Early August in central London. Tourists, mesmerised by the Olympic Games and punch drunk on feats of athletic prowess, crowd Piccadilly like dazed flies. Buses queue by Green Park station, where stops have temporarily been given over to the games insignia, the traffic fumes enveloping bystanders lost in a haze of muggy heat.
The hush of nearby Carlton House Terrace provides a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare. At the Royal Academy of Engineering, David Clarke, chief executive of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), says that like most of us he has been enjoying the spectacle and Team GB’s medals tally, soon to be engorged to levels unprecedented in modern times. But how would he grade our energy infrastructure? Deadlines for cutting carbon dioxide emissions from the national energy system are coming up fast – 34% on 1990 levels by 2020 as part of the push towards an 80% reduction by the middle of the century.
Two years ago, when PE last caught up with Clarke, he was sceptical that the 2020 target would be met. This is still his feeling. “We may find ourselves in the silver medal position,” he offers, “close but not quite there.”
He adds: “I think it’s going to be borderline. We’ve made some progress, but it’s difficult to see whether demand for energy has really gone down, or whether it’s just been reduced by the economic downturn.”
A desire to reduce demand will somehow have to be balanced against the needs of a growing population in the coming decades. In this context, one of the ETI’s most important projects is a £100 million programme on smart energy systems and heat that is benefiting from a “multi-million pound” investment by Japan’s Hitachi. The scheme was unveiled by Prime Minister David Cameron this year. It will look at energy management systems for buildings and other technologies such as heat pumps.
The problem, says Clarke, is that the heat pumps are not necessarily designed for the UK market – or climate. “Hitachi is bringing all its experience around energy management systems and more efficient appliances, and, critically, it is bringing all the experience it has in smart systems around the world,” he says.
The ETI is structured as a public-private partnership between the organisation, government and six industrial partners: BP, Shell, E.On, Rolls-Royce, Caterpillar and EDF. These companies contribute £10 million a year which is matched by the public purse. In 2010, Clarke raised the possibility of more companies coming on board but this has yet to materialise. Nonetheless, he suggests that the ETI is reasonably well-insulated from economic vicissitudes.
The model in which a company contributes financially to a single project on a one-off basis – as in the case of Hitachi – may prove useful in the future. Clarke says: “We’ve always had the concept of what we call a ‘programme associate,’ but Hitachi was the first one. We are now in discussions with two or three other groups who are interested in working with us on some of these very big programmes and technology areas. “We’re always interested in partners but we need partners who align with our understanding of the UK’s needs.”
Was it right for Britain to unilaterally commit to what are stringent targets on reducing CO2 emissions? Multilateral agreements have proved elusive and it seems unlikely that climate change negotiations in Qatar at the end of the year will yield a breakthrough.
Clarke ponders: “I think for a majority of people in science and engineering, there’s no doubt that we need to take climate change seriously, and in that context the UK is clearly right to set targets.
“Is it right to progress unilaterally? If nobody else set climate change targets, it would probably be economic suicide.”