Energy advances are in the pipeline

More than 10 years and $3.6bn (£2bn), the Caspian oil pipeline has now opened, designed to provide the west with an alternative and more secure energy source than the middle east.


The 1,770km pipeline, which stretches from Azerbaijan through Georgia to the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, will pump up to one million barrels of oil per day to the west when it reaches full capacity in 2008 – more than one per cent of the world’s production.


The controversial pipeline, which has provoked the ire of the world’s environmentalists, was built by a consortium led by the UK’s BP. The company’s chief executive Lord Browne heralded the project as ‘an heroic engineering achievement’, claiming it will boost energy output to the US and Europe for decades to come, while improving security of supply.


As well as reducing reliance on the middle east, the pipeline was also designed to bypass Russia and loosen its stranglehold on exports from the region. But despite the fanfare, and although it will certainly increase supplies, the pipeline is obviously not a panacea, particularly given the pressing need to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions.


There are also fears that limited capacity may cause the world’s refineries to struggle to convert oil supplies into the fuel needed to meet rising demand from south-east Asia and the world’s airline industry.


Technology can help to meet energy demands and reduce the environmental impact of energy consumption. Enhanced oil recovery, in which carbon dioxide captured from coalburning power plants is pumped into undersea reservoirs to dislodge oil supplies trapped in cracks, could yield more resources from the North Sea while reducing emissions. With oil prices hovering around the $50 per barrel mark the technique is looking increasingly economically viable.


The UK is also developing world-class technology for detecting offshore oil and gas. Southampton University spin-off company Offshore Hydrocarbon Mapping (OHM) has won plaudits for its electromagnetic sensing technology, and was recently named as one of the four finalists for the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious Mac-Robert Award.


If carbon dioxide targets are to be met, nuclear and renewable energy technologies will have a significant role to play. If Blair is as serious about pushing the climate change agenda to the rest of the world as he would have us believe, and with the G8 summit looming, we need to be developing technologies that will be eagerly taken up by countries such as China and India.


These countries will be looking for technologies offering considerable energy efficiency improvements and significant emissions savings, but which can be relatively easily and cost-effectively transferred to the developing world. One possible example is combined heat and power (CHP), which can result in thermal efficiencies of up to 90 per cent. This market is being pursued by UK companies such as fuel cell developer Ceres Power.


If we can meet this challenge, 10 years from now we could be talking about the UK exporting technologies to China and India.