Research at UCL Australia
UCL Australia applies a systems approach to energy and resources research across sectors (government, industry, communities) and disciplines (technology, natural and social sciences, economics and law). UCL Australia has a particular focus on:
Australia is currently engaged in a significant debate over the future of its gas resources, their availability and how they may be best exploited. Whether or not a “shale gas revolution” can be realised will depend on a number of diverse factors. Two questions are at focus in the current debate: Is it desirable or possible for Australia to replicate the shale gas boom that has occurred in the United States in recent years; and if shale was to make a major contribution to Australian gas supplies, what impact would this have on both export and domestic market prices and government policy setting levers? This cluster is looking at whether conditions in Australia encourage the development of shale gas and, if so, what additional legislative safeguards for the environment and competing land issues might be needed and what policy options could be available to governments at both Federal and State levels to enable an Australian shale gas revolution.
With the increasing exploitation of both shale gas and coal seam gas, the engineering needs of on-shore gas exploration are changing. The increased number of operations and higher demand for exploration and extraction hardware has led to a need for modularity and mobility of such systems to enable effective exploitation. However, management, governance and organisational structures are not evolving at the same rate. The new practices are more likely to benefit from a systems-oriented and more agile approach to project management. Hence, this cluster will also be looking at management practices within the industry and analyse these with an aim to understanding their strengths and weaknesses, to enable identification of better practices.
Global energy demand is increasing on a daily basis. If every individual energy consumer was able to choose the best time to use their energy, overall and, hence, peak demand, could be significantly reduced. Smart technologies combined with systematic epidemiology research techniques (large scale data) can improve our understanding of end-use demand. This cluster will investigate how these technologies can affect energy efficiency by improving our understanding of energy demand issues (including consumer behaviour and perception of the technologies), the technical and political drivers and barriers to household demand management and the role that feed-in-tariffs and other incentives can play on changing consumer behaviour.
As the world continues to pursue a lower carbon future, prospects for economic and social prosperity will increasingly depend on a region’s ability to innovate as employment shifts from carbon-intensive activities. Will this clean energy future provide an impetus for new jobs in renewable energy, low carbon technologies and carbon farming – or will the clean energy future come through disruptive innovation – or a combination? How will countries and regions adapt? Investment decisions are generally made in a ruthless financial matrix, but will triple bottom line measures be the new investment model for low carbon opportunities? Government policies and planning practices have a major role to play in implementing low carbon strategies by influencing their economics, social acceptance and environmental impacts. This cluster will investigate these issues through the interactions and opportunities in the relationships between technological and social systems and consider whether legislative backing will result in greater incorporation of low carbon approaches in policies and planning.
Power systems are complex and whether you rely on cross-boundary super grids to diversify your energy supply or community based meso-grids in an attempt to provide sustainable energy, it is the interaction of generation along with transmission that dictates the effectiveness of the overall system. All this must be coupled with appropriate and effective policy and regulation that incentivises generators, transmission system operators and distribution network operators to move away from business-as-usual and, through innovation, optimise the use of their assets with new control protocols to embrace the objective of decarbonising the electricity supply and demand system.
The integration of renewables into the system poses additional challenges, not only from a technological perspective, but also from an economic, legal and political viewpoint. This cluster will focus on the market rules for controlling the system and the policies, market forces and regulations that need to be put into place to enable the creation of a low carbon electricity system.
Australia, in common with many resource-rich nations, fails to capitalise on the full value of its resources. The temptation to extract and export minerals and energy resources in only slightly refined forms to satisfy global demands for raw materials and energy vectors is strong, but comes at the detriment to the domestic market and has limited prospects for the economy as a whole. This cluster looks at how Australia could add further value to its resources, through additional downstream processing, product manufacture and the development of innovative domestic and international market mechanisms. Two key resources are subjected to particular scrutiny; namely, uranium and coal.
The fortunes of the uranium industry are almost completely dependent on the financial viability of nuclear power and, ultimately, technological advances in the electric power generating industry. Few independent studies have ever attempted to examine the true global resource implications of the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly in the context of the key drivers of energy security, increasing demand, climate change and carbon pricing. In addition, the potential for financially viable next generation nuclear power reactors, based upon smaller scale reactors than those of the current generation, may also provide an opportunity for more flexibility in the generation “mix”. This cluster will investigate the opportunities and implications of developing the uranium resource industry in Australia and identify the policy, legislative and regulatory measures that would be required, including the workforce implications for civil nuclear power.
Australia is the world's largest exporter of metallurgical coal and the second largest exporter of thermal coal. Australia is also the fourth largest producer, and has the fifth largest resources of black coal in the world. However, with many of Australia’s current customers for coal planning to implement carbon constraints to their domestic markets, will this resource eventually become a valueless asset? In contrast, although the burning of coal to produce power is gradually being phased out, coal could become a valuable source of synthetic liquid hydrocarbons, particularly as Australia’s own oil resources are in decline? Hence, this cluster will also investigate the prospects of adding value to Australia’s coal resource through coal-to-liquid processing, determining the socio-economic and environmental impacts and the policy and regulatory requirements.
It is generally agreed that resource developers and industries need a ‘social licence’ from the community in order to operate in relative harmony, but there is no formal application process and a community can remove a social licence far more quickly than it grants it. The internet and social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, have removed communication barriers and enabled communities to share views instantly and widely. Government and industry, bound by rules, policies and regulations, have quickly fallen behind in stakeholder engagement. Combined, this is potentially leading to large changes in the way energy and resource projects are undertaken in practice. Our research is investigating what a social licence constitutes and how its presence might be determined and its operation monitored, as well as assessing whether (or how) it could be underpinned by legislation for accountability or other reasons.
While a ‘social licence to operate’ focusses on interactions and responsibilities between companies and their local stakeholders, there is still also an important role for governance at a broader, international level. For an increasing number of hydrocarbon projects now underway in politically unstable nations, an often overlooked issue is the governance surrounding the oil once it hits the wellhead in the host country. An example is Nigeria, where an estimated 100,000 barrels per day of oil was stolen from pipelines in the Niger Delta and laundered in world financial centres like the UK and the US. Thus, some of our research is also looking at the international dimensions of such incidents and exploring what adequate governance responses might be from the international community.
Some level of environmental monitoring is nearly always required for major energy and resources developments but many monitoring programmes are inefficient and produce poor quality information. Our research is developing better and more cost effective environmental and resource monitoring and assessing the potential of novel statistical approaches and developing technologies. For example, UCL’s MSSL is developing hyperspectral imaging as a tool to monitor non-biogenic methane from air- or space-borne craft which might be used by oil companies exploring new resources and monitoring greenhouse gas emissions of existing operations or by farmers and environmentalists assessing different sources of CH4 production. Another area of focus is monitoring of offshore and coastal impacts from energy and resources developments. Other aspects of our research involve environmental valuation and questions surrounding the economic value of the environment and ecosytems, particularly in conservation and environmental offset projects.
Our research is interdisciplinary, cutting across the three units within UCL Australia - the School of Energy and Resources, the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (Australia) and the International Energy Policy Institute.
Read about all departmental research in the UCL Australia 2014 Annual Report below.