A burning issue

To fulfil our obligations under the Kyoto protocol the UK must depend less on carbon-based fuels. So how well prepared are we and what technologies will be needed? David Fowler explains.

In an effort to halt global warming and meet the UK’s Kyoto obligations, it is widely accepted that we have to move to a low-carbon economy. But while scientists and politicians accept the desirability of reducing the dependence of the UK and the developed world on carbon-based fuels, there is less consensus about how to achieve this.

For instance, what technologies will be needed? How well advanced are they? And how well is the UK prepared?

A recent report commissioned by the Carbon Trust, which set out to identify the technologies with the greatest carbon-saving potential in the short to medium term, sheds some light on these questions. The trust was set up by the government in 2001 to take the lead on, and support, the development of a low-carbon technology sector in the UK. It wanted to focus its investment under its Low Carbon Innovation Programme, worth £75m over three years, on areas where it would have the greatest effect. The trust identified 49 key technologies ranging from nuclear fusion to biomass. AEA Technology carried out the analysis.

The result placed the technology in one of four categories, based on carbon-saving potential and the likely impact of Carbon Trust funding. most important is ‘Focus’, where carbon-saving potential is high and the trust’s funding could make a significant difference.

‘Consider’ contains technology where funding could make a difference but carbon-saving potential is lower, including photovoltaics and wave power.’Monitor’ contains technologies with high carbon-saving potential but where funding is unlikely to make much difference – including fuel cells for transport, carbon dioxide sequestration, and wind power. ‘Review periodically’ contains technology with low carbon-saving potential, where funding is unlikely to make much impact.

Carbon Trust technology director David Vincent said: ‘We’re not saying we’ll reject anything out of hand. But as you drift towards the lower priority for us, the onus on persuading us lies more with the proposer.’

The list will be reviewed annually.

One of the criteria for assessing funding applications is whether there is ‘a clear route to commercial viability’. Vincent accepts that £75m is a limited sum, but in most cases the trust does not expect to be the sole funder.

So what made the top category?

Biomass for local heat generation; buildings – the fabric, heating and cooling, ventilation and integrated design; various types of combined heat and power including fuel cells; and hydrogen infrastructure.

Some estimates suggest that biomass – burning specially grown crops or waste from crops to produce heat, or digesting biowaste to produce methane – could meet a third of the UK’s energy needs. Vincent said there are many issues surrounding biomass projects of which combustion technology is one. Another is the availability of the crop close enough to the plant so that any carbon gains are not cancelled out by having to transport the material too far. This limits the size of plant and affects its viability. Yet another is whether the plant should be capable of burning biomass from several sources in case one is cut off: this could mean having a more generic design of burner and sacrificing some efficiency.

The trust hopes to encourage technology manufacturers and producers of biomass ‘to come together to form cohesive projects’.

About a third of the UK’s energy is used in heating and (often more significantly) cooling buildings. Vincent said that one of the most important aspects to encourage is integrated design: reducing the need for energy-intensive systems by designing buildings to maximise potential for natural lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation. As far as specific technologies are concerned, Vincent hopes for proposals to apply leading edge products and techniques for the first time – for example using the DC output from photovoltaic cells directly rather than converting to AC, which is inefficient.

The hydrogen infrastructure is a project so big as to be outside the scope of the trust’s funding.

‘We’ll be looking at projects to do with issues such as, do you have a National Grid, or very local mini-grids around urban areas for dedicated users? This is likely to be university research. With £1.5m available for any given project there is a lot of thinking work that could be done: the European Sixth Framework programme is where you would get into serious demonstration projects.’

Priority areas for industry include materials. This could include using lightweight materials and eliminating barriers to material substitution, said Vincent. ‘It’s about how to develop materials which have a lower energy or carbon content or are more easily recyclable, or to look into problems such as that some lightweight materials are less easy to machine or press than steel.’

Another area of material research could be the search for a low cost, thin film insulator for solid walled houses. There are seven million such houses in the UK, and improving the insulation of their walls is expensive and difficult.

Prof David Strong, BRE energy division managing director, recently told the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry on a non-carbon fuel economy: ‘If we could provide a reasonable level of insulation to those houses we could be looking at saving something like five million tonnes of carbon a year. That is roughly twice the savings made as a result of the Climate Change Levy.’

A panel from the Renewable Power Association recently told the same committee that among renewables, only wind power was sufficiently commercialised that it no longer needed government funding. Other renewables were suffering from a funding gap after the early R&D stage, preventing them getting further down the road to commercialisation. The UK risked missing the chance to lead the world in wave and tidal power and wave power devices needed to be tested at sea as a matter of urgency. Wave power proponents will therefore be disappointed that it has only made the trust’s ‘Consider’ category.

Vincent accepts the industry faces problems. ‘The wave power technology industry is too small to sustain demonstration activity in its own right, he said. ‘There is a role for public funding to establish the performance at the level of a prototype so that it can get to the stage where the design is sufficiently optimised to go into series production.’ But most devices are too far away from commercialisation to meet the trust’s criteria.

The problem of a lack of public funding for renewables and other technology needed to shift the balance away from carbon fuels, and the fragmentation of what funding is available between many different agencies, was a recurring criticism from witnesses during the science and technology committee’s investigation. The committee plans to publish its report at around the same time as the long-delayed Energy White Paper.

Committee insiders say it has taken on the concerns about fragmentation and insufficient support and will be making proposals to tackle this, as well as on the Climate Change Levy, which it could suggest is replaced by a more straightforward carbon tax. The committee visited Japan where it was deeply impressed by the aggressive approach to the hydrogen economy adopted by the government, setting targets, providing incentives for firms and setting clear programmes for moving to hydrogen as a transport fuel.

Committee chairman Dr Ian Gibson said: ‘The evidence did not suggest we could meet our renewables targets for 2010. We will be bringing forward ideas on the role of government and whether it is doing enough.’ He adds: ‘Unless there is a huge injection of funds now, we’re going to be way behind our targets even in 2050.’