SUSTAINABLE ENERGY: POSITIVE CURRENTS?
Britain may have celebrated its first day of coal-free power generation but our energy habits remain unsustainable. So, how can the UK lead the change?
Observing the world of sustainable energy these past few years has been like watching five-year-olds play football.
Just as kids all dash towards the ball, giving little thought to a match’s wider picture, companies in this sector have rushed to government incentives. Among them were snake-oil salesmen and charlatans, lured by subsidies, while the work of real innovators in less-favoured fields was stifled.
From rushing towards solar, then not being able to deal with the volume of production or the overgenerous feed-in tariff, to flinging ourselves at biomass, only to end up having to import material, our sustainability policies have been plain unsustainable.
I felt the effect of this first-hand this morning, breathing a sigh of relief when my biomass fuel delivery arrived. But it had to come from Canada, at a cost of £350-a-tonne – nearly twice what I’d been paying - because the UK can’t produce enough. That’s crazy.
It’s the same with vehicles. Once petrol was the great evil; now it’s diesel, and we’re rushing headlong towards electric vehicles without truly knowing how we’re going to keep them all moving. All this has led to a state of ‘power-noia’. How do I know what to invest in when I replace my Vauxhall Ampera, or what is the best option to heat my house over the next 20 years?
If I feel like that, then it’s easy to understand what a nightmare it is for companies wondering how they are going to power their essential machinery or reduce consumption to avoid carbon-related taxes.
But things are calming down a bit. We are beginning to have a sector that is truly sustainable in more than just name. Companies like Good Energy and Ecotricity lead the way. And the businesses that will do well in the future are those that are able to look more holistically at what we need in terms of sustainable energy.
It’s about understanding a company’s energy needs and working with them to reduce the energy they use and level out their spikes in energy use.
The innovations that are most important won’t be those that centre around feedstocks but those that mean companies don’t need to use as much. What we burn isn’t going to be a massive challenge, it’s how you flatten demand.
So there will be huge opportunities for companies that specialise in demand-side flexibility and integrated power solutions. At the moment we, as a nation, don’t look at the energy balance. Most businesses just think ‘we need this fuel source to cool stuff, and this energy to heat stuff’.
The companies that do well will be the smart ones that can deliver savings by using energy generated as a by-product of one process to contribute to another.
Battery storage will have a key role to play in how you manage demand and this is one area where the UK has everything going for it.
We already have strong specialist knowledge of semiconductors, so this is an area where we really can lead. That’s why the government backed the development of the technology by investing £246m in boosting expertise in the area, through the Faraday Challenge, as part of its industrial strategy.
The issue is that we are seeing demand for battery use being greater than the pace of development of the appropriate technology can cope with.
At the moment, batteries are relatively traditional in format. Rechargeable batteries are good at delivering large quantities of power quite quickly, and that’s not so useful for many processes. But we’re on the cusp of a revolution in that tech.
We are about to see a shift that will both make them thinner and able to recharge more quickly, while releasing energy more slowly.
Among the most exciting developments is the technology that will power electric vehicles. The Faraday Institution has already announced £42m in funding to research this technology. So I’m delighted that Jacqui Murray will be among the first guests that I, as host, will welcome on to the stage on the International Business Festival’s Sustainable Energy Day on June 14.
Murray leads on advanced materials for the Faraday Challenge, and her engineering background will be invaluable in setting up the National Battery Manufacturing and Development Facility in the West Midlands.
She has written about her goal of developing real-world manufacturing tools and mass production methods in a region already known for excellence in automotive research, to ensure we can test quality and reliability and foster the necessary production skills.
As head of national network programmes for the UK’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, Oldham is charged with fostering the collaboration that will - hopefully – see British SMEs as key partners in the development of cutting-edge low-carbon vehicle technology.
Last year Wright claimed a first-of-its-kind development in frequency response when announcing Orsted (formerly Dong Energy) would hook up a 2MW battery storage facility to its Burbo Bank offshore windfarm, off the coast of Liverpool.
Another session will examine how to disrupt in a way that makes business cleaner, greener and more profitable all at once. This could well touch on the circular economy, the importance of which will grow as we try to get raw materials to last longer.
As we know, energy is never created or destroyed but only changes form. However, no one has yet really cracked how to release the value from that waste resource. Those businesses that grow are going to be the ones that look at things in a systems way, rather than as a linear process.
At the moment there are too few stars in this sector, and too many large companies investing in the wrong areas.
It’s all very well everyone getting excited about what Tesla is up to but you can’t rely on outliers, we need the rest of the world to be following in its wake.
However, there certainly are a number of exciting British SMEs doing innovative work across this sector. It will be both exciting and fascinating to see which go on to shape the future of our lives and work.
* The World We're In, Futures Stage, June 14. Sustainable Energy Day host Mark Shayler talks through the opportunities and challenges of the years ahead.
Mark Shayler's Ape consultancy works on sustainability of companies, from SMEs to giants like Nike. His book, Positive Disruption, argues they can reduce costs, increase income and do less harm.