I went to an energy event a few weeks ago in the lovely Guildhall, organised (and very well chaired) by the Aldersgate Group. I’ve been hanging on for the event summary and video to be posted but it's been a few weeks now so I'll blog anyway. Called Dissecting Our Energy Future, it had six energy experts giving a 2 minute pitch for their particular approach, followed by a challenge from a panel of experts. I went because I thought it was quite an innovative format and I like to see how different public debates work.
The technology champions were:
• Merlin Hyman from REGENSW (marine)
• Mike Rolls from Siemens (offshore wind)
• Jeff Chapman from the CCS Association (carbon capture & storage)
• Francis Egan from Cuadrilla (gas) (or more clearly – fracking)
• Nigel Knee from EDF (nuclear)
• Andrew Warren from the Association for the Conservation of Energy (energy efficiency)
There was an idea here that we are faced with a number of strategies available to help us decarbonise our economy, and that the one we ‘lock into’ would determine our near future. I suspect most of the people there (me included) would resist the idea that the UK’s best strategy would be to pick a winner at this stage and having a portfolio of technologies is preferable right now. Having said that though, a number of speakers talked about the need to develop economies of scale, and economies of scale are one of the most influential factors in getting locked in to a particular technology. I'd have liked to have seen this pursuit of scale economies challenged a little more; to my mind this was a bit of a gaping hole in the agenda. I was gladdened to hear someone from Second Nature asking about the role of distributed energy later in the evening although it wasn't done justice.
I quite liked the set-up of the debate. Although 2 minutes is very short you can get a lot over, although I would have found it more convincing and informative if the speakers had differentiated themselves from one another better. There were a lot of claims made around reliability of supply and new jobs and unpicking (for example) what sort of jobs, for whom, when and where would have been good.
Bioenergy was obvious by its absence. Sir Roger Bone from Boeing UK had talked up aviation biofuels in his keynote, taking about Boeing’s flights using drop-in replacement fuel. He also commented that Boeing was looking for seed money (possible pun intended) to develop jatropha as a transport biofuel (a short summary of jatropha’s history as a possible biofuel here). As a first generation biofuel requiring some GM work to improve productivity, the path for jatropha is likely to be far from straightforward. For me, the two big themes running through the event were the uncertainty presented by public (or “consumer”) acceptance of various technologies, and the uncertainty presented by the regulatory environment in terms of carbon floor prices, subsidy, price guarantees, R&D support etc. These types of uncertainties deter investors (or narrow the pool of potential investors) and this undermines the development of the sector.
I’m not an expert in regulatory risk (go to Julian Richardson for that). I do know a bit about publics and renewable technologies though, so Ill comment on this here. On the one hand it was great that the issues of public acceptance are so high on the agenda: “it’s important that people know how to engage with publics”, and “its energy and people, not technology” said Jim Skea of the Committee on Climate Change, and I couldn’t agree more. The distinctions between public acceptance, consumer acceptance and public engagement is one that shouldn’t be passed by without thought - Hilary Sutcliffe has blogged on how engagement differs from sales, PR, market research.
The potential difficulties in anticipating public acceptance for new technologies was in just about all of the pitches. For offshore wind, Mike Rolls acknowledged that the pressing need for economy of scale (think transport, maintenance and distribution costs as well as efficiency) is in direct tension with concerns on visual intrusion. He mentioned the Slay the Array, towards Lundy Island. Jeff Chapman introduced the NUMBY – opposing specific uses of land beneath our feet – and commented on the opposition CCS has encountered in Germany and the Netherlands. This led to a broader talk on the role of incentives, with expert Tom Murley from HG Capital commenting that in the UK landowners do not own the resources under their feet unlike , say, the USA. Cuadrilla’s Francis Egan countered that the UK has a developing track record of offering community benefits instead, and both Nigel Knee and Merlin Hyman commented that communities were looking for a leading roles in developing projects, maximising opportunities for local businesses and local jobs, not just one-way financial rewards for something that was going to happen regardless. This is bang on, and consistent with research on reasons for opposition.
Andrew Warren reckoned that the most publicly acceptable energy is the energy you don’t use to start with, and he got a lot of quite sceptical feedback from the expert panel about overriding associations of energy with affluence, that nobody really understands the Green Deal and that reduction would happen naturally with more efficient transport/machines/equipment. Expert Fiona Wolff from Cameron McKenna suggested that price was the most effective lever to reduce demand (one hopes she has something a little more sophisticated than a linear relationship in mind). Andrew Raingold from Aldersgate (his Guardian blog here) – who was chairing the event – pointed out that it’s the amount of carbon consumed (not energy) that matters. Interpreted in its broadest terms, to include full lifecycle carbon costs, I’d have to agree.