Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by Professor Richard J Brook, Chief Executive, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, following the Evidence Session of 28 March

  Thank you for your letter and the set of questions which the Science and Technology Committee would wish to put in connection with the Committee's Wave and Tidal Energy Inquiry. I much welcomed the opportunity to meet the Committee yesterday and hope that in view of the urgent timescale I may be allowed to respond to the following questions directly and relatively briefly.

  1.  There are a large number of potential approaches to exploiting wave and tidal energy. When selecting research projects to support, how do you choose potentially successful technologies without wasting either good ideas or taxpayers' money?

  2.  Do you feel it is better to support a wide range of technologies with some funding, or fund a few schemes/devices very thoroughly?

  3.  Does the UK have sufficient facilities in terms of physical resources (for example, wave tanks) and skilled personnel to develop an effective wave and tidal industry?

  4.  Many of those who have submitted evidence to the inquiry believe that the UK needs a national wave and tidal energy test facility: a site with pre-granted planning permission, a link to the national grid, and appropriate computer monitoring facilities. Would you agree that such a facility is needed?

  The four items are:

  1.  The EPSRC relies on Peer Review in seeking to select "potentially successful technology". While recognising the criticisms which can be made of this process, the Council has in recent years made systematic efforts to refine such decision making in part through a more formal selection process for the peer reviewers (the College system) in part by providing applicants with the opportunity to respond to the comments of peer reviewers, and in part through a more formal evaluation of the research portfolios which result from a series of peer review decisions.

  Above the individual project level the Council also on an occasional basis selects particular subject areas for concentrated attention; this arises in particular for multi-disciplinary topics where the responsive mode may be less successful in bringing forward proposals of the highest quality. Such managed programmes have arisen in renewable energy in the case of fuel cells and photo-voltaics. There have not been specific programmes relating to wave and tidal energy. The selection of such programmes is reviewed by Council on an annual basis in response to bids put forward from the eight EPSRC programme areas following wide consultation within the academic and user communities.

  2.  The EPSRC sees it as one of its responsibilities to achieve a degree of concentration and focus in the allocation of support funds. As I observed, however, in my comments to the Committee, the energy sector is one where such concentration has been traditionally difficult owing to the diversity of opportunity, the existence of persuasive product champions, and the very many uncertainties which arise because of the sensitivity to social, environmental and commercial considerations. The EPSRC has therefore sought to follow a mixed pattern of support namely, concentration on specific themes through managed programmes, eg fuel cells, accompanied by a responsive mode system within which principle investigators can put forward proposals of their own choosing.

  3.  My immediate impression is that the UK has sufficient facilities to undertake initial studies of the merits of different renewable energy proposals; the difficulty arises where promising work must be taken to the next stage and where larger scale trials become crucial. It is here that interaction between a number of support agencies should be seen as beneficial.

  4.  I can certainly understand that product champions for wave and tidal energy would wish to see a national test facility. I have no doubt also that such a facility lies squarely on the road between initial research and the final realisation of a commercial system. It is however important to set this possibility against the alternative energy generation systems and to seek an optimal distribution of support across the alternative methods. It may well be that an office such as the Energy Technology Support Unit would be able to provide the background information needed for the making of such a decision.

29 March 2001

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