Clean Energy Live: UK energy minister gives no clues where UK energy is heading

The mood was uncomfortable when Baroness Neville-Rolfe started her speech at the Clean Energy Live show, by announcing that her presentation would revolve around the U.K.’s direction approaching 2020. The clear answer given by Neville-Rolfe, in a powerfully happy voice, was that we are heading out of the European Union. This was met by silence from the audience, not even a clap.

No assurances were offered to the storage industry professionals in attendance, other than Brexit.

She did of course say that batteries, solar and wind will be part of the U.K.’s future generation mix. But this is not the future; these technologies are taking hold right now, and the government doesn’t seem to know how to face it.

She also confirmed that the U.K. will ratify the Paris agreement in the following months. A soft victory for the clean energy sector, but, in the current Brexit climate, maybe the only small thing to celebrate.

Finally, always bringing things back to Brexit, she warned the audience that as the U.K. exits the European bloc, it will need to look to places like California and India to see how storage can be incorporated into the mix.

Brexit casts a shadow over U.K. solar

The problem with solar PV technology, Baroness Neville-Rolfe added, is that it still needs subsidies. The government is happy to work with the U.K. solar PV community to find solutions that reduce the costs, but the government’s support for solar “remains in line with falling costs.”

Thus, the minister urged members of the U.K. solar community to adapt to the new market conditions and keep improving their products and services in order to survive. Innovation is key to this, the Baroness argued.

The latter was an accurate statement, but the Baroness did not offer any indication that she has a plan in mind to assist the sector. Referring specifically to energy storage, the minister said the government helps the sector by committing to R&D projects and that such projects are part of the U.K.’s industrial strategy.

The answer to the energy minister was actually given at a previous seminar earlier in the same day. Speaking at a panel discussion about cleantech innovation in the U.K. and how the government can fund it, Stephen Heidari-Robinson, who was an energy advisor to the former U.K. prime minister David Cameron, said that innovation comes from the businesses, not from the government. However, what states can, and need, to do to assist innovators is regulate effectively.

In the U.K. specifically, Heidari-Robinson argued, the government needs to specify which clean sectors it wants to boost, then design the right regulations. By spending some funding here and there, in little community projects and R&D trials, the market is not going to go far.

Eric Nygard, co-founder of Limejump, an energy company that specializes in virtual power plants, also made an interesting point at the same panel discussion. Innovative business models that can decrease clean energy costs require risky and expensive financing, he said. In the Brexit era, Nygard added, investors are scared to invest in unproven business models.

Meanwhile, with Brexit expected to bring significant changes, the energy minister did not forget to mention that we also need to make sure of affordability [of the electricity prices] and that the lights stay on.