Attempting to square the energy circle

‘The most important development in UK energy research and innovation for decades.’ In this manner, Alistair Darling hailed the publication of the first detailed plans for the new Energy Technologies Institute.


‘The most important development in UK energy research and innovation for decades.’ In this manner, industry secretary Alistair Darling hailed the publication of the first detailed plans for the new Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), the government’s proposed centre of excellence for energy R&D.

For obvious reasons, we can be forgiven for being a touch sceptical when a government minister tells us that a new initiative is in any sense epoch-defining.

In this case, however, we must hope that the fanfare is matched by the reality. The ETI is the government’s response to a dilemma that you need to look little further than your domestic gas bill to grasp the scale of. How is the UK going to square the particularly problematic circle of rising energy demand, declining domestic natural resources, spiralling wholesale prices and drastic environmental targets?

Any one of the above represents a challenge. Together they add up to a major headache for the government, business and consumers. The ETI will, according to Darling, ‘provide the UK with a pre-eminent, world-class means for delivering energy technology research to underpin eventual deployment’.

Befitting the scale of its ambitions, the government has promised to come up with some serious cash — up to £500m if the private sector can match that figure with investment of its own.

Four companies were prepared to have their name attached to the launch prospectus for the ETI and they are pretty good partners to have on board. BP, Shell, E.ON and EDF are by any measure serious players in the energy business, and the support of companies of this scale is more or less indispensable if the ETI is to be a success.

However, one of the most significant passages of the ETI’s launch document is the following: ‘Some of the best ideas and research excellence exist within smaller companies such as university spin-offs. The Institute will be structured to welcome and encourage the involvement of such firms, recognising the particular funding and other challenges they face.’

The final structure of the ETI must make good on this promise. Important though it is to have the BPs and EDFs on board, making the most of the contribution of technology-rich smaller companies is equally vital.

This is where the hidden gems of innovation will be uncovered. The ‘particular funding challenges’ referred to by the launch document are the difficulties of getting those innovations into the fast lane of the technology highway. If the ETI can come up with a mechanism that overcomes this, it will go a long way to justifying its fanfare.

One other point. The launch document makes much of the need to achieve synergy between the work of the ETI and the UK’s national energy policy. Once the institute is up and running, it must be allowed to pursue those goals without being subjected to sudden changes in priority of the type governments are wont to announce at the drop of a hat.

Decide the goals, stick to them, and let the engineers and technologists get on with it.


Andrew Lee


Editor, The Engineer