Energy advocate: The head of Imperial College’s influential Energy Futures Lab is optimistic about the UK’s prospects.
Professor Timothy Green
- 1986 BSc, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Imperial College
- 1990 PhD, Electrical Engineering, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh
- 1982–83 Trainee, Mining Research and Development Establishment
- 1990–94 Lecturer, Heriot Watt University
Green joined Imperial in 1994 and has held positions such as director of undergraduate studies and deputy head of the department of electrical engineering. He became director of the Energy Futures Lab in February 2014 and is leader of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council hub in energy networks.
It takes only a brief look at Tim Green’s office to determine his interests in the engineering of energy. His shelves are dominated by a piece of vintage monitoring equipment — a wide, smiley face made up of two analogue dials and a semi-circular lever track — next to which are two highly polished, brass-and-steel model Stirling Engines. ‘Well, I am an engineer,’ he says with a shrug.
The Energy Futures Lab operates almost as a virtual department within Imperial College. ‘Energy doesn’t pay any attention to traditional boundaries,’ Green said. ‘People from different faculties have to come together and work with, and learn from, each other. You can’t pick up this stuff in a vacuum.’
’Energy doesn’t pay any attention to traditional boundaries. You can’t pick up this stuff in a vacuum.
Such conversations are necessary to ensure projects proceed. For example, a basic knowledge of chemistry is needed for carbon capture and storage, as is process engineering to turn it into an industrial process that can be implemented and scaled up. For the storage side, geosciences and geology are necessary, while a knowledge of the electricity system is essential to work out how CCS would need to operate. ‘The people in one discipline don’t necessarily know or need to know about the others,’ Green said, ‘but our job is to pull all that together within Imperial and make sure all the parts work towards the goal.’
Just as important is advocacy. ‘We have to project our capability into government, for policy input, and also into companies that might be interested in the technologies we work on and how they might be progressed.’
This multiple focus is vital. ‘We have to connect between the disciplines and outside, especially into economics and government,’ he added. ‘We’ve got people in our business school who’ve looked at how financial incentives encourage the development of different technologies, and they gave evidence for the recent hearings into whether the UK is providing illegal state aid for nuclear.’
Talking to industry is also crucial in making sure academics are on the right track. ‘We want to work with the major corporates to understand what influences their designs, how two things like space and efficiency play against each other. That means we can go back to our research knowing that sometimes cost might not be the overriding factor; power density might be more important, for example.’
Green maintains that the UK has been uncommonly lucky. ‘We founded the industrial revolution on coal, then when that began to run out we found North Sea oil and gas. Now that attention has turned to the harm all those hydrocarbons might have caused, we find we’re rich in renewable resources as well, with plenty of potential for wind. Plus our history of oil and gas has left us with depleted wells for carbon storage.’
In his view, the UK has a duty to put this abundance to good use. ‘It’s remiss of us if we don’t exploit all these things.’ An issue for those who advise policymakers is the dominance of generalists and those with non-technical backgrounds in UK politics. ‘MPs are not in denial; they understand the importance of these issues and they do know that they need a great deal of help to grasp these issues,’ Green said. ‘Universities are seen as trusted sources and must try to adopt that role. They aren’t seen as lobbyists for technologies — we have to be careful there, because if we do that, we lose our credibility.’
The academics’ role is to engage with politicians and government departments. ‘Ministers will take briefings from civil servants, so we have to make sure the civil servants are well-informed,’ he said. Mechanisms such as the Smart Grid Forum, set up by DECC, play a role in this.
Facing the public is another matter. Green doesn’t see much of a problem in academics being ‘captured’, as he puts it, by corporate interests. ‘I have worked with National Grid and so on; their business is regulated by Ofgem and they look for evidence of what they should invest in. By the same token, I’ve seen colleagues take positions with Ofgem and yet they have projects funded by National Grid, to whom Ofgem might not be favourable. I haven’t seen companies attempt to manipulate in that way; they need unbiased opinion as much as anyone else does. But public perception is quite a different matter.
‘People do assume that if you’ve done research with a company that you are then their mouthpiece, and that is much more difficult. Especially if you’re analysing energy needs and making recommendations that might affect people’s everyday lives. You need to be very careful.’
Given the strong opinions on this issue, the university’s position is seen as highly relevant. ‘We have to look at the evidence and provide some view on all the issues around water use and contamination and how you can complete gas wells, looking at all the engineering and so on.’
Unconventional gas is a case in point. Green lives near the proposed fracking sites close to the Sussex Weald. ‘One good thing is that it has reconnected people with where energy comes from; even people who are passionately against shale are becoming more informed about PV or wind, for example. There’s an understanding that you have to be for something if you’re against something.’
Green thinks there are many unresolved issues in the UK’s energy sector and accepts the importance of developing and embracing new technologies. ‘There’s a lot to be said for having a diversity of sources for technical, financial and geopolitical reasons, so you have to make progress on all fronts,’ he said.
‘We’re now at 16 per cent renewables, from five per cent three or four years ago; that’s a steep rise and we still have more to go, with large wind farms at Dogger Bank and Hornsey… But we’ve still got to replace decommissioned nuclear and coal — building Hinkley Point C doesn’t compensate for the closures of old nuclear plants — and that throws the role of gas into focus. The future of gas is still a huge, unresolved issue in the UK. Do we import LNG or exploit shale at home? That’s very strongly in the public arena.’
In his own speciality of power and control electronics, there are issues around connecting Europe’s energy grids. This, he believes, will become increasingly important to make best use of nation states’ resources — for example in energy storage, where Norway has a surplus of pumped storage capacity — and to balance oversupplies of electricity in some regions with scarcity in others. Energy is no respecter of boundaries, be they disciplinary or national.