Gosh. Has another year gone by already? Another All-Energy show hung on the line. How frightening. So what happened? Have we made any real progress in developing a Scottish renewables technology sector?
Well, you probably already know the answer to that already, but in fact there has been some progress, albeit muted.
St Andrew’s Fuel Cells has raised some money. Less than a £1million, which is not a lot of course in comparison with, say, what a US company might raise. But as me old mum used to say, it’s better than a slap in the belly with a wet fish.
A Korean company has taken the decision to use Lunar Energy’s tidal turbine design, which is really good for them but it does beg the question as to why such technology is not being used here.
EoN has built its biomass generator at Lockerbie, but it was also announced that one of the stalwarts of the renewables sector, Ross Deeptech, has been bought by an Australian company – Neptune.
Oh, and the world’s largest prize for marine renewable energy innovation was announced by the Scottish Government.
The £10million Saltire Prize aims “to push the boundaries of research in the global fight against climate change”. To be eligible for the prize, innovations must be commercially viable and will be demonstrated in Scotland.
The Saltire Prize is a good idea, and you can’t really knock such an initiative, but the thing that worries me is that it was actually necessary at all. That said, the UAE has launched a renewables development initiative of staggering scale with associated awards galore.
With oil at more than $120 per barrel, fuel prices going through the roof and energy prices generally accelerating upwards, it completely staggers me that in an “innovator rich” country like Scotland we’re not surging ahead and leading the pack in the development and deployment of new energy technologies.
I really want to understand what it is that’s preventing this from happening. Well, actually I’m lying – I know what’s preventing this from happening, and so do you.
I know, for example, that developing new energy technologies is the last thing on the minds of the bosses of the major financial institutions. Regrettably, they’re just not bright enough or opportunistic enough to see what’s going on.
I also know, of course, that numpties at ITI Energy have completely screwed the chances of that organisation ever achieving anything really useful, and anyway, most of the people who knew what they were doing have either left or are on their way out.
In addition, of course, one of Scotland’s larger erstwhile venture capitalists said it isn’t going to be investing in renewables technology at all for the time being, and 3i, which is the UK’s largest venture capitalist, has said it isn’t going to be doing any investing in start-ups at all, though to be fair, it has a renewables portfolio.
But what I also know, and what really disturbs me, is that even some of our large companies are not anything like as interested in new energies as they should be.
If you look around the oil & gas industry, the number of companies genuinely involved in the alternative energy sector is very small. Although Shell, BP and others oil companies are working on “big projects” such as biofuels, little of it is happening here, of course, and none of the major manufacturers or contractors seem to be involved, other than Amec and, tentatively, Wood Group.
BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, for example – what are they up to? And what about the Aberdeen establishment? The answer is that they’re not actually up to very much, and that’s really quite worrying.
But don’t panic. Malcolm Wicks, the UK’s recycled energy minister, has the answer. He has created the “UK Energy Marketing Strategy Implementation Board”.
Wicks said: “As energy supply and the issue of climate change rise up the global agenda, the UK is well positioned to build and capitalise on the strength of its energy industry. Positioning the UK as a worldwide hub for energy technology development and application is an absolute priority of this strategy. By taking the strategy forward, we believe the board can offer the UK’s energy sector the loudest possible voice on the world stage and ensure we are leading the way as energy innovators.”
Do you know something? I’ve heard this before. Was it last year or the year before? It may not have been absolutely identical, but it was pretty much the same thing.
Scratch of head: was it to do with the introduction of the UK Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) or was it just a general statement? Either way, it doesn’t really matter.
You see, this is the difference between us and a number of other leading nations that spring to mind. We’ll talk about these things and set up a committee or, in this case, a board, which I guess at least sounds grander. Meanwhile, everyone else will say, for example, let’s invest in and build a biomass central-heating unit. Lo and behold, the Germans, Finns and Norwegians export the stuff and have been for years.
And it doesn’t matter really what it is because the same applies to wind energy, solar and heat pumps and even those things we think we’re good at, like wave. As to nuclear, we have nothing to sell now except a limited consultancy capability and the contact details of the boss of EDF. The simple truth is that we have knowledge, some intellectual property, but very little actual technology.
So unless there is a truly fundamental change in attitude, particularly when it comes to funding new technology, we’re essentially stuffed. We don’t need another ruddy board, we need a seed change in our approach to risk. We also need some new thinking at management level, or perhaps just some new managers.
But we also need some real initiatives from Government that provide some indication that it understands the seriousness of the problem – and that, I’m afraid, will have to involve the tax system.
For starters, we need much larger allowances on energy technology R & D and on investment in new clean energy technology start-ups to encourage the financial institutions to get into the business. However, at least Britain now has the ETI, whose CEO wants to see progress and who doesn’t want to grab the intellectual property a la Scotland’s ITI system, so I suppose that is a start of sorts.
Next year, I want to write a piece on how a Scottish company has cornered the market in something. I don’t care much what it is; I just want to know that we’re really, really making genuine progress towards developing a sustainable renewables industry.
Anyone want to offer me odds on that happening?