Jobwatch: the power to succeed

July 2, 2004

From nuclear fuel to wind farms, energy is a hot topic and Birmingham University intends to remain at the forefront of the discipline, writes Chris Johnston

Four top-flight academics are being recruited by Birmingham University for its new £5 million Institute for Energy Research and Policy, which will aim to bolster the university's world-class research reputation in energy production, supply and policy.

A director for the institute and professorships in energy economics, materials for advanced energy systems and novel vehicle technology are advertised in The Times Higher this week. A professor of electrical power distribution was appointed in June.

Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham, said the positions would strengthen the university's energy research output. The centre will encompass production methods from nuclear power and wind farms to new techniques such as hydrogen fuel cells, as well as energy economics, distribution systems and the political process of energy development to take account of social and economic aspects.

"Energy is one of the key national issues, and we hope our research will help influence government policy," he said. "So much of the debate is uninformed."

The cross-disciplinary institute will combine the work of social scientists, environmentalists and scientists to capitalise on Birmingham's research expertise in other fields including chemistry, environmental science and public policy. It is also expected to bolster the university's already enviable ratings in the next research assessment exercise.

Professor Sterling is an electrical engineer specialising in electrical systems and has a keen personal interest in the field. He is also president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and chair of the energy sub-committee of the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, a top-level advisory body on science, engineering and technology policy.

The Department of Trade and Industry published an energy white paper earlier this year, but Professor Sterling believes it failed to account for some crucial issues about the future security of supply in the UK.

In Professor Sterling's view, the biggest problem facing Britain's electricity supply is the ageing distribution network and the lack of investment and maintenance. The move towards renewable sources such as wind generation may not be the answer either, as the power they produce cannot easily be distributed on the national grid, he said.

The very low numbers of applicants for electrical engineering was another serious issue that must be addressed, Professor Sterling said. It could lead to a dearth of people in Britain who can design power systems and force the UK to poach from countries such as India and China, he said.

Birmingham will also use the institute to strengthen links with major companies such as Shell, BNFL and British Energy.

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