in collaboration with Liverpool’s Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory, which is looking at the tidal power potential of the eastern Irish Sea. This two-year study, due to start next month, will assess the various environmental problems - such as siltation - that have been associated with barrages and tidal energy devices and will also carry out a great deal of physical modelling in order to optimise the shape and configuration of such devices. The centre is also working with a group at Lancaster University to investigate the potential of micro-hydro power - hydroelectric power stations with a power rating of 100kw or less - in the north west. This study will involve identifying the costs and revenues associated with different turbine technologies, as well as estimating the environmental consequences that currently constrain hydro development. In a separate development, the centre is currently funding improvements to the test facility that houses the innovative wave energy device known as the Manchester Bobber (The Engineer, 19 September 2005). Partly developed by Jenkins himself, this device uses the oscillatory motion of waves to generate electricity. A 1:10 scale model of the device has already undergone tests in Blyth, Northumberland, and the group hopes to install a full scale offshore prototype in the near future. But innovative methods of generating renewable energy must go hand in hand with demand reduction claims Jenkins. ‘There is a big debate on how you do demand reduction,’ he said. ‘Do you achieve it through technology, or should it be through behavioural change?’ He added that an altruistic approach, while admirable, doesn’t necessarily chime with the aims of the regional development agency (RDA). ‘Demand reduction with technology sits better with the regional economic development objectives of the RDA as we are always interested in what these funds do for regional economic activity,’ he said. ‘Having said that, the regional universities are adamant that the scale of demand reductions to make the 60 per cent target are so great that we must also have behavioural change. That debate is running, and where the final emphasis should lie I don’t know.’ Smart metering is one area that Jenkins believes is a positive move for the environment and also a reasonably simple method for consumers to reduce costs. Currently, metering yields little information on the costs and environmental impacts of individual consumption. With smart metering, the energy use and cost are clearly displayed in real time and the supplier can read the meter remotely (eliminating the problems associated with estimated bills). Furthermore, if you produce energy from renewable technologies and are connected to the national grid, you can tell how much energy you are selling back or buying. The UK, once again, lags behind the rest of Europe in embracing this technology - Italy is currently installing 30 million smart meters, while in June 2005 the EU approved a directive for their mandatory installation. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown in his 2006 budget has set aside 5m for a smart meter pilot study. According to energywatch, the consumer watchdog, smart metering could cut energy use by three to 15 per cent and prevent over 60,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions entering the atmosphere. So is the UK on the right track? ‘I think we have a terrible challenge,’ said Jenkins. ‘We have this clearly-stated government ambition of 60 per cent CO2 reduction by 2050, with real progress by 2020, which is just 14 years away. ‘But because our wealth is increasing, that 60 per cent reduction, when you factor in economic growth at the current rate, means that by 2050 our carbon intensity - the amount of carbon used per unit of GDP - will have to drop by 10 per cent from what it is now.’ Perhaps the most obvious solution is to ration energy, but denying the public access to energy is something that no-one in government would be prepared to address, claimed Jenkins. ‘You would be unelectable as a politician if you stood up and said you cannot have this energy.’ The latest figures from the Carbon Trust indicate that the UK is performing as poorly as ever in energy efficiency, claiming that wasted energy will cost UK business £570m this summer. Effectively, even in the summer months, businesses are wasting 15 per cent of total energy spend, which could be cost effectively saved. This equates, the Trust said, to eight million tonnes of CO2 - the equivalent of Birmingham’s annual carbon emissions. But Jenkins reinforced his belief that this challenge must be met with a local, not London-centric approach, preferring the regional energy initiatives set up in Germany, Denmark and Sweden as our best chance to meet it. ‘If we are to reduce our demand and don’t engage people at the local level, are we really going to be successful? It took 10 years to build the last major 400kV overhead line in the UK because of obtaining planning permission. ‘Someone can make a decision somewhere to build something, but if you don’t have local people with you, whether you build them or build them quickly is another matter.’