Why we do not have the energy

Where will we be in 20 years? Energy is the first of four broad themes in the 2020 Vision initiative to come under scrutiny from David Fowler

Early next century, the UK will become a net importer of energy. With the continuing decline of our manufacturing base, and the focus of financial services moving to the Far East, the country will be unable to pay for this deficit.

The UK cannot expect the same standard of living without a radical change in our competitiveness, and the provision of world-class education and training. There remains an underlying anti-science and anti-engineering culture in this country and we are deluding ourselves if we think we have systems to deliver such education and training.

The UK is, and will continue to be, a follower rather than a leader in energy technology as its coal, nuclear, and oil and gas industries decline. Technologies which would sustain us in the longer term, namely coal and nuclear, are being allowed to lapse. Decisions to run down such technologies have been driven by short-termism and ill-informed perceptions. Government intervention is needed to develop and implement a national energy strategy within a global context.

This gloomy prognosis was a summary of the interim report of the 2020 Vision energy study group, bringing together 13 institutions with an interest in the subject led by the IMechE, and delivered to the Engineering Conference last year by then IMechE president Professor Ernest Shannon. His words gained remarkably little coverage at the time.

Shannon went on to highlight factors such as the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the doubling of energy used in transport, the limited resources of oil and gas and the closure of coal mines, effectively cutting down coal reserves, and the lack of government direction needed to allow new technologies to be developed. The 2020 Vision study was intended to address the issues.

Shannon said the study group’s analysis would cover fuel supply, fuel conversion including electricity generation, energy use and trends in demand and supply, and environmental impacts. He looked forward to a debate `on the matters we expect to be important in the first quarter of the next century’, such as the revival of nuclear power, new sources of natural gas, ways of reducing demand for transport, clean technologies for the combustion of coal, fuel cells, and even the restraint of population growth.

Four seminars will debate this over the next two months, beginning today with fossil fuel supply.

With the aim, says IMechE director general Dr Richard Pike, of identifying `the major issues where we could add value as a profession’, the study group has focused on four themes. Apart from fossil fuels, they are energy conversion processes, energy efficiency in buildings, and propulsion systems. The future of nuclear power will be considered separately in a major IMechE conference next year.

The output from the seminars will be a report – not, says IMechE engineering director Dr David Noble, just another energy policy document, but something `readable, relevant, not sitting on a bookcase’. It will be, he hopes, `a major contribution to the understanding of the energy scene, where we are and where we think we’re going’.

At present the organisers are compiling a 180 page scene setting document – the Engineering Challenge Analysis – to be distributed to everyone attending the seminars. At each, speakers will pick up themes from the document. Crucially, the afternoon of each seminar will feature an hour long debate in which the chairman will try to draw out the audience’s ideas. The final report, to be published next year, will consist of the analysis document plus a summary of the issues raised in the debate.

It will seek to influence engineers, industry, the general public, and the government, though Noble is doubtful about how much notice governments take of documents they have not commissioned themselves. But Pike says: `It will focus on the engineering challenge, and contribute to the wider debate involving government and industry.’ Good politicians, he believes, will take up the report’s themes and add to the debate.

The seminar audiences will be split roughly 50/50 between invited guests and paying delegates. A substantial contingent of senior DTI people has been invited, providing another route to influence policymaking.

Noble says the Open Forums will be central parts of each seminar. `We’ve made it plain to key people that there will be an opportunity to stand up and say what they think, and we undertake to make their views known, however controversial.’

Noble says that the organisers have tried to make sure the audience includes people `from the ends of the spectrum of opinion’ though, wary of the debate being hijacked, he says `we have not gone out of our way to seek radicals’. A possible criticism is that the speakers are perhaps biased towards the usual suspects from the great and the good; lacks an outside view from a respected environmental figure, or someone such as Amory Lovins or Ernst von Weizsacker, authors of The Factor Four Challenge, which suggested ways of quadrupling the efficiency of our use of resources, could perhaps have provided a fresh alternative perspective.

Noble stresses the process aims to have a lasting influence. `We’re looking at follow-up action so that it doesn’t die when the seminar ends,’ he says.

Issues, ideas and challenges

Consultant Rowland Sheard, former head of gas purchasing for National Power, is chairman of the organising group for the Fossil Fuel Supply seminar. He does not wholly share the gloomy view set out in last year’s interim report on the UK’s energy prospects: `There are plenty of reserves of coal, oil and gas, but to keep costs down we do need to keep the technologies advancing.’

The key message he hopes will come from the seminar is: `With the right engineers and technology we will be able to develop the UK’s resources with optimal effect and sell round the world.’

Topics to be covered include supply and demand, and future technology for coal, oil and gas.

Peter Johnson, immediate past president of the Institute of Energy and chairman of the organising committee for the Energy Conversion Processes seminar (2 October), says: `We hope to highlight the issues and who’s doing what to address them. Hopefully people will leave thinking that there are challenges.’ Speakers will cover gas turbine development, the quality of transport fuels for new efficient engine designs, and the role of renewables.

Energy Efficiency in Buildings (16 October) will address the available technology for domestic and commercial buildings, energy reduction targets, energy controls and the potential for photovoltaic cells. Organising committee chairman Doug Oughton, a director of consultant Oscar Faber, expects `radical ideas… from industry, consultants and academics at the forefront of technology’.

On Propulsion (4 November), speakers will look at aero-engines, gasoline and diesel engined vehicles, rail traction and marine power. Energy consultant David White, organising committee chairman, expects a radical look at ideas such as the design of ships to skim over the water or the use of carbon fibre to replace steel and make cars lighter.