Today marks the start of Greener London week, a showcase of events and launches designed to promote the cause of a cleaner capital.
It started with this morning’s pressure from environmental groups on London’s mayoral candidates and will culminate with Friday evening’s green hustings, which will pit Sadiq Khan, Zac Goldsmith, Caroline Pidgeon and Sian Berry against each other.
The campaign’s aim will be to catapult environmental issues into the public consciousness and events this weekend will have done it no harm. Hollywood A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio ended his wait for an Oscar and dedicated his speech to climate change, urging the world not to take the planet for granted.
“It [climate change] is the most urgent threat facing our species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating,” he said.
DiCaprio’s commitment to clean issues is well documented and the actor has been a constant campaigner for renewables. But Energy UK, the other body to come out with messages of support for renewables this weekend, has a history far less green.
Energy UK claims to be the trade association for the energy industry. Its members include all of the UK’s ‘Big Six’ utility companies as well as the likes of Statoil, British Gas parent Centrica and the enormous commodities conglomerate Vitol. Its influence is considerable, and its history almost entirely focused on representing the interests of the energy market’s old guard.
That Energy UK chief executive Lawrence Slade told The Guardian yesterday of an historic u-turn in its stance on renewables was a monumental shift in thinking.
The organisation has previously been the subject of significant criticism from environmental groups, particularly its links with PR and lobbying firms Edelman and Fishburn. But the publication of last week’s ‘Pathways to 2030’ report appeared to trail a major attitude change.
The report, which was compiled by Energy UK and consultancy giant KPMG, heralded the potential growth of decentralised energy systems with solar-plus-storage put forward as a major challenger to the centralised status quo. It claimed that far less importance would be placed on large, centralised generators in the future in what could be seen as a thinly veiled side swipe at Hinkley Point C, a project which looks destined to generate more headlines than power.
Slade’s comments this weekend – a stated desire to “drive change” and an assertion that “no one wants to be running the next Nokia” – were rightly taken positively, but it remains to be seen just how effective, or even sincere, they will be.
In a previous article for sister publication Solar Business Focus UK, those concerned with renewables lobbying suggested that there was only so much that could be achieved as long as the sector remained locked outside the corridors of power. Nascent industries lack the kind of political infiltration more established groups enjoy and, as a result, struggle to truly get their message across.
No matter how loud you shout or dirty you fight, without direct access to decision makers lobbying efforts will always lack substance. Matt Hazell, co-founder of solar developer PS Renewables, probably best summarised it with his stance. “You can take the gloves off for sure, but if you don’t have the power behind that punch then it’s just not going to land,” he said.
Energy UK will certainly add substantial clout to any lobbying efforts on solar’s behalf, so in that sense its beating of the drum can only be good news.
The concern is that, with such founded relationships with the Big Six and other major energy businesses, the body will get drawn into representing only their interests instead of technologies as a whole. Offshore wind – one of the few technologies to escape last year’s subsidy reset relatively unscathed – is largely controlled by dominant players in the market and the major suppliers eyeing up green power opportunities such as RWE and Engie have given solar more than a passing glance.
That such an established lobbying group is willing to fight renewables’ corner cannot be ignored. Opportunities like this, for the industry to extend its reach and hammer home the potential clean energy revolution that’s at stake, do not come around often – probably even less frequently than ‘Best Actor’ Oscar success does for Leonardo DiCaprio.
Energy UK’s u-turn represents a significant opportunity for the UK’s renewables sector to make sure its message is heard. Let’s hope for the industry’s sake the benefits will be felt by all those involved, and not just the majors it acts on behalf of.