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Robert Freer 1932-2014

Freer Robert Freer was a civil engineer who worked mainly on energy and maritime projects, and especially at the interface between research and practice. He was involved in the design and construction of nuclear, hydro-electric, diesel, and gas turbine power stations in this country and overseas (including Dounreay, Winfrith, Kariba and Aswan), and on the development of a prototype wind energy generator and a wave energy device.

Robert was born in Manchester on 3 February 1932. His family moved to London in 1934 where they settled in Ealing, and Robert went on to attend University College School from 1942 – 1945. After WWII the family moved again to Ringwould, Kent where Robert attended Dover Grammar School. In 1949 they moved to Melbourne in Australia, although Robert returned to the UK with his parents and one of his two brothers in 1953.

Robert began his interest in engineering whilst in Melbourne where he gained BSc Engineering from Melbourne University. This was followed by a Diploma in Hydroelectric Power from Imperial College, London when he returned to the UK. Robert’s career began in Scotland at Sir William Halcrow & Partners where he was based in the hydro-electric department. His time was split between on-site construction at Invergarry, and time in the head office where he carried out design studies for hydroelectric schemes in Scotland and overseas. Robert received the Miller Prize from the Institution of Civil Engineers for his technical paper on Scottish hydro power whilst working here.

Robert went on to work at another Scottish company, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, before moving back to London in the 1960s. His first job here was at Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, where he carried out studies for hydroelectric power stations in Iran and East Africa. He also designed a 24 MW diesel power station for a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radar installation in Yorkshire. From there, Robert joined Mouchel & Partners as resident engineer in 1963, and in 1966 he moved again to the British Aluminium Company, London, where he was responsible for technical advice on the operation of the hydroelectric power stations for the aluminium smelter works at Fort William and Kinlochleven. Robert also prepared detailed proposals for the redevelopment of a run of river hydroelectric power stations on River Otra in Norway, and for the operation of a diesel power station at the Bauxite mine in Ghana.

In the 1970s, Robert relocated to Glasgow where he worked at Babtie Shaw & Morton. Robert took on the role of Team Leader for an innovative design study for an array of offshore wind turbines connected to the Grid. A paper on this work was presented to the DTI and to the International Wind Energy conference in Copenhagen in 1980. Robert was then seconded to Edinburgh University under an Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) contract to work on the engineering development of the wave energy device using Salter’s duck, until the programme was closed.

In 1982, Robert returned to London to work at the Sand and Gravel Association as a technical adviser to its members. This was followed, from 1987 – 1991, by a period at the Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA), where Robert managed a series of research projects. This included a project on energy research, and a publication on the maintenance and inspection of concrete dams.

In 1992, Robert joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as Technical Adviser. He was a member of the ICE Energy Board, and secretary of the Reservoirs Committee, responsible for the examination of hydro-electric engineers seeking appointment as dam inspectors. Robert was also an ICE representative on the Engineering Council’s Vision 2020 report on energy 1997 – 1999, to which he contributed sections on hydro power, and an ICE representative on the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies. In this capacity, he was responsible for promoting and setting up the Joint Energy Forum to bring together the energy interests of the Institutions of Civil, Mechanical, Electrical and Chemical Engineers and the Institute of Energy with the objective of exercising greater political weight in discussions with government and the civil service. Robert was also responsible for making responses on behalf of the ICE energy board to government consultation and discussion documents, including consultations on embedded generation, stability of the Grid system, the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) energy review, and a report to the House of Commons Select Committee on Wave Energy.

Robert attended energy conferences in China, Lithuania, Norway, Croatia, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland, and presented papers at many of these conferences on hydroelectric power and the connection of renewable energy to grid systems. Robert’s publications include The Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River in China and papers on the electrical energy supply in Lithuania after Communism, and on the use of renewables in global climate change. He was awarded the George Stephenson medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2002 for The Three Gorges Project paper.

From 1995, Robert joined Reed Publishing and Wilmington Press as part-time editorial adviser on energy matters. From 2000 until his death, Robert sat on committees, boards, and panels at the Institution of Civil Engineers. He also became a member of the Worshipful Company of Engineers in 2008.

Robert’s hobbies outside of work were rowing, sailing and Scottish country dancing. He had many friends at the London Rowing Club, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, Leander Club and the Little Ship Club.

Robert died from a sudden heart attack on 11 August 2014. He had been discharged from hospital a few days earlier following a minor fall at home, and was recuperating from this when he died. He leaves behind one son, Jeremy. His other son, Alex, died in an accident in the Austrian Alps in 1997, aged 19.