In a recent report the Government outlined its plans to safeguard energy and meet stringent CO2 emission targets in the UK. Chemical scientists will have a major role to play in meeting these objectives

Downing street

Source: istockphoto

In July the Government published its energy policy in a report entitled The energy challenge. The report is a response to two immense, long-term challenges facing the country - ie to deliver secure, clean energy at affordable prices as the country moves to increasing dependence on imported energy; and to tackle climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. Chemical scientists will have a major part to play to ensure that these challenges are met. With this in mind the Royal Society of Chemistry's (RSC) Council - its governing body of 18 academics and industrialists - went to 10 Downing Street in the same month to meet Malcolm Wicks, the Minister for Energy, and detail just what chemists and the chemical sciences can offer the country in this crucial area.  

The energy gap

The UK is facing an energy crisis - we're using more than the country can produce. Several nuclear and coal-fired power stations are due to close within the next 15 years. This equates to a shortfall in electrical power of ca 25GW by 2025. And the dwindling supplies of gas and oil from the North Sea mean that the country will become increasingly reliant on imported oil and gas. By 2010, the UK is expected to become a net importer of oil, and by 2020 imports are expected to meet 90 per cent of the UK's gas demand. The largest global reserves of oil and gas are concentrated in Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and African countries. 

According to the report, the Government proposes to address the carbon challenge and 'energy gap' in a number of ways. On its agenda includes, for example: 

  • extending the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Climate Change Levy to all companies as a way of achieving the carbon reduction targets. At the moment the scheme goes up to 2012 - energy-producing companies make money (by trading credits) if they produce less CO2 than allowed, but have to pay a price if they produce more. By extending the scheme the Government believes it will encourage more companies to invest in new, cleaner energy-producing technology; 
  • encouraging individuals and companies to save energy by increasing the efficiency of products and services used in the home, workplace and transport - 'energy education' and the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs are mentioned as are the use of biofuels and fuel cells; 
  • encouraging the use of cleaner energy - combined heat and power (CHP) plants based on local renewable resources are cited, as is on-site electricity generation by using solar panels and mini wind turbines, and the use of renewables such as off-shore wind and tidal power; 
  • developing a diverse energy system based on a mix of fuel types, a variety of supply routes, back-up facilities for storage, and a robust infrastructure to transport the fuel to demand centres; 
  • investing in new power stations over the next 20 years - including those based on renewables, cleaner coal and carbon capture and storage, and on civil nuclear power. Renewable sources get a boost in the report, increasing their weighting from 15 to 20 per cent, and six new nuclear power stations are proposed, financed by the private sector.  

The RSC Council speaks out

The RSC welcomed the overall case presented in the report. In its formal response to the energy review, the RSC states: 'the chemical sciences will be critical in developing clean energy technologies in the medium (next 20 years) and long term (next 50 years). Technologies will include solar power, fuel cells, hydrogen as a fuel, safe nuclear waste management, carbon capture and storage, energy storage and energy-efficient lighting. These technologies will reduce our reliance upon imported energy sources and reduce UK carbon emissions'. 

Jeff Hardy, manager, environment, sustainability and energy, at the RSC, told Education in Chemistry, 'the Council went prepared to explain to the minister how the chemical sciences will be able to provide energy that is secure, affordable and sustainable, as well as addressing the issue of CO2 emissions and climate change'. The key message, however, he said, was to tell the minister that we all need to be saving energy now, otherwise no technology that we invest in tomorrow will make any difference to the UK Government's 2010 CO2 emission target'.  

Presenting the case for chemical scientists, Dr Richard Pike, chief executive officer at the RSC, said, 'The UK needs to lead and influence other players to strike the right balance with renewables and fissile alternatives'. He pointed out that there are already many leading research groups in the UK working in areas that will provide the solutions to the Government's challenges. 'There is a huge opportunity here', Pike told the minister, 'for the UK to lead the world in realising these new technologies.'  

Key to any success, he added, would be the mechanisms and funding to support the R&D of these technologies, as well as a supply chain of the appropriate skills. The latter need to be nurtured in primary and secondary schools, and developed in universities, business and industry. 'We need to ensure that we have more qualified science teachers and include energy and environmental issues more quantitatively in the school curricula. And energy issues must be seen as business opportunities, not just problems', he said.