Research that could do us all the power of good

ENERGY is an emotive subject. From the North East pits giving up coal to fuel our country’s growth to power stations scarring the landscape, it’s impossible to escape the feelings evoked by fossil fuels.

ENERGY is an emotive subject. From the North East pits giving up coal to fuel our country’s growth to power stations scarring the landscape, it’s impossible to escape the feelings evoked by fossil fuels.

And renewable energy doesn’t get an easier ride – earlier this week the Duke of Northumberland branded wind turbines “divisive”, saying they are a threat to tourism.

But whatever we think about the methods of producing it, few of us would want to give up the lifestyle this energy affords us, with power at the flick of a switch.

With coal, gas and oil supplies getting harder to reach and the problems of climate change intensifying, experts are having to come up with ways of producing power and lessening the effect which doing so has on the environment.

At Durham University academics are taking a unique approach.

They are working on high-tech solutions to energy problems, but they are also looking at people’s attitudes to energy and how it could be possible to change their behaviour towards saving it.

Led by director Prof Richard Davies, members of the Durham Energy Institute come from scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, physics and maths, but also from departments looking at society, like anthropology, business and law.

In total 75 experts from 11 different departments are represented.

As well as coming up with solutions to specific problems, like how energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines on people’s houses could connect to the National Grid, they are plotting what our energy future might look like, including oil, gas and coal and renewables like wind, wave and solar and even nuclear.

Prof Jon Gluyas is leading a team taking part in a national study into carbon capture and storage (CCS), a method of trapping the harmful greenhouse gas carbon dioxide produced by burning coal and locking it underground.

The study is important because the North East has a reserve of coal worth £270bn underground which could be used if a method of extracting it could be developed and the effects on the environment could be mitigated.

But as important as all this high-level work the academics want to figure out how to get ordinary people on board and helping to conserve energy.

Prof Gluyas, who came the university from the oil industry, said: “Technology is only part of it. We’re interested in the user and the householder and making it relevant and accessible. We will break new ground technologically and scientifically, but a lot of it depends on having society on board.

“That’s the unique aspect of the institute – it’s not just a bunch of scientists.

“In the last half century we have relied on governments and big businesses providing energy for us. That’s likely to change over the next half century. We will all be little producers. There will be greater emphasis on better use of renewables as well as fossil fuels. It’s that diversity that will give us more security than relying on gas.

“Energy will get more expensive. Oil has been almost free energy, but if you punch a well in an oilfield it will give you about 10% for nothing. It’s very expensive to find, but very cheap to extract.

“The easy availability has detached us from knowing where we sit in the environment so we don’t think about it. We have drunk on very cheap energy and we will need to get more careful with our usage in the future.”

The Institute is running a series of courses, starting today, with the aim of getting anyone involved in energy to get their heads together and think about how best to spread the word about energy. Email energy.courses@durham.ac.uk for information on future events.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer