Q&A with Dr Robert Gross

New Statesman

Is there a country that you would single out as being particularly strong on innovation in energy policy terms?

The countries that have taken the lead on promoting renewables historically have been progressive European countries. But if you look around the world there are lots of countries involved in new forms of energy.

Britain is not doing too badly. We’ve got some innovative policies. We also lead on some technologies – for example, the marine technologies, wave and tidal power, are an area where Britain is particularly strong.

 

Has the UK government put forward an energy policy framework that will encourage economic growth in the green economy?

The key to getting green growth is not the technical details of the policy design, although these matter. Far more important is that you actually get political commitment behind it, because investors are very sensitive to that, and the key is to get the investment in, because that is what brings the jobs.

 

Is there any one current innovation that you would pick out as having the greatest impact on policy? If so, why?

It is very important that policy allows learning by doing. It is obviously critical for policy to support research, and policy needs to support the demonstration of technologies that haven’t been proven by scale. An example of that might be carbon capture and storage. It is very important that we do demonstrations of that but it is also important that policy supports roll-out. That might sound a bit boring, but the evidence suggests that the more we can upscale technologies that are in their infancy, the better we get at them.

The analogy is in mobile phones. There is really no difference, if you like, between making solar panels (photovoltaics) cheap and making little flat screens that go into a mobile phone cheap; we just need to do lots of it. And that’s critically important for policy.

 

The UK has set quite ambitious carbon-reduction targets. Do you think we will be able to meet them?

Things are being done to try to take us in that direction. We are at a crucial time.

We know we can do that if we want to; we have the technologies to reduce our carbon footprint dramatically. The challenge will be the economic and political decisions.

 

Do you think there is a problem surrounding the time it takes to get innovations from the concept stage to the market?

Yes. You can’t change the energy system quickly; history tells us that the system changes over a period of decades. Irrespective of how quickly you can bring innovation to the marketplace, it will take time to get the infrastructure changed and we have to be realistic about that.

 

Do you think there is enough collaboration between universities and business?

There could always be more. Lots of collaboration takes place across universities such as Imperial College. We work very closely with industry and there are government initiatives to promote collaboration between industry and academia such as the Energy Technologies Institute. But we don’t see quite the level of close collaboration that you get in some of the US univer­sities or at some of the research institutes in Europe. This is an area where there is an opportunity to do more.

 

How can both system and scenario planning help sensible policy?

Scenarios have been very helpful in moving through the course of the past ten years as we’ve moved towards more ambitious policy goals – partly because scenarios allow us to explore what is possible and system modelling factors in technologies and costs. Scenarios have been useful, will continue to be useful, but they can’t become displacement activity: they can’t be something we do instead of getting on with it.

 

Should we be worried about not having enough energy in the future, or should we worry about not having the right kind of energy?

I don’t think humanity needs to worry, at least not in the immediate future, about running out of fuel. We certainly can have as much energy as we want if we are prepared to put effort into innovation in renewable energy.

 

Where do you think the main responsibility for cutting carbon lies – with consumers, business, or our government?

It’s between consumers and the government. Governments need to set the framework that enables companies to make investments that are profitable and moves the energy system in a sustainable direction. In order for governments to be prepared to deliver this, they need to take their voters and, if you like, their customer base with them. Voters then need to be willing to go along with something like the UK’s Energy Bill, which has the potential to put prices up in the short term. But we should not expect companies to act unilaterally in an area where, ultimately, our government needs to set the rules of the game and tackle environmental problems.

 

What myths around energy provision do you find yourself addressing most frequently?

The cost of renewable energy – how much it actually adds to people’s bills and why energy bills are high at the moment. The principal reason energy bills have gone up is that the price of fossil fuels has gone up.

Support for renewables adds a bit to bills – but only between £30 and £50 a year, a much smaller fraction than the one accounted for by gas-price increases.

 

Are we all doomed?

I am optimistic about the potential of innovation and technology to resolve the difficulties. The issue is whether we can get the politics and economics to align behind what is possible in engineering terms.