Witnessing the energy transition
The end of January (30th) brings another significant birthday, (one that I have trouble believing), and those events are an excuse for some retrospective thinking as well as consideration of the future. I thought I would briefly review “my life in energy”, trying to explain some of the influences on me, set against the unfolding energy transition, so please indulge me.
In the 1960s I really liked visiting North Wales. Snowdonia, the castles and the Ffestiniog Railway all combine to make North Wales a special place. One year we visited the Ffestiniog pumped storage hydro scheme. The scale of the engineering and the vision to dig tunnels and caverns out of the mountainside, as well as the storage aspect was fascinating. It is an amazing piece of engineering and epitomises the central planning of the nationalised electricity industry of that time. It also made the energy industry exciting.
The 1970s were dominated by the two oil crises of 1973/74 and 1979. Although of course the 1973/74 oil crisis was caused by the OPEC embargo in response to the Arab-Israeli war rather than any physical shortage of oil, it did mark a seismic shift of power from consumer nations to the producers and a change in the way that we viewed energy. In the UK it rolled into the three day week caused by the coal miners’ industrial action and regular power cuts which really brought home what life without electricity would be like – even in the relatively simple world of the 1970s. As well as missing favourite TV shows, which of course were not at that time available at any other time or on any other media (hard to imagine now), doing homework by candle light made me realise what it must have been like for previous generations or people in countries without access to electricity. This period also saw the environmental movement gaining momentum. The three day week definitely influenced my choice of degree course, an inter-disciplinary degree called Science of Resources with a focus on energy, once I had convinced myself that the aeronautical industry was in a terminal decline and that being an astronaut was fairly unlikely. In the summer of 1979 I was in the US when people lined up for gas and gas hit the heady heights of 86 cents a gallon, 25% up from the year before.
In the 1980s I started work doing energy audits and then a PhD looking at the potential for energy efficiency in British industry with a focus on sectors that my PhD supervisor christened the boozy industries - brewing, distilling, malting and dairies. I spent much time visiting sites including most of the breweries in the country – a tough gig for a PhD student. The UK brewing industry led the world in developing an annual energy benchmarking exercise, one that I think is still going, probably represents the longest time series data on the energy consumption of an industrial sector anywhere in the world.
The 1990s started with the world changing collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall, as well as the privatisation of the electricity and gas industries in the UK. The two combined to change my life, privatisation led to energy prices falling sharply and everyone taking their eye off the ball of efficiency by the mid-1990s but the fall of the Soviet empire led to opportunities in Central & Eastern Europe. I spent a fascinating four years working in Romania at a time when the rate of change was visible. Amongst other things I designed EU assistance programmes, advised the Ministry of Industries Agency for Energy Conservation, co-founded an ESCO which is still going, and sponsored two orphans. The early 1990s also saw the introduction of the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation and the emergence of the then tiny wind industry. Delabole, with its ten 400kW turbines, opened in November 1991.
The 2000s were my introduction to energy services, firstly through Enron (which actually was a great place to work) and then RWE. My brewing industry PhD proved useful when we gained Guinness as a client, first at Park Royal with Enron & then Park Royal, Dublin and Dundalk breweries with RWE. We took Park Royal from being the least efficient brewery to the most efficient but it sadly had to close due to restructuring within Diageo and concentration of production in Dublin. In that period I learnt to like drinking Guinness, a skill I have now lost. The Guinness and Sainsburys deals that we developed with Enron and then delivered through RWE were really ground breaking and some of the things we worked on, like demand response on commercial refrigerators, only came to pass much later. We also applied integrated design and right sizing principles. In the late 2000s my focus switched to finance – first doing equity research in new energy and clean tech and then corporate finance. It felt like a big change of direction but given that Enron operated more like an investment bank I now see the decade more as a gradual shift towards finance. In 2012 I founded EnergyPro with the purpose of bringing more capital to energy and resource efficiency, something we are doing through advisory work, asset management and fund raising. Looking forward I see growth in energy services, sustainable infrastructure and the intersection of technology and infrastructure – infratech. More and more of our activity will be linked to the Sustainable Development Goals which form a clear set of targets for society, organisations and individuals.
It has been interesting to witness and fulfilling to participate in the energy transition and I look forward to continuing to do that. Energy transitions take a long time but it is worth taking a look back occasionally and see how much change there has been. We still have a long way to go but I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “we tend to over-estimate what we can achieve in the short-term but under-estimate what we can achieve in the long-term”.