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Power to the People?

The fragility of our energy infrastructure and an emphasis on climate change provide new business opportunities for materials science.

The fragility of our energy infrastructure and an emphasis on climate change provide new business opportunities for materials science.

Fortunately, the impact on domestic users, business, and public services was limited, but what is of additional concern is that this event occurred at a time of year when electricity consumption was not excessive and there were no extreme weather events contributing to the problem.

The fact is, the UK is paying for its lack of major investment in its electricity generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure over the last 30 years. This is against a background where the UK and global energy landscape is changing dramatically. Climate change is now widely accepted and the drive to reduce CO2 emissions has never been fiercer or taken more seriously. We face record oil prices fast approaching $150 per barrel, and fuel poverty and security of supply are now a reality.

While this may seem rather depressing, there are a number of silver linings to this cloud, not least the market opportunities that are being created within the energy sector and its associated supply chain. As is often the case, the market is being driven by policy. Within the EU, the UK's renewables targets are among the toughest in Europe. We have a target to increase our share of energy produced by renewable sources from the current level of 2% to 15% by 2020. Much of this will have to come from electricity and it is possible that the UK may have to increase its share of electricity produced by renewable sources from today's level of 5% to 30–40% by 2020. Regarding security of supply, we will have to install around 35 GW of new generating plant in the next 20 years, primarily to replace our ageing fossil and nuclear plants.

All this is presenting the UK with unprecedented growth in the power generation sector and a major opportunity for its supply chain from research and development, through to manufacturers and end users. This situation is being mirrored in other parts of the world, putting pressure on global supply chains, but unlike previous ‘bull’ markets, like the ‘dash for gas’ in the 1990's, this thirst for ‘clean energy’ is likely to be here for decades to come and on a global scale. The International Energy Agency forecasts that $20 trillion of investment will be needed to meet these challenges by 2030.

While the technologies adopted to address these challenges will be dependent on geography, politics, and economics, it is becoming easier to predict which technologies will be needed and where. Like many countries, the UK has the stated intention to adopt a balanced portfolio approach, comprising clean fossil, renewables and nuclear.

All this, and various government targets and potential new policy/legislative incentives, will hopefully provide the confidence for organizations along the supply chain to make the necessary financial investments to bring the UK back to a leading position. We have the opportunity to be amongst the world leaders in renewable energy technologies, particularly offshore wind and marine. In addition, the announcement of the first UK full scale Carbon Capture and Storage demonstration project and a potential renaissance of nuclear power, should provide major opportunities for UK business both now and in the future.

Undoubtedly, the materials sector in the UK has a major role to play in the development of a low carbon energy landscape. Materials engineering is an underpinning technology which will help provide solutions to many challenges throughout the energy innovation chain from extraction of energy sources, through to generation, supply and use. Despite the recent lack of investment, the UK has managed to maintain world-class expertise in materials research and development relevant to the energy sector, such as high temperature materials, coatings, lightweight materials and materials modelling. It has also retained a reasonable level of high added value manufacturing expertise that could be developed and expanded to cope with new market opportunities, given the right business environment. To ensure we maximize the benefit to the UK, we need to develop a coordinated strategy which includes a sustainable capital investment program, a research and development framework, a skills development program, and long term funding. The good news is that the Government and other bodies are recognizing the need to develop the energy supply chain and an associated capacity in research and development to meet both the UK and global energy targets. The Energy Materials Working Group of Materials UK (www.matuk.co.uk/energy.htm) have delivered a Strategic Research Agenda, highlighting priority areas of research and development. These are exciting times that represent a major opportunity for the UK. I would make a plea that as a materials community we work together to take advantage of it.

On the 27th May 2008 Britain suffered its worst blackouts for more than a decade, with half a million people hit by unscheduled power cuts. The reason? It depends on who you believe. The explanations vary from ‘a gigantic coincidence’, ‘exceptional circumstances’, ‘a freak incident’ to a simple ‘instrumentation problem’. The primary reason was an unscheduled outage at both Sizewell B and Longannet power stations. These outages caused inconvenience to thousands and forced the price of wholesale electricity up 35% to a new record high. It also clearly demonstrated the fragility of the UK electricity network which would target having a 20% capacity margin to cope with such events.

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