Cash boost for alternative energy – Phys. Technol., Vol. 9, 1978 and how the UK lost the race to be a major wind energy producer

Cash boost for alternative energy

The level of UK Government spending on
development of alternative sources of energy is to
increase by 60%. In a White Paper last month
the Government announced plans for P6m-worth of
research and development, to supplement PlOm
already committed. Almost half of the extra
money (P2.9m) will go on wave power, and a
quarter (415m) will go on detailed studies of the
feasibility of Severn Barrage tidal schemes.
The new allocations, with the funds already
committed, are as follows:
New Already
Energy source allocation cornmirted
(Em) (Em)
Wave power 2.900 2.500
Geothermal 0.856 0.910
Wind power 0,806 0.167
Tidal (Severn estuary) 1.500 0,092
Solar energy – 6.000
Although wind power seems to have received less
favourable treatment, E341 OOO of the 2806 000
allocated will go to detailed design work and
component testing for a 3.7 MW prototype
aerogenerator. If the results are encouraging, this
will be built at a cost of some f2m over three
years. (The figures quoted are over different time
While the extra cash will be seen as a welcome
boost for the development of ‘soft’ energy
options, the White Papert points out that, in the
Government’s view, the factor limiting the
speed of progress is not the level of funding but
the state of the technologies involved. It goes
further, and says that ‘it does not consider it
practicable to set target dates by which the
renewable sources should be making a significant
contribution’, although it is anxious to proceed
as quickly as possible and will be prepared to
make more money available ‘in the light of
Severn Barrage Committee resurrected
Replying to the Report of the Select Committee
on Science and Technology (SCST), which
charged the Government with being ‘excessively
timid’ on tidal power, the Government has
accepted the SCST’s recommendation that a
Severn Barrage Committee should be set up, with
responsibility for further work on assessing
Severn Barrage schemes and their feasibility.
Under the chairmanship of Professor Sir Hermann
Bondi, the new Chief Scientist at the Department
of Energy, the Committee will advise and
assist the Secretary of State for energy on:
( I ) what further work should be carried out to
establish the advantages and disadvantages of
possible schemes, and (2) whether or not to
proceed with the construction of a scheme,
bearing in mind the energy potential, cost
comparisons with other forms of energy and
energy conservation, and the economic and
environmental impact. Such a committee has been
in existence before, from 1925 to 1933, but the
schemes considered then were greatly different to
those now put forward. The El .5m is provisionally
allocated for immediate take-up on the recommendations
of the Severn Barrage Committee.
No mention is made in the Government’s reply
of the SCST’s criticism of the lack of
encouragement to the Central Electricity
Generating Board (CEGB) to develop and assess
an optimum scheme. Dr Shaw of Bristol
University, writing in this month’s Physics
Educarion (1978 13 p312), puts the potential
contribution of the Severn Barrage at 25% of the
UK’s present electricity consumption, but he
points out the considerable disadvantages of having
an energy source which is both variable and
intermittent. Because the barrage would be only
one component in the electrical generation
network, account must be taken of how it would
affect the economic operation of other power
stations, particularly nuclear and other
base-load stations.
To take extreme examples, there will be times
when the tides will be so far out of phase with the
demand pattern that the grid would be unable
to accept the power input, unless there is regulation
through some form of pumped storage. On the
other hand, certain schemes using pumped storage
would have to draw electricity from other
sources, possibly at inconvenient times and at a
cost that would negate the benefits. Clearly, such
issues can be resolved only with the know-how
and full cooperation of the CEGB, for whom
embarking on such a project would be as farreaching
as its present nuclear power commitments
Ruling the waves
The programme of assessing the potential of wave
power, begun in 1976, has proved ‘encouraging’.
Of the devices currently under examination, work
i. The Development of Aliernarive Sources of Energy:
The Government’s Reply io the Third and Fourth
ReporiJ from the Select Committee on Science and
Technology, SessionJ 1976-77 (HC 534-1 and HC 564)
June 1978, Cmnd. 7236. HMSO price 40p.
0305-4624/78/0004-0139 401.00 0 1978 The Institute of Physics 139
on two has already advanced from small-scale
laboratory tests to trials at one-tenth scale in open
water, on Loch Ness and the Solent. By more
than doubling the funds currently available, the
Government intends to support continued
development work on the main types of waveenergy
extraction devices (is it too late for
newcomers to join the race?) and increased effort
on the generic problems common to all devices,
including gathering and analysing wave data,
environmental studies, work on structures and
materials, and problems relating to generation
and transmission.
device development, including one-tenth scale
trials, full-scale component development,
test-tank experiments and theoretical studies.
f300 OOO will be spent on collaborative work
with Japan and other countries, through the
International Energy Agency. The aim is to
develop the most appropriate devices to fully
engineered prototypes for sea trials. The
programme will be reviewed annually from the
Spring of 1979 and, if progress justifies this, could
build up substantially over the next three or four
years to a level of expenditure that will enable a
single device to be identified, as quickly as
possible, on which resources could then be
concentrated. The next step would be to prove the
technology of a prototype device. This would
begin contributing electricity on a small scale and
installation of units of the production model
could then be expected to be stepped up with
manufacturing capability.
Windmills at sea?
In the case of wind power, it would seem that
the Government is rather more optimistic than the
Select Committee, which agreed with the evidence
of ETSU (the Energy Technology Support Unit of
the Department of Energy) that the installation
of aerogenerators would not generally prove
economic. Although there is no commitment as yet,
the Government is prepared to consider building
and evaluating a 3.7 MW commercial-size prototype
at a cost of f2m. The first step has been taken with
the authorisation of f341 000 over the next
twelve months for detailed design and component
testing for such a machine, which would have
a 60 m span and stand taller than an electricity
Besides any technical or economic problems,
windmills of this size will have certain detractions.
They are not only obtrusive, but also make a
fair amount of noise and could interfere with TV
or microwave transmissions. Siting them offshore
may make them more economically viable and
less environmentally objectionable, and this line of
investigation is to be pursued. The major part
of the new money being made available (E465 OOO)
will go to other wind-power developments,
including the development of the Reading
Just over half the new funds will be spent on
University vertical-axis windmill, offshore siting of
aerogenerators, medium-sized (1 00 kW) machines,
environmental studies, turbine development
and the assessment of new concepts.
No more for solar research
Although the White Paper devotes more space to
solar energy than all the other options put
together, no more money is to be immediately
forthcoming. The reason for this is that
Government does not consider that there is a need
for new measures to stimulate industrial interest
in the manufacture of solar-heating apparatus.
Nor does it feel that in the current state of
technology there is any case for financial
assistance towards the installation of solar-heating
equipment, apart from the current schemes
for grant aid.
By contrast, the funds for geothermal energy
are to be doubled. The Government is to support
further geological, geophysical and hydrogeological
studies, and work on heat flow. Less technical,
but probably of crucial importance to any future
exploitation of geothermal energy in the UK,
is to assess whether there is actually a market for
geothermal energy. Certainly the 1976 ETSU
report by Dr John Garnish showed that even for
relatively high temperature gradients, it was
unlikely that electricity generation would be
economic. The hot water would probably be more
useful in process heat or district heating, but
then one must ask if there will be such a
demand at the possible geothermal sites.
Sense of urgency needed
So the developers of alternative energy sources
now have as much funding as they can reasonably
expect, though the level is still modest in
comparison with the R and D spending of the
nationalised fuel and power industries, or the
UKAEA. Some perspective can be gained by
considering that the accidental leak of sea water
into the Hunterston B nuclear power station
is likely to cost the South of Scotland Electricity
Board at least f15m – a sum equal to the total of
Britain’s commitment to developing new
sources of energy.
at this stage is a sense of urgency. The Select
Committee warned of the slipping of timescales
that occurs in R and D projects when there
are no target dates to work to. It suggested that
we should aim to develop all the renewable
sources to be technically and economically viable
and in a position to begin making a worthwhile
contribution by 1990 – still twelve years away.
It has taken 25 years’ development for the
nuclear industry to make a significant contribution
to our energy requirements; no one can
reasonably expect that the timescales for the
alternatives would be much shorter.
Carry Hammond 9 June 1978

From Professor Bob, active in wind at the time:

“….if the UK didn’t do something similar, any lead that we had would be lost.  History records that we didn’t and it was…..”

I have to say I am sympathetic to Chris’s cri de coeur.  I am not enough of an economist to appreciate all the benefits that have surely flowed from the privatisation and liberalisation of UK electricity and gas markets, and too much of a physicist to ignore the many downsides.  The CEGB had a wind power programme in the 70s and 80s and Don Swift-hook, David Millborrow, and Tony Rockingham and Taylor were ahead of their time.  Some of their papers were reviewed in Mike Grubb’s papers on the subject.  I seem to remember a paper by Taylor and Rockingham that clearly identified the size of the UK offshore wind power resource.
I also recall a meeting of the BWEA – I would guess either 1979 or 1980 – at which it was put to one or more representatives of the UK government that Denmark was in the process of establishing a wind power test station at Riso and that if the UK didn’t do something similar, any lead that we had would be lost.  History records that we didn’t and it was.
I was a bit player in all of this.  One of my few insights was that the approach of the UK government with respect to wind was inexplicably similar to its approach to nuclear reactor development. The DEn funded a 3.7 MW wind turbine in the late 70s.  For several years this was the sole focus of their effort – yet it was an over-engineered and expensive evolutionary dead-end.  Great effort was put into making sure it didn’t fail.  I said at the time that this was a fundamental mistake – that, unlike nuclear reactors, it didn’t matter much if wind turbines failed, provided lessons were learnt, and that the strategy should be to try out a large number of systems quickly to learn.  The cost of a single conventional power station would have funded hundreds of wind systems.  This is essentially what the Danes did.

One comment on “Cash boost for alternative energy – Phys. Technol., Vol. 9, 1978 and how the UK lost the race to be a major wind energy producer

  1. BUT we can now look at all the competition and their mistakes and aim to do better. I am just doing a comprehensive database comparison of HAWTs up to 50 kW which are available in UK. As everyone uses different “ratings” bringing them all onto one “rating” and other comparative parameters eg excl tower makes interesting reading !!!

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