This year’s Renewable Futures conference, hosted as always by Regen South West (RegenSW) didn’t have an official theme; but if it did, that theme would be change. Indeed, if anybody has felt the winds of change this year, it would be RegenSW.
As a result of government funding cuts, RegenSW has recently had to turn towards the private sector instead, financing itself using a subscription-based model. This has meant big changes for RegenSW, who have had to find new ways to make their way in the world. It isn’t yet clear whether they will succeed, but I certainly hope they do; it would be heartening to see that the sustainability sector in the UK today might actually be large enough to maintain a support organisation like RegenSW. The Renewable Futures conference, held at the Assembly Rooms in Bath on November 9th, was a major event in their calendar; judging by its success this year, it seems a good portent for their future.
Headline speakers this year came mostly from the DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) and banks, as interest mounts over proposed changes to energy subsidy mechanisms in the UK. The existing scheme, known as Renewable Obligations (RO), was represented at the conference by the civil servant in charge of it, Richard Vianello. Under current plans, RO will remain open to new applications up till 2017, and won’t be shut down completely until 2027. It’s successor scheme hasn’t yet been finalised, but will take the form of a Feed-in Tariff (FiT). The man leading consultation on FiTs, Alasdair Grainger of the DECC, used his speech to try to convince delegates of the benefits of the new scheme; a tough task, judging by the reaction of his audience and fellow speakers. The handling of the new scheme, scheduled to be introduced by 2014, has come under intense criticism recently from both electricity suppliers and investors. This criticism was voiced by the following speakers, Juliet Davenport of Good Energy, and Richard Simon-Lewis, head of utilities and energy project finance at Lloyds TSB. Juliet Davenport, in particular, called on the government to build in “Transparency, Longevity and Certainty” to whatever scheme they wish to put in place- adding that “a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss”. Questions to the panel gave the impression that delegates weren’t keen to scrap a subsidy scheme that they (and their investors) had gotten used to, and the government will face an uphill battle to gain their support over the next few years.
Another major talking point at the conference was the recent Panorama programme ‘What's Fuelling Your Energy Bill?’. This documentary certainly didn’t go down well with delegates, as it asserted that renewable energy subsidies were the chief reason for electricity price rises in recent years. Whatever the real story might be, what interested me most was the reaction of the renewable energy industry; they clearly place value on good publicity. I get the impression that of all the changes that the next few years might bring, a change in public opinion might be what the industry fears most.
My pick of the displays this year would have to be the stand from PML Applications Ltd. This company, a subsidiary of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, has been working on a way of preventing bacterial damage to underwater structures. This will be of great interest to wave and tidal power device designers, as it could potentially reduce the maintenance costs of their machinery significantly. Bacterial colonies can build up on the external surfaces of underwater structures, speeding up their decay; PML hope to break up these colonies by disrupting the signals between bacteria. In a simplistic sense, this can potentially ‘confuse the bacteria to death’. As a young researcher, I can certainly sympathise with that fate!
Also worth mentioning was the display from the Environmental iNet, an organisation partnered with both the University of Bristol and the Cabot Institute. The Environmental iNet forms an essential link in the chain of technology innovation, helping to transform ideas into working businesses. Do look out for their director, Professor Martin Bigg, who will be speaking at the Bristol Technologies for the Environment seminar series on February 9th 2012.
Neeraj Oak is a PhD Student at the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences (BCCS), working in the area of renewable energy economics. Contact: Neeraj.Oak@Bristol.ac.uk