'Doing research is not like a tap you can turn on at a moment's notice'

January 6, 2006

John Loughhead warns that only more investment in energy research will avert crisis and sustain our needs

This week's disruption of Russian gas supplies to Western Europe highlights the growing importance of research into alternative energy sources, according to John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre.

But Dr Loughhead warned that, just as the need for more research is increasing, there is soon likely to be a critical shortage of energy experts in universities and industry, unless more young academics and entrepreneurs are provided with the incentives and facilities to pursue this kind of work.

More funding has become available - with the research councils doubling their budget for energy research after the last government spending review - but neglect of this area by previous governments means investment needs to be sustained.

"Doing research is not like a tap you can just turn on at a moment's notice. You need people in place with the right skills," he said. "If we want to sustain it, we need to ensure that more people go into energy-related research. New academics need to see it as a challenge that offers them medium to long-term career opportunities."

Dr Loughhead is the author of a report published last November from a conference on how to plug the UK's looming energy gap. The report expressed concerns about the risks of relying principally on one source of energy long before matters came to a head last week when Russia's dispute with Ukraine threatened to hit supplies to Western Europe.

"What this reminds us of," Dr Loughhead said, "is that if you are importing a fuel there is a risk of a disruption in the supply due to circumstances beyond your control. We therefore need a mix of energy sources in order to have a reliable system."

Research into ways to save energy and reduce fuel consumption is at least as important as looking for ways to diversify sources, he said, adding that developing new technologies requires a multidisciplinary approach that might best take place in dedicated energy research centres.

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