Observations from All Energy 2014
Billing itself as ‘Europe’s largest renewables event’, All Energy 2014 saw a vast range of renewable energy companies: from garage-based start-ups to global giants.
The myriad renewable technologies on show included biomass, solar, CHP sytems, energy storage, micro-hydro turbines, fuel cells, and wind turbine of every scale. Most companies were selling commercial or near to market products – but while many had made successful sales, few complained that their order books were growing too fast for them to keep up.
Meanwhile, companies developing technologies aimed at the oil and gas sector (ROV operators, safety equipment suppliers, weather buoys, etc.) were reporting relentless growth. Indeed, Aberdeen is booming so fast for these operations that nearly all of them have been forced to commission purpose built facilities after just a few years of operation.
The engineering talent, research base and opportunities are similar for both industries, so why is there such a stark difference? Part of it is financial clout – the oil and gas companies tend to be an order of magnitude larger than the Utilities who fund the renewables sector – but this doesn’t tell the full story.
Like it or not, commercial interest in renewables has been on the wane in the UK. The combination of the societal pressure to keep energy bills down and the perception of political risk surrounding electricity market reform means that many renewables projects are seen as ‘unbankable’. Elsewhere in Europe there are different pressures but as renewable energy is almost universally reliant on public subsidies, there is political risk in every market.
So, while oil and gas technologists know who their clients are, the renewable world’s client is a different beast. The Utilities need to keep risk ultra-low to satisfy shareholders and financiers, but the key risks are political and are out of their control.
The capacity to innovate is there – that much is indisputable – but in the renewable sector political uncertainty is making it hard for those innovations to be brought forwards.