Research & development underpins everything we do in the power industry, but are we doing enough of it? With the emphasis on market forces, the decline of government involvement in r&d and the new era of privatized and commercially driven power companies the answer might on the surface appear to be no. Certainly government spending on r&d has declined significantly in many countries in recent years and International Energy Agency figures suggest, as you’d expect, that r&d spending in the liberalizing electricity supply industries of the world is falling sharply. Long gone are the research departments of government owned utilities with more PhD’s per square foot than a university.

According to EPRI in the United States, however, the situation is bordering on the desperate. “A significant, sustained pattern of under-investment in both energy r&d and energy related infrastructure threatens the world’s long-term economic prosperity, environmental health, and security,” says EPRI. “[US] public expenditures on energy r&d have declined by a third over the last 20 years” and “US public investment in all the basics of innovation – education, r&d, and infrastructure – has fallen from around 25 per cent of non-defence expenditures in 1965 to 12 per cent in 1995…This under-investment trend is particularly evident in technology-intensive infrastructures, notably electricity.”

These are among the conclusions from the first year of what EPRI calls its Electricity Technology Roadmap Initiative, a first report from which has just been published. According to EPRI, the Roadmap exercise is an “ongoing collaborative exploration of the opportunities and threats for electricity-based innovation over the next 25 years and beyond.” So far no less than 150 organizations have participated in helping EPRI and its members shape a “comprehensive vision of the opportunities to increase electricity’s value to society.”

The Roadmap has identified a number of what it calls “technology destinations” and the r&d pathways needed to reach them. One such “destination” is a strengthened power delivery system, which will entail wide-area power flow control and advanced power electronic devices, superconducting transmission, provision for the integration of distributed systems, DC microgrids linking digital end-use devices to the grid and grid-level power storage capabilities. Another destination is transformation of the traditional grid into a “customer-managed service network”, which opens the way for what the Roadmap calls “Intellectrics” (an example of which would be your fridge negotiating its electricity requirements and doing your shopping through the Internet). Yet another destination is increased use of non-carbon energy resources, which will require, amongst other things, “a five-fold improvement in the cost, performance and reliability parameters of solar photovoltaic power” and major advances in nuclear power technology.

Perhaps not surprisingly for an organization previously called the Electric Power Research Institute (but which now prefers to be known only by its initials) the thrust of the effort to date tends to show that we need more electric power and more research – a good deal more of both, in fact. The Roadmap report, perhaps a little ambitiously, suggests that meeting the needs of the world’s growing population will require “a 1000 MW power plant about every two days for the next 50 years”. The Roadmap participants also suggest that US electricity r&d expenditure needs to increase by about $5 billion/y (which is roughly 2 per cent of total US r&d expenditure) from its current level of about $3 billion/y.

But as yet there appears to be no discernible lack of innovation in the electricity business. Indeed, the pace of technological change looks to be increasing.

Government-funded electricity r&d may have declined, but to some extent the gap seems to have been filled by some highly productive r&d programmes being run by commercial companies. Take ABB Alstom Power for example, which spends around $700 million per year on r&d (about 6-7 per cent of its revenues). Products developed in the last five years account for 50 per cent of business in the T&D and gas turbine sectors and over 62 per cent in generators. Harry Frank, president of ABB Corporate Research, ascribes this success in r&d to getting the right people working in the right climate, which includes such qualities as openess, trust, idea-friendliness, and even humour and “playfulness”. ABB has also not been afraid of putting substantial resources into the “fuzzy front end of r&d” – with, in some cases, spectacular results.

The EPRI Roadmap report, however, warns against complacency and cautions that in the USA “today’s innovative achievements are a legacy of historic assets that are not being renewed.” Even so it is going to be difficult to make a case for a massive increase in r&d spending unless it can be shown that the present electricity r&d infrastructure, both public and private, cannot deliver the goods.