Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 95)



  80. So a big culture change?
  (Professor Salter) The trouble is that the value of the full-size demonstration in public relations is very high, the decision-makers do not really believe it until they see the kilowatt hour meter going round; they do not seem to be able to understand equations and algebra and lines on graphs, which are very much cheaper to get. Because of the pressure to get something in the sea quickly, people cut corners and do not do those initial experiments correctly.

Dr Iddon

  81. If I were Peter Hain and I had just inherited the energy brief at the DTI, I would have my eye, obviously, on the Secretary of State's, or the Government's, target of 10 per cent renewables by 2010, which is a pretty tall order; we are pretty well down the line now, and, what is it, 1 or 2 per cent, 2 or 3 per cent, we are at the wrong end of the scale anyhow. I would also be looking at wind power and some other renewable technologies, solar, for example, and they are well advanced, and if I were going to put my research money, or I was going to make the push, I might, in view of that target, be pushing with what I already know, rather than what I probably do not know. How would you advise Peter Hain, if you were thinking along those lines?
  (Professor Salter) There have always been blue-eyed boys, who suddenly turn out not to be quite as blue as you thought. I can remember, there was a very big effort on hot dry rock, and we were drilling lots of things into rock, down in Cornwall, and this was the best of them all, and then that faded out, rather sadly. What we want is not to try to back the winner but to back all of them, then you are certain to get the winner as well.

  82. So you are not giving any of these renewable technologies a priority; wind is not a greater priority than wave and tidal? You think they all ought to go in parallel, with equal funding?
  (Professor Salter) I think wind does not need it any more, I think wind is now a commercial success. Wind plants are being installed now without any subsidy at all; so that is now up and running. What you do not want to do is stop the next one from getting there.


  83. Just on that point, if I may come in, you are saying: back all the alternative technologies? What about within one given technology, the one we are talking about now, would you back all the projects or would you try to be selective there?
  (Professor Salter) You want to be selective in an intelligent way, you do not want to strangle any babies; let them grow a bit, tell them what they have got to achieve. What actually happens if a project is not going to succeed is that people will drop off themselves. They are the people who really know about it; if you find that people are leaving the team then you know that they know that it is no good. So this is the best test.

  Dr Iddon: Could we ask Mr Thorpe if basically he agrees with Professor Salter, or does he have an alternative view?


  84. We have had a lot of fairly contentious evidence from Professor Salter there; would you like to endorse it, or argue against it?
  (Mr Thorpe) It is a general endorsement. I agree with the observations made that the renewables target of the Government is a very ambitious one, it is not as ambitious as I believe the European Union's target is. To get there, I think, we need to play all the cards in our hand. I would not go so far as to say to back all the technologies, because we have proven things like hot dry rocks will never, ever, be commercially viable in this country; but we do have a handful of technologies which, I believe, each can make its own contribution. I do not see the renewables competing against each other. Renewables are our insurance policy for the future, and, as that, I believe that those which have reasonable prospects of being commercially viable, or not putting too much of a strain on the taxpayer's pocket, they should all be supported.

Mr McWalter

  85. I hear what you say about wind power, but it is onshore wind power which is commercially viable at the moment, is it not; offshore wind power has still got some major difficulties, and, indeed, there are commercial pilots going ahead in Denmark to that effect? So I am bit worried about you just blanketing all of that; there is a problem?
  (Professor Salter) I think I would disagree with you. I think that offshore wind is going to be a commercial success very quickly. I am afraid I cannot tell you the name of the company that is going to do it, but I am working with them, and it is going to go very, very soon.

  86. Do you feel, tell us, we are in Government, tell us what it is necessary for the Government to provide, now, and what can we reasonably expect the private sector to be providing, in this regard; because in the Danish examples you have given the private sector really has been very, very strongly in the lead, in terms of the engineering and the technology?
  (Professor Salter) The private sector needs to get its money back in about three years, and an advantage that wind had was that you could start off with a very small wind turbine, even a privately-owned one, and you could make it work and you could learn things. Unfortunately, wave energy has a bigger ante to put in. The initial step size must be quite large, and that is really quite a strain for a small company or a private individual; and so we have to get over that first step. I think I would put a lot of money into PhD studentships, I think the value you get for that is astonishingly high. I notice that your technical adviser was once a PhD student at Edinburgh University. The value and enthusiasm and the determination that you get out of students is really amazingly good, and you can get a new device, a long way into its assessment, for the cost of a studentship. I would like to see this nice, transparent assessment, that everybody can understand, so that they can use the results of a bad design and improve it. I would like to see good model testing facilities, and I would like to see everybody having access to the computer software that would let them do the calculations on the work. So those are the things; and that costs very little.

  87. You opened this before.
  (Professor Salter) That is what I do know.

  88. Of course, the University of Edinburgh wave tank, that project was curtailed; will it be a significant loss to national research and development, or will you be able to find other ways of doing that?
  (Professor Salter) There are other tanks around; nearly everybody who has come to work in ours has gone away and built their own one. There are people who would like to get some of the bits of ours, and I am trying to raise money for an alternative site. The question you are asking, about how to make renewable energy go, I think I would say that you had the right financial incentives when you had the bounty paid on a particular, designated form of renewable, which is what you had initially with the non-fossil fuel obligation. Interestingly, wave energy was specifically excluded from the early days of that, and, in fact, Scotland was specifically excluded from the early days of NFFO. But what you do not want to do is the present arrangement, where you are saying to distributors: "You must have 10 per cent, or X per cent, of your electricity supply coming from any renewable source that you choose." This, I think, is going to favour the ones that do not need it any more, this is the same thing about pushing the weakest nestling out of the nest. Inevitably they will behave just as the canal owners behaved.

  89. So that would be an anti-research attitude, and it may actually result in an insufficient volume of electricity supply, as a result?
  (Professor Salter) Yes. Have bands for each type of renewable, as you had before; actually that did work quite well.


  90. Mr Thorpe, do you wish to add anything to the questions that have been asked by Mr McWalter?
  (Mr Thorpe) I think there will be two or three things. Yes, I believe that the Renewables Obligations and the way they look as though they are going to be put forward treat all renewables as though they are the same, whether they have received support from this Government for the past 20 years, or, as in wave energy, for just the past two years. It is not a level playing-field. I think there needs to be a tranche set aside for tidal stream energy and for wave energy, because they are not ready to compete against onshore wind. The next point I have to make is with some reluctance, considering the laughter it provoked earlier; a czar for wave energy, I think it is a damn good idea. Who has responsibility for making any renewable energy succeed in this country? I am not sure that anybody does carry that responsibility. Most of the work I have done has been in industry, and whenever I have worked on a project there is one person there who has the responsibility but also the authority to make a project succeed. I think a lot of the things that go wrong in the renewable energy field in this country is because it falls between the cracks, nobody is carrying that responsibility.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

Dr Turner

  91. I think I would like both your views on this one. I have visited the Danish wind industry myself, so I know that there is not just a commercial return there, in terms of energy production, but thousands of jobs, export potential, an enormous potential return, which is just starting to realise big time, for a small country like Denmark. So the answer to the question, do you think some other EU countries have succeeded in making a commercial success of this, is obviously yes. Can you tell us what lessons you think that the UK Government can learn from countries like Denmark, who have really gone for it and succeeded, in terms of our future in wave and tide, where we have the natural resource that is out there waiting to be exploited?
  (Mr Thorpe) I think the Danish approach to wind energy, which is starting to apply to wave energy over there as well, there have been two or three factors in there. The first is timescale; the Danish Government never imagined that it was going to build a viable wind industry in two to three years, it was in it for the long haul, and it took about 10 to 12 years for it really to take off and be an award-winning export industry. They were not demanding of outrageous performance of their early turbines, they were very expensive, but the costs carried on coming down, so they did not make a judgement on their early lack of success. They were very good at creating a market, they had various different incentives, which were very highly focused at the people who were building the turbines or buying the turbines, and that market was a long-term market, it was not going to be something that might disappear in five or ten years. But, most of all, there was the political commitment, which sent signals to the market, and got people, the big companies, who are now employing thousands of people worldwide, to invest in what looked like a harebrained novel technology and turn it into a mature source of energy.
  (Professor Salter) I do not think I can add anything to that. I think that is exactly right.

  Dr Turner: Finally, could you make any suggestion as to the scope for international co-operation?


  92. Mr Thorpe, it was a question that we ended up with, I think, with the last two witnesses.
  (Mr Thorpe) Just an hour before coming here, I was 'phoned by the Chair of Teamwork Technology, in The Netherlands, who was asking about what steps were being taken up in Scotland about setting up this centre for wave and tidal energy. I think, if we made it attractive enough, now this could be a showplace for your technology; we do not pay for their technology, we just provide the facilities around it, that is why it comes in so cheaply. We could attract people over here and have them concentrate their research and development here. I think the prospects are very good. There is only one company that I know of who would not take this up, and they are quite paranoid anyway; most of them would jump at a chance, if the UK, or Scotland, decided to take a lead, and say: "We're going to make this technology work worldwide."

Dr Turner

  93. Do you feel that Government should take a leading role in this, at least as a broker, and perhaps it could even be an opportunity, you said Scotland, perhaps a slip of the tongue, I do not know, but Scotland has got regional government, it could even be something that a devolved government, the Government of Wales, could perhaps get directly involved in?
  (Mr Thorpe) I say Scotland because there has been a marked difference. I have been asked to provide the technical input to the Scottish Commission for Wave Energy, which has a number of Scottish MSPs, people from non-governmental organisations, and from industry; they seem to be proactive, in trying to make something happen up there. They see our construction of wave energy devices taking up as the construction of offshore oil and gas rigs starts to drop off; so they have got the commitment up there.


  94. Professor Salter, do you wish to add anything to that?
  (Professor Salter) No. I think that is exactly right.

  95. Can I then put a final question to you, because, during the course of this evidence session, which I think has been a very concise evidence session, I think we have learned a lot from it, but I would like to ask you both, in turn, what is the one thing that you would like to see, above any other, to help push forward the whole programme of renewable energy but with particular emphasis on wave and tide? And I have put five things down here, that you can choose from, but it may be that the one thing you want to put forward is not on my list of five. But I thought: a critical mass amount of research and development money; national resolve; government leadership; financial inducements to give a return on investment; or private sector involvement; Now it may be one of those, it may be something that is not on my list. But can I ask you first, Professor Salter, what is the one thing you would like to see, to push forward these programmes?
  (Professor Salter) It is the government side of it; all the others follow from that. What we want is the backing that Churchill gave to the nuclear people.
  (Mr Thorpe) I would agree with Professor Salter's assessment, but, in practical terms, the thing I think will be most important for tidal and for wave is the establishment of the initial market. We are talking about only 30 to 50 megawatts, and after that it will take care of itself.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. And, on behalf of the Committee, may I thank you both very much indeed for travelling considerable distances to be with us, for giving up your time, for making submissions to us before we sat this afternoon, and for helping us with our inquiry, which we hope will assist you, in due course, when we produce our report. Thank you very much indeed.

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