My first impression of Spain on this holiday was a huge amount of installed solar PV capacity, then, when we got to our villa, we found a huge homemade solar hot water system (above and right) at the bottom of the terraced garden. It turns out that this heats the private outdoor pool (we're really slumming it).
Unfortunately, as you can see, the sun has bleached the dark blue collector pipes almost white, which will significantly curtail its effectiveness by reflecting more light and heat than it absorbs. Certainly the pool is a little on the cool side (26°C) with at least one oo-oo moment on the way in.
The domestic hot water is heated by another solar panel on the roof which we can't see, but seems to be very effective. The villas below us all have professional systems installed, so I assume it is one of these. By default, the panel is the sole provider of hot water - if we want to heat it electrically, we physically have to plug the immersion heater into the wall.
Why all this solar power? Spain, like Israel, made solar hot water systems mandatory on new and refurbished domestic buildings in 2006 (commercial buildings must have PV as well). Our villa, and I would guess the big solar panel, would appear to predate this legislation, but there are also incentives like 0% VAT and low interest loans for equipment. Given the amount of sunshine you get here, it must make a lot of economic sense.
While I sip my beer on the veranda, in between shouting at the kids, I can watch two wind farms turn lazily in the distance. At night, kids in bed, slinging a couple of logs in the chiminea allows me and the old girl to enjoy the sea breeze until bedtime. Flight aside, this holiday is turning out a lot greener than I expected it to be.
This is our first ever family holiday by 'plane. Like good greenies, we've avoided flying for ages but we're desperate to get some sun and the old girl celebrated a significant birthday this year. We've done long distance train travel with kids before but, now we're outnumbered, I think we'd struggle until they can all entertain themselves for more than 10 minutes.
About two hours into the flight, I took the bored middle one over to the empty first row and showed him the plains of Spain arrayed out below us. "Look, solar panels!" I exclaimed to an unimpressed 3 year old as entire fields of arrays came into view. And then a blinding light appeared on the ground, emanating from the middle of a series of concentric rings, like ripples on a pond. "What's that?" was my first reaction, until I realised it was concentrated solar power. Jimmy remained non-plussed.
Ensconced in our lovely Granada villa, I did a bit of googling and I think we saw the Gemosolar Thermosolar plant (above) near Seville (the other two Spanish power tower systems sit side-by-side, so we'd have noticed them both). This 140m tower with its 2650 reflectors (sorry, heliostats) can pump out 20MW and certainly from the air, it looked fearsome.
Spain has more than 4.2GW of installed solar power compared to the UK's 1GW - unsurprising given how much sun the country gets. The rate of increase is being slowed by the kind of Feed-in Tariff (FiT) reductions that have been seen in the UK. However wind power beats solar in both countries - 21GW in Spain and 8.5GW in the UK.
While these huge installations are impressive, I can't help thinking that trying to emulate the economies of scale that work for fossil fuels isn't the most efficient way of using renewable technologies. Renewable energy (insolation, wind, hydro etc) is diffuse and so is our use of energy - so matching generation and consumption on a more local level may be more efficient and sensible on the larger scale. That takes us neatly onto the solar hot water systems in our villa which I'll describe next time.
Home cleaning products company Method has announced new packaging made from recycled plastic. So what? Well the plastic comes from the ocean, not only saving resources but protecting wildlife and the ocean ecosystem to boot. That's cool.
Waste company Veolia processes road sweepings to recover precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium - mining the urban environment rather than the earth's core. That's pretty cool too.
A project at my old group CLEMANCE found that it was technically possible to recover iron oxide pollution from streams and convert it into rewritable CDs and DVDs. How cool would that be?
And another CLEMANCE project led to 300,000 tomato plants growing under glass using waste heat and carbon dioxide from a chemical plant to accelerate growth. I think that's pretty damn cool.
The solar hot water panel on my roof pre-heats the water going into my combo-boiler so we get low carbon hot water without losing the on-demand convenience. Again, cool.
If I cycle rather than taking the car then I get my exercise as well as transport. If I work from home, I get to see my young family grow up and avoid the nightmare of commuting. If I use local services, I see much more of my friends and neighbours. All of this is very cool.
Smart grid technology creates the possibility of opening up the energy production and storage system to everybody buying and selling to the grid and breaking the economic and political grip of Big Oil. To me, my friend, that would be very cool indeed.
Green is cool.
So why do we persist in presenting it as hairshirt, pious asceticism - and wonder why people won't embrace it?
We had a lovely family day out at Alnwick Gardens yesterday. Part of the kids' (and certain adults'...) entertainment was an animal show featuring scorpions, an evil looking black blood python and cute meerkats. But the highlight for me was a demonstration of one of the marvels of nature. The animal guys took a bird eating spider and let it crawl over his hand. These spiders, he explained, don't like walking on anything other than their own silk and had immediately started spinning. He pinched the end of the thread from the spider's silk gland, gave it to a father in the audience and walked across the room - getting at least 4 metres of silk straight out of the spider before he deliberately broke it.
Now spider's silk is, pound for pound, stronger than steel or kevlar, yet spiders make it a room temperature, atmospheric pressure, without aggressive chemicals and using a supply chain of dead flies (or birds and mice in this case). A huge amount of effort has gone into trying to develop an artificial equivalent of this manufacturing marvel in that amazing branch of science and engineering known as biomimicry. Such manufacturing systems would have a much smaller environmental impact than our high temperature, high pressure, hazardous approach to producing materials. Biomimicry is also giving us breakthroughs in solar cell production - mimicking the dyes plants use to convert solar energy rather than out crude and energy intensive silicon equivalents.
But the highest level of biomimicry is to try to model the whole economy on natural principles. In such an economy, all materials would move in continuous cycles with the 'waste' from one element forming the raw materials for another. We would be dependent solely on renewable energy and the system would never poison itself. Life on earth has spent a 2 billion or so years creating this model and more than a billion demonstrating it is sustainable. You can't argue with that.
We're in the midst of party political conference season and one thing you will notice in any discussion about sustainability and climate change is the focus on shiny new technology. You will not of course hear anything about the destruction of the old unsustainable way of doing things. This is for one very good reason - no-one ever got far in politics by emphasising the down side of what they want to do. But, as the cliché goes, you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs.
There is some irony in the title of this post - that to build a sustainable society, we must destroy the old one. But sustainable in the ecological sense does not mean unchanging, merely the concept of operating within natural limits in an equitable way. Like nature itself, a sustainable society will be constantly evolving, not frozen in aspic.
There are two ways to approach the transition. Firstly the politicans' method - build the new and let the old wither on the vine. And to a certain extent this is happening - as Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall point out, the more renewable energy the country produces, the less gas is burnt. Rising renewable capacity will eventually lead to reduced gas capacity as who will build what isn't needed? The upsides are that it is easy to sell and usually produces a robust end product, the downside is speed of change as the system evolves.
The other way is the machismo approach. Companies like InterfaceFLOR appear to relish deleting product ranges which are incompatible with their sustainability targets. They see this as a badge of pride - revolution rather than evolution. This is obviously easier in an organisation than it is in the democratic system as business leaders don't tend to have the Daily Mail breathing down their necks chasing headlines, but it is fast and decisive.
The answer will no doubt be a mishmash of the two - large scale evolution powered and accelerated by many medium scale revolutions in the value chains that provide our material quality of life. But we can't duck the fact that change requires destruction as well as creation.
77% said they supported renewable energy for providing our electricity, fuel and heat, with 26% strongly supporting. Just 4% opposed renewable energy.
Perceptions of a range of renewable energy sources were mostly positive. Highest levels of support were found for solar (82%), off shore wind (73%) and wave and tidal (72%). On-shore wind had the highest level of opposition, though still only 12% opposed this, with 4% strongly opposing (compared with 66% supporting).
Also out this week was a survey that said, if someone was unsure whether to buy a house or not, the most popular single 'extra' that could persuade them was installed solar PV.
Jeepers. And all this despite the vast majority of UK newspapers running relentlessly negative stories about renewable energy in particular and the green movement in general. If you ever look at the comments section of any on-line green story, or the foaming and ranting in newspapers' letters pages, you'd be forgiven for believing that the shift to green was incredibly unpopular with the general public. But as Machiavelli said:
"the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”
There is, it appears, rather a sizeable silent green majority and the ranters and ravers are in actual fact a tiny if very vocal minority.
These statistics should give heart to all those in politics and business who want to push green harder. Here in the UK, only one of the three main party leaders, Deputy PM Nick Clegg, has made a major green speech while PM David Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband have merely paid lip service. This is incredible given that whopping 77:4 ratio of supporters to opponents of renewable energy - a clear vote winner for whoever pushes hardest at that open door.
Business leaders too should feel empowered. This appetite for a low carbon economy from the general public and, by extension, their employees and potential employees is fertile ground for innovation, new products and whole new business ventures. People want it - let's supply it!
Having said that, I would warn against the statistics being seen as a carte blanche (carte verte?). Going green requires creative destruction - losing the high carbon, highly polluting parts of the economy and replacing them with greener equivalents. Such change produces uncertainty and may undermine confidence, eroding that public perception. The key as always is to ensure that the new product/process/system is much better in all respects than the old before phasing out the latter. I suspect that the 77% are asking for a shiny new low carbon economy, not a tatty old hair shirt.
So in the big green battle in the UK's Coalition Government, it looks like round 1 to Energy and Climate Change Secretary (and my political colleague) Ed Davey (right), who announced today that cuts to onshore wind subsidy would be limited to 10%, not the 25% called for by backbench Conservative MPs who were given a sympathetic ear by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (left).
However Davey might have taken a couple of telling body blows during the opening exchanges, according to details leaked to the Financial Times. It is not clear what deal was done, but the concession may have been an open door to cheap unabated gas, which could compromise progress to hit climate change targets at a later date.
This is a fascinating battle - and one which Davey was predicted to lose. But I know Ed and, while he is less combative than his predecessor Chris Huhne, he does have a reputation for being quietly effective. But this is also an interesting case study for those trying to implement radical changes to deliver sustainability in their own organisation.
Traditionally Governements haven taken a very incremental approach to environmental protection. This changed with the previous Labour Government's Climate Change Act in 2008 which committed the Government to deliver a 'legally binding' 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050. Despite this bold stretch target, with the notable exception of Ed Miliband's Feed In Tariff, the administration did not make much progress in terms of practical policy measures to meet it.
So the Coalition inherited a stretch target, but there are clear differences in how (or even whether) to meet it. There are those, mainly on the Conservative backbenches, who would simply scrap it. At the other end of the spectrum there's a cross-party group keen to tackle the challenge head-on - Lib Dems Huhne, Davey and Conservatives such as Tim Yeo and Greg Barker. In between are those who see their role to moderate the debate such as Osborne (who I am reliably informed is not quite as anti-green as portrayed in the media). The problem with this latter position is it takes us back to the incremental tit-for-tat pre-Climate Change Act approach.
So how would I tackle the problem? First, as Davey has done, dig the heels in for the short term at least - 'wins' secured now will have a much bigger impact than 'losses' in the future. Secondly, use some green jujitsu to play to Osborne's interests, reframing the argument from "low carbon or growth" to "low carbon growth or business as usual stagnation." The green sector grew 5% last year - growth Osborne would kill for in the rest of the economy. So play down climate change in the internal debates and make arguments along this line - eg jobs, exports, growth, energy security, innovation, technology etc - all things to attract the attention of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Thirdly, back this up with evidence from the respected International Energy Agency to keep the Treasury geeks happy.
I'm sure this battle will run and run, but the key will be to fight smart and fight hard.
I gave two keynote speeches this week: one at The Value of Sustainability organised by Newcastle University Business School and TADEA, the other at the Energy & Environment North East 2012 conference. Events like these are great for producing debate and stimulating thinking, so I thought I'd share.
For the former event I was on familiar ground on corporate sustainability, concluding the following:
“Go Green Save Money is for Amateurs” - it is now a matter of competitive advantage;
Sustainability is going mainstream - into products, processes and cultures;
Litmus test is: what are you going to stop doing?
Stretch yourself and think different;
Ultimately about leadership rather than management.
During one the other sessions, I challenged the idea of 'sustainability champions' - asking what do you expect these guys to do and how do you expect them to do it? No-one had a clear answer, which reinforced my belief that the "champions" approach is usually taken up because other people do it, rather than having a clear role in mind.
At the EENE 2012 conference, I was covering the political slot after a local MP had pulled out. This gave me a chance to pontificate freely on "The World According to Gareth" and, in particular:
We appear to be in the oil/fossil fuel endgame - not a matter of "low carbon or growth" as the Treasury may think so much as "low carbon or stagnation";
The democratisation of energy production with renewables means we are entering the brave new world of Energy 2.0 - much in the way Web 2.0 revolutionised the internet;
Energy 2.0 presents us with a range of challenges which translate into business opportunities;
Green sector businesses are not charities: they must deal with uncertainties and must not become subsidy junkies;
Top politicians (ie Prime Ministers) need to show more leadership (I had some fun with the fact that the only UK PM to make a big green speech was Margaret Thatcher).
Given that I was talking to an audience from the environmental sector, the most controversial phrase I put in the speech was "subsidy junkies." I strongly believe that thinking that you are due public subsidy because you are 'doing good' leads to what I might euphemistically describe as less than robust business planning. Subsidies should only be used to ease the way over the initial barriers to mature markets, rather than being used as a life support system.
No one threw anything, no one walked out. Only one person challenged me on this in a later talk, arguing that subsidies represented the internalisation of external costs from "brown" energy. He was in turn asked from the floor whether this shouldn't be done by altering the tax system, rather than by direct handout. He thought no, I would say emphatically yes.
My favourite case study of the year so far was presented just before my slot. To get ready for the Olympics, the canoe slalom at the Tees Barrage needed to be upgraded with pumps so the flow could be kept artificially high if the river flow dropped. The civil engineers, Patrick Parsons, turned this problem into an opportunity. By installing four two-way archimedes screws, the barrage could generate energy when the river's flow exceeded what was required, then switch and pump water back upstream when that flow fell below the minimum to give it a boost. Overall the system would export a net of 100,000 kWh of clean hydro energy a year and extend the operating hours of the course, facilitating the Olympics and improving its long-term financial performance. Superb.
The Facebook/Twitter/Flickr/YouTube/Wordpress revolution of the last 5-7 years has famously been dubbed Web 2.0. Web 1.0 was like a huge electronic catalogue of information to be searched and read. This content was generated by a relatively small number of producers and consumed by a huge number of surfers.
The Web 2.0 revolution lead users to generate the content, democratising the process. The emerging big players stood back from the frontline, instead providing the framework within which that content was stored, catalogues and distributed - and made handsome rewards doing so.
There is a clear analogy here with energy. In traditional energy systems, let's call it Energy 1.0, a small number of producers keep a tight control on the flow of primary energy sources (gas, oil, coal) and distribute it to a large number of consumers. The rise of domestic microgeneration, farm based renewables and the adoption of renewable technologies by non-energy industries has started to wrestle the 'ownership' of energy from the few and handing it to the many. You could call it Energy 2.0.
Digging a little deeper into the analogy, the people who are making most money out of Web 2.0 are the providers of the platforms for content, not the content generators. If Energy 2.0 follows the same route, the big money will be made by those providing the storage, distribution and co-ordination of that energy - ie the semi-mythical Smart Grid. So who will become the big player, the YouVolt or the Wattr of Energy 2.0?
And the big fossil fuel industry? They could soon end up like the newspapers of today - declining circulation, no sustainable income streams in the new set up and abandoned by their political friends. The fossilised fuel industry.
Where the analogy falls down, of course, is in reliability of supply. If Twitter or Facebook went down for a few minutes, all you'd end up with is a couple of million smartphone users with itchy fingers. If the energy system went down, everything stops. The democratic and redundant nature of the internet allows the new providers to come and go, but it still took decades for the system to mature enough for Web 2.0. But then again, the smart grid could emulate the resilience of the internet, passing energy along random routes from generator to storage to consumer.
But with renewables hitting a new record of peaking at 50% of Germany's electricity consumption one day last month, and record investment in renewables (2011 saw 6 times as much investment as 2004), and the UK Government keen to break up the stranglehold of "the big six" electricity, we could be on the brink of something big.
As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I knew I had made a mistake. The huge table was at least 6 inches deep in paper, rising up to a couple of feet of documents in the middle. Two of my then University colleagues were sat to one side, bemused looks on their faces. Around the table danced a rotund gentleman in a pin stripe suit, grabbing pieces of paper and shoving them under our noses, sometimes obscuring sections of text with another sheet, hardly taking a breath as he painted a picture of a bright new tomorrow.
Whatever this guy had invented, we never found out, but it was clearly going to change the world. If we questioned him too far (ie at all), he would turn aggressive, so, too polite/intimidated to walk out, we sat back and watched the show. After an hour and a half I grabbed an excuse to make my escape, promising to find out whether we had high security research labs available for the next stage of development. I did actually go through the motions of checking we didn't and faxed the gent to tell him (this cutting edge innovator had no e-mail account...) and wished him luck. He responded with vitriol and attempted to get some of my section's funding cut.
That was my first and closest encounter with a mad inventor and ever since I've kept them at arms length, usually politely asking how their revolutionary energy systems comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Cleantech journalist and blogger Tyler Hamilton is much more tolerant and indeed fond of this particular breed of one-eyed energy enthusiasts ploughing lonely furrows with would-be technical revolutions. He reminds us in the introduction to his intriguing new book that energy pioneer Nikola Tesla - who gave us the AC motor, radio, robots, x-ray photographs and more - was clearly bonkers with bizarre aversions to hair and ladies' earrings and some really outlandish behavioural problems.
Hamilton takes us on a tour of some potentially quite amazing pieces of technology being developed outside the scientific mainstream - space-based solar, nuclear fusion, algae-derived biofuels and instant charge energy storage devices - all trying to make the leap over the "valley of death" from lab bench to commercial scale. My favourite is mentioned in passing - controlling electronic devices by mimicking the constant chatter of swarms of bees to even out peaks and troughs in consumption. Some of the more rational inventors here might be put out at being lumped in with the perpetual motion loons - the acid test between the two being how they respond to being challenged - the latter reacting like my pin-striped passive-aggressive friend above.
Hamilton's central thesis is that it would only take one or two of these ideas to work at scale to revolutionise the way we generate, store and use energy in the future, so we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss idea just because it doesn't fit with what we know now. He also points out the challenges these guys face. Energy revolutions are hard come by - the sheer scale of investment committed in the current systems and the obsession for reliability above all else, make it much more difficult for new ideas to flourish in this field than in, say, social media.
I really liked this book - zippily written and bursting with enthusiasm without getting starry eyed. Hamilton clearly enjoys telling the inventors' stories and while he gives his 'madmen' the benefit of the doubt, but always gently asks the killer question of each technology and its technologist. Given the subject matter, it will inevitably date quickly and its target market may be limited, but it's an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking read.
I saw this cartoon on Facebook last week and it made me giggle. Then it made me think.
While it is primarily a pop at the conservative instincts of the traditional energy sector, the more I thought about it, the more it resonated with deeper issues such as:
1. Renewable energy is completely different from other forms of energy as it is intrinsically democratic - supply of fuel cannot be exclusively auctioned off to the highest bidder by Governments - which means anyone can take part.
2. This is a massive threat to the traditional sector as their strengths in economies of scale and economic/political heft do not confer the advantages they used to.
3. It also means the barrier to entry is much lower - hence as all those individual householders claiming Feed In Tariff on their solar energy elbowing their way into the energy business. Move over EDF, Mrs Miggins of Acacia Avenue is selling these electrons.
4. Without their aces, can Big Energy compete in the unfolding new energy world? Or will they become the fossilised energy industry as I have predicted?
5. This is very exciting. This is Energy 2.0 which opens up masses of possibilities just as Web 2.0 did.
6. But, without that economic firepower, who is going to invest in the infrastructure such as the smart grid and storage facilities required to manage a new democratic system? How will they earn a return on that investment? Who will police it?
When I were a lad in the late 1970s, I dreamed of having my own computer. In my room. I would lie awake at night making mental lists of all the things I would get it to do - like getting a map of the area and plot all my friends houses on it, all our dens and all our secret routes - you can tell I was never one of the cool kids. Then, sometime in 1982 I got my hands on a BBC Micro. Hands shaking, I typed "Hello" and hit Enter. "Syntax Error" was the stark monochrome response. What a load of rubbish, I thought (I did grow to love my Beeb, however.)
30 years later, I have beside me a little black rectangle of glass with an apple on the back that will do pretty much anything the 10 year old me could have dreamed of and much, much more. And guess what, it costs less than that BBC computer cost all that time ago, when a packet of crisps was less than 10 pence.
Technology evolves. Sometimes slowly, sometimes incredibly rapidly, but the first version of anything - computers, cameras, cars, aircraft, whatever - is always a bit rubbish. But you need to get it past the rubbish stage and into a reasonable functional form before market forces will start driving break-through innovations and costs start plummeting. This is well known, universally accepted and is usually represented as a series of S-curves of maturing versions of any technology. Every time one technology matures, someone will be working on the version that supersedes it - but the rubbish stage (pre yellow burst) is soon left far behind.
Given this understanding, it really annoys me when a report comes out of some 'free-market' think tank which claims that renewables will always be too expensive, will never deliver energy security and/or will require fossil fuel back-up (which they often bizarrely assume will have to run full time.) By the way, I put 'free market' in inverted commas as the authors inevitably ignore how markets work and assume technologies will not evolve, their costs will stay constant, and synergetic developments will not take place. They are the equivalent of the Cambridge professor who in 1951 declared no one would ever need a computer of their own, or be able to afford one.
Recent history shows us how short-sighted these analyses are - the whole furore over the cut to UK solar feed-in tariffs was triggered by increased demand leading to plummeting panel costs which in turn boosted demand - the natural market cycle. Now the first iteration of silicon based panels is maturing, the next generation of dye-based technology - which is twice as efficient - is starting to emerge. When that hits the maturity level, we'll see a lot, lot more and cheaper solar power which will in turn drive the next generation.
Synergy is another factor in those S-curves. To exist, my iPhone has required a huge number of innovations in processor size, power and cost, mobile communication technology and the modern internet to name but three things that weren't freely available back in the days of my BBC Micro. When you start to put together very efficient solar panels and innovations like BAE System's 'structural battery' where energy can be stored in the structure of a vehicle, which in turn cuts the need for heavy batteries, cutting energy requirements - you can start to see all sorts of potential for solar powered vehicles.
Thirty plus years on, the 10 year old me is still excited by technology and the potential for human ingenuity. So we've got to ignore the calls of those with a bizarre compulsion to cling to the past and put human ingenuity into the epic challenge that is living within the natural limits of our planet. Let's dream our dreams and ignore those who can only sit at the sidelines and sneer.
All green eyes were on UK Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday as he made the first environmental speech of his tenure at the Clean Energy Ministerial summit. Would he be bold and visionary, committing the UK to a clean energy future?
Cameron famously used a 'husky hugging' trip to the arctic in 2006 to 'decontaminate' his Conservative party which had been drifting to the right since the late 90s, ceding the centre ground to Tony Blair's New Labour Government. After becoming Prime Minister of a coalition Government in 2010, Cameron boldly declared that his would be 'the greenest Government ever'.
Since then, Cameron gone quiet on the environment. It has been left to Lib Dem Ministers Chris Huhne and Ed Davey and Conservatives Greg Barker and Zac Goldsmith to fly the green flag, joined more recently by very robust pro-green growth decalarations from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Foreign Secretary William Hague. So yesterday's speech was a great opportunity to reset the compass on the green economy, rise to the level of commitment shown by many of his ministers and show some leadership. This is vitally important as everyone from civil servants to potential cleantech investors will be looking to the PM to see how the future is likely to unfold and will act accordingly.
Did he do it? Well, um, sort of. He said all the right things but, on my reading of the speech, failed to set the world on fire. Certainly his speech paled compared to William Hague's recent comments in the Huffington Post on the crushing effect of fossil fuel prices on economic recovery and the opportunities for 'green growth.'
As I argue in my book, The Green Executive, Leadership is the difference between the best and the rest when it comes to making sustainability happen. "If you don't have your Chief Executive on board, you'll get nowhere" as one of my clients remarked this week. This is as true for a country as it is for an organisation.
You can break Leadership into three interrelated parts: setting a vision, delivering on that vision and bringing people with you. With "the greenest Government ever", Cameron set a superficially compelling vision, but one which was vague and, arguably, not that ambitious given the slow progress under previous administrations. On delivery the coalition has achieved quite a bit, but is far too quick to retreat in the face of dissenting voices in the press and from the backbenches, and got itself ensnared in the Feed In Tariff mess. But it is probably the third of these factors which is weakest - no-one knows where the Prime Minister really stands.
From a business point of view, it's an interesting case study in the perils of lukewarm leadership. The breakthrough companies on sustainability (Interface, Marks & Spencer, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Patagonia etc) have nailed their colours to the mast, made big bold changes and prospered as a result. Those who prevaricate get stuck in the boggy no-man's land of incremental improvements, mediocre business returns and disillusioned stakeholders.
Going back to politics, in the same way the most sustainable companies have benefited from going green, there's a big opportunity for Cameron here. He has struggled to define his Government beyond deficit reduction and the hazy 'Big Society' concept which has never coalesced into a tangible policy agenda (a worrying precedent). Cameron could make going green exciting, visionary and a path out of our economic predicament. He could face down his backbenchers (it never did Tony Blair any harm) and plant his flag clearly in the centre ground.
Show some leadership in other words.
Full disclosure: While this blog is avowedly non-partisan in its politics and I am writing in my role as MD of Terra Infirma Ltd, I am also a member of the Liberal Democrat party and a city councillor.
Interesting article in the Guardian this morning from Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency saying clean energy is both feasible and necessary. This statement is ahead of today's Clean Energy Ministerial, a meeting of ministers and representatives of nations that account for 80% of world energy demand. She says:
The world's energy system is being pushed to breaking point, and our addiction to fossil fuels grows stronger each year. Many clean energy technologies are available, but they are not being deployed quickly enough to avert potentially disastrous consequences.
The ministers meeting this week have an incredible opportunity before them. It is my hope that they heed our warning of slow progress and act to seize the security, economic and environmental benefits clean energy transition can bring.
As I've said quite a lot recently, we have got to get across three basic properties of a sustainable future: that it is necessary, feasible and desirable. Necessary because climate change and resource depletion are eroding our quality of life, feasible in that we have the technologies and the policy instruments required and desirable in that we can have clean, secure energy for ever. If only we can let go of the past and embrace the future.
This applies to individual businesses as well as the globe - you either compete in the race to sustainability or get left forlornly at the starting line. Management gurus talk about the 'burning platform' - the analogy of survivors of the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster who disobeyed orders and jumped into the freezing water far below them. Their choice was definite death or probable death and they took the latter option. The move to sustainability is nowhere near as stark a choice as that faced by those poor men - people often use the also grim 'boiling a frog' metaphor of getting caught out by creeping change. But I have it on good authority that frogs don't actually get caught out by the rising temperature - when it gets too hot, they hop off. We need to show similar judgement - let go of the past and make the leap before it's too late.
International energy adivsor Jeremy Rifkin's newish book The Third Industrial Revolution has been getting quite a lot of attention in the press, so I thought I'd better give it a read. Rifkin's central thesis is that the second industrial revolution - the rise of the oil & gas economy which superseded the original, coal-fired industrial revolution - has entered its endgame and a new, distributed energy strategy is required to get the world out of its current economic and environmental fix. While we cling to the oil economy, Rifkin argues, climate change will become dangerous and rising prices will smother any economic recovery.
Rifkin calls his vision for a new approach to energy 'lateral power' - a kind of Energy 2.0 (to coin a phrase) which will adopt the distributed and participative economic model we see in the digital economy. There are five pillars to his vision:
1. A big shift to renewable energy
2. Transforming building stock to micro-power
3. Hydrogen economy and other energy storage systems
4. An 'internet of energy' to allow trading between individuals, companies and countries (ie a smart grid)
5. A shift in transport to electric and fuel cell vehicles
A subtext of the book is that the US should become more like Europe in its approach to the economy (probably more like Germany to be specific), which may raise eyebrows across the pond given the current political discourse. Rifkin clearly enjoys his access to top international politicians such as Angela Merkel. In fact his name dropping can get a tad wearing at times - although it is leavened with his rather blunt assessments of those who 'don't get it' - President Obama, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are on the list - and those who do, some of whom may surprise some readers, such as UK Premier David Cameron. Those on the 'don't get it' list are criticised not so much for a lack of interest, but for their inability to grasp the need for a distributed system - trying to build a renewable energy system on the centralised fossil fuel template just won't work.
This is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It has to be said that there is nothing particularly new in it from a conceptual point of view, in fact much of the 'lateral power' approach was sketched out by the late German MP (and father of the feed in tariff) Herman Scheer in his book The Solar Economy which was published more than a decade ago. But what Rifkin does very successfully is make a convincing case that the time for change has come given the economic and environmental challenges we currently face. And, let's face it, that's the vital message to get across to policy makers across the globe.
I'm away with family in Budle Bay in Northumberland - just south of Lindisfarne or Holy Island. Budle Bay is part of the Lindisfarne nature area and the estuary is a delight for birders - even my mediocre skills identified curlew, black headed gulls, greater black backed gulls, common gulls, red breatsed merganser, shelduck, mallard, widgeon, redshank, oyster catcher, pochard, kestrel, wheatear along with gazillions of plover-sized waders which are beyond my ken. We had some glorious, if windy and cold weather on Wednesday, but on Tuesday we had a blizzard - so we headed to the worlds best second hand bookstore, Barter Books at Alnwick, then to a soft play facility to let the kids work off their adrenaline.
We're staying in a rebuilt mill cottage at Waren Mill at the head of the bay, which, as the name suggests, had a number of mills dating from the 12th Century onwards. At the back of our garden the old mill race that fed water into the mills has been converted into a water feature which periodically kicks into life, creating a small waterfall. The bigger, more recent mill has been converted into holiday apartments too.
As I mentioned last week, I'm currently reading Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution which about the democratization and distribution of energy systems for a modern low carbon economy. It struck me that in the days of water power, this was very much how the economy worked - industry went where the energy was rather than the other way around. Of course Rifkin's vision is for a 21st Century version of distributed energy generation - creating a hi-tech internet of low carbon energy to get us out of the fossil fuel doom loop. But one interesting part of such a system is the potential for micro-hydro in locations such as this - tapping the same sources of clean energy that our forefathers did. So maybe, just maybe, places like Waren Mill will be going back to the future.
Poor Kodak. You couldn't make it up. A classic brand invents a great new technology (digital photography) but decides it would cannibalise their own products, so they ditch it. Someone else takes up the baton and they get eaten up anyway while desperately trying to claw back a piece of their action.
This isn't a new story - when transistors arrived on the market, the valve manufacturers decided not to embrace the new technology and paid the price - they've all gone. You could argue the same has happened to Zavvi and the struggling HMV - they're suffering at the hands of newer business models. The tragedy for Kodak is they weren't blindsided by someone's innovation, they had the ball and gave it away.
To my mind, Apple is one of the few examples of a major business which had its niche (desktop computers), then rode a wave of innovation and ended up dominating the new markets of mobile computing and digital media. But that took the particularly twisted genius of a certain S Jobs Esq.
So what's the lesson for Green Business in general and clean tech in particular?
Well you can see the same thing happening in the energy market. A while ago Big Oil redefined themselves as Energy Companies, invested in renewables, messed about with them for a while, then ditched them and headed for the familiar grounds of oil and (fracking) gas. They appeared fearful of commercialising technologies which might 'cannibalise' their traditional business, but if they don't do it someone else will. BP's "Beyond Petroleum Generation" of bright young things are almost all working for cleantech start ups now. I'm sure most of them would want to crush their former employer in the energy marketplace.
The only thing that protects the traditional energy sector is the lack of true competition in the market, but, with the UK Government trying to break the near-monopoly of electricity producers and introducing the carbon floor price, those advantages might be starting to slip away. If I were a fossil fuel based company, the Kodak story would make me very worried indeed.
There were stories in the press this month about £1.2m worth of 'constraint payments' made to Scottish wind farms over Christmas to not generate electricity when demand was low. These stories appear to have been placed by dodgy "think tanks" (read: propaganda machines) protesting about public subsidies going to renewables.
And I agree with them.
It is madness to pay to restrain renewable energy. We need as much renewable energy as we can get (here I diverge sharply from the propagandists), so what on earth are we doing saying "not now! take some cash"?
The money would be much better invested in smart grid technology and storage facilities. In a smart energy world such "excess" renewable energy would be used to cheaply charge electric vehicles and portable devices as well as distributed storage systems.
The problem is our thinking hasn't got past that of the 1930s. The grid we plug wind turbines into in the UK hasn't changed much since 1938. 1938! That grid was designed to distribute electricity from centralised power stations - a bit like television channels broadcast the same entertainment to lots of people. A sustainable energy system would be more like the internet than TV with energy entering, being stored, and accessed at different places and times by a wide variety of players. It's about time we brought energy into the internet age.
The wider point is our tendency to be hidebound by linear, incremental thinking - to innovate to the degree to tackle the sustainability challenge, we need to break free of business as usual.