Monday, 24 September 2007

Two Cheers for the Energy Technologies Institute

The Government has finally announced where the new Energy Technologies Institute will be located. It is to be based at the Midlands consortium of universites, centred on Loughborough. The new institute, which will apparently have a budget of £1.1 billion (good news) over 10 years (oh well..) and will be headed by David Clarke, currently head of technology strategy at Rolls-Royce. Six companies - BP, Shell, EDF Energy, Eon, Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce itself will contribute £5mn a year each, leaving a shortfall of some £250 million still to be found to match fund the Government's own contribution of £550 million.

I am slightly of two minds about this institute. On the one hand I welcome it, and the fact that it is levering in significant amounts of private money (if not quite all that the Government had hoped for). But on the other hand, I am concerned that focusing too much money into one place may limit the breadth of innovation, and could risk reducing funding for some of the many other current centres of excellence. I suspect that the Loughborough team's focus will be on engineering solution to energy; this may help generation at all levels from nuclear to renewable. There are also excellent teams working on fuel cells and the hydrogen economy. (And it will be good to see the old BG research centre brought back to life).

However, apart from their excellent work in automotive energy efficiency, I don't see as much evidence of their expertise on the demand side, or on behavioural aspects. It would be a disaster for the UK's move to a sustainable energy economy if the work being done in the ECI in Oxford, focused around consumer behaviour and the uptake of low energy appliances, were to be dissipated, or starved of funds. And in Loughborough you can't get much further from the sea; yet by 2050 much of the UK's energy should be generated offshore, from wind, wave or tidal flow, and the Scottish universites are justifiably proud of their research into this area.

Aha, you might say; is this sour grapes from the energy "don"? Well, yes, I was involved in the very early stages of another consortium bid (centred round a university I have not so far mentioned), and clearly we were not successful. And as my very first post made clear, I am not a real don, so I won't be sending in my CV just yet to the new institute, even though I do have a relative working there...

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