Making energy sustainable is one of the great challenges of our times. Where other countries once led on innovation, the UK is finally catching up, with eye-catching and impactful new initiatives from startups and others. Andrew Huddart highlights some differing responses.
It has happened more slowly in the UK than in many places, but the global energy economy is changing for the better.
The shift from burned sources of energy (coal, diesel, natural gas, petrol, wood) to renewables is continuing apace as consumers demand – and many businesses respond to – a big switch to clean energy and a response to climate change.
Respected analysts Bloomberg New Energy Foundation (BNEF) confirmed earlier this year that renewable energy has reached the goal of being competitive with grid power prices.
While there are still many challenges ahead – especially in market structures, regulation and the power of incumbents – BNEF says it is an especially promising time for sustained deployment of solar, and energy storage (such as batteries).
In the UK, several for-good businesses have embraced the positive agenda of energy transformation. Powered by enthusiastic and tech-minded teams, some have focused on achieving rapid scale-up in emerging economies, where solutions like solar can accelerate faster due to climate advantages and pressing economic need.
B Corps combine profit with purpose, using an accreditation system that measures success using social purpose as well as the monetary bottom line.
Other upstart companies have grasped the nettle of a slowly changing market by innovating to meet the needs of the most demanding, early adopter customers for green energy.
Arcola Energy is one of the most creatively inspired energy companies anywhere. Co-located with the east London theatre of the same name, it has pursued the tough scientific challenge of realising hydrogen and fuel cell power by focusing on scaled-up projects with customers.
Bulb has built a for-purpose approach into its interaction with customers, partners, staff and technology from the start. A year since its launch, its service is in a strong growth upswing, with around 40,000 customers and adding more at an impressive rate of 3,000-5,000 a week.
Very committed to its pledge of being a 100% renewable supplier, Bulb’s founders have made it their mission to wrap a simple and service-rich experience for consumers around technically elaborate infrastructure.
“We use technology to keep costs down and give better service,” co-founder Hayden Wood told Digital Agenda this spring. “We then invest these savings in providing affordable renewable energy, which is traditionally more expensive. We are able to serve homes at significantly lower cost than our competitors. The number of customers we can serve per member of staff is around 10 times higher than our competitors.”
Fellow founder Amit Gudka (pictured, with Wood, left) explains that close contact with customers (or members), technology partners and also its own staff’s curiosity allows Bulb to stay alert to changes in the energy scene. “We rely on these three key groups of people to help us keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape – people, members and partners,” he says.
Partnerships and network effects are also crucial drivers of progress for Arcola, essentially a systems engineering firm, which has self funded its growth over six years through dozens of funded hydrogen fuel cell-related projects, to prove itself as a leading integrator of these complex renewable technologies.
“The strongest analogy with digital is that our competitive position is not the result of distinctive intellectual property per se but it is about network effects,” Richard Kemp-Harper, head of innovation explains. “Everybody knows us among customers and supply chain partners, and we know everybody.”
Arcola’s projects span transport, industrial plant, infrastructure and buildings. Increasingly they involve solving interdependencies and creating stable links between solar, wind and fuel cells – with batteries and hydrogen among options for energy storage – to bridge time horizons spanning days to months.
Hydrogen comes into its own, in the choice of a medium for energy storage, for periods of over 24 hours right out to inter-seasonal. In some locations, energy can be saved from surplus solar or wind-generated electricity by converting it into hydrogen through electrolysis to use in cooler or less windy periods.
Kemp-Harper explains that pressurised hydrogen is a valuable longer-term storage medium, even if the gross efficiency of creating it from electricity isn’t so high.
An ongoing Arcola project centred on the harbour in Kirkwall, Orkney, will use clean hydrogen fuel generated from surplus wind electricity (via electrolysis of water), to drive significant electric infrastructure from a marine standard fuel cell. Ideally it will allow the replacement of heavy fuel oil and diesel around the port.
For Arcola’s applied scientists like founder Ben Todd and Kemp-Harper, part of their reward is in the complexity of the challenge. “It’s bespoke every time… it keeps it enjoyable.”
Arcola’s team acknowledges there is technology stretch still in some of the engineering work around hydrogen, especially in its integration with other renewables. It remains expensive technology with underdeveloped markets that are taking off slowly.
But as Todd says, “we want to do it because it is really important. Let’s solve this air quality business and help address climate change while we’re at it.”
Both Bulb and Arcola show that the way to build impact and momentum in energy transformation markets is to get moving and not stop iterating. Determination counts.
And, as Faro’s chief exec Sarah Chapman told a London On-Purpose community event recently, the battle to counter climate change by decarbonising intensively is far from won. “We have to work harder. Sustainability is something that is going to be important indefinitely. It’s quite scary really.”