Striking the balance
While rising energy prices, climate change, dwindling hydrocarbon resources and increasing dependence on imports add fuel to the public debate about how to meet energy needs in the future, scientists and engineers in Scotland are getting together to do something about it – today – by taking full advantage of the country’s natural and intellectual resources…
“To make sure we enjoy secure supplies in the future, with lower dependence on hydrocarbons and less CO2 production, we will need a mixed portfolio of energy resources and generating technologies,” says Dr Robin Wallace. “Supply must be able to meet and balance demand at all times. Against a background of increasing demand for energy, this balance must be maintained in the future both by increasing supply and, wherever possible, reducing demand.”
Wallace, who is Head of the Institute for Energy Systems (IES) at the University of Edinburgh, believes that if we can moderate increasing demand and reduce carbon flows in the energy supply chain, we can preserve future supplies as well as reduce CO2 production. And for him, the priorities are clear: “We must continue to develop existing and new clean energy options – including clean coal, renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage – as well as focus more on energy storage and demand reduction. We need to understand how to operate an evolved energy supply system with equal reliability and security of supply, including electricity networks with large populations of renewable and micro-generation alongside conventional plant.”
According to Wallace, Scotland is uniquely positioned to research, develop and deploy lower-carbon energy technologies. The aspirational target is to generate 40 per cent of Scotland’s demand for electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020, and a study recently completed by IES for the Scottish Executive demonstrates that, on average, this target is achievable, but also underlines the need for balancing supplies from a range of different sources, including lower-carbon. “Meeting future targets will depend on co-ordinated intentions, enterprise and scientific advances, and is not guaranteed just by our position on the map,” Wallace explains.
While the academic research community is punching well above its weight, in terms of winning research funds and producing new knowledge, Wallace also highlights the need for joined-up thinking in education and industry. “Scotland still needs to continue to invest in the skills base at all levels, from science teaching in schools, through keeping new research going and finally to ensuring that we grow the manufacturing sector for energy technologies,” he says.
What will make Scotland even more competitive in future is a collaborative, consortium-based approach to research and development, at home and internationally. This collaboration could emerge in many forms, with institutions joining forces with each other as well as with business, and this is the model which Wallace believes is the best way to rise to the energy challenge.
For example, the Joint Research Institute in Energy is one of five initiatives by Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities under a £12 million Research Partnership in Engineering and Mathematics, and other Scottish partnerships are also in the pipeline.
Since 2003, Wallace himself has led the UK Research Council’s SuperGen Marine Energy Research Consortium (see Sidebar right, SuperGen). Its aim is to further increase knowledge and understanding of the extraction of energy from the sea, to reduce investment risk and uncertainty so that marine energy will be able to play a key role in the future energy portfolio.
Wallace says that Scotland has a rich heritage in renewables research, particularly marine, and can act as a conduit for the development of new ideas, all the way from 1:100 wave tank tests to full-scale testing in the open sea at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney.
In addition to advances made in wave and tidal energy at Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Robert Gordon Universities, researchers at the University of St Andrews have made exciting breakthroughs in energy storage, developing new types of lithium batteries. The University of Strathclyde is also engaged in world-class research, leading the way in the development of future network technologies and operation of distributed generation. Add this to Scotland’s expertise in oil exploration and production, and carbon capture and storage, says Wallace, and the country is not just an “energy theme park” but an international research centre where science, commerce and industry are working together to develop and deliver the natural energy resources abundant around its land and sea areas.
Looking ahead, Wallace also cautions that even though reducing demand and adopting greener energy sources should help slow climate change, it’s important to be able to predict how naturally occurring renewable sources may be influenced by changing weather patterns – just one of the many projects focused on by IES researchers.