Sustainable energy: 20 years in three questions, part three – looking to the future

This is the third of a three-part blog series. You can read part one here and part two here.

After 20 years in the sustainable energy space, we’ve come to realise that one of the best indications of a sustainable energy technology maturing is the evolution in the questions asked about it.

First, they ask exploratory questions: What is it? How does it work? Then you have the exploitation queries: Great – so how do we monetise it? What’s the business case? Finally, a penny drops when the industry realises the new tech is here to stay and asks the existential questions: What does this mean for us and our business model?

In blogs one and two we traced the trajectory of a technology as it progressed through those stages – namely hydrogen zero emission vehicles (ZEVs). The questions show the development of the technology from infancy to maturity – for example February 2017 saw the first motorway hydrogen refilling station in the UK.

In a sense, it’s a trajectory that’s recognisable when looking at sustainable energy as a whole. Once derided as a niche topic with a whiff of do-gooding, people started asking serious exploratory questions of the sector’s potential. Then they started monetising the technology, building business cases and embarking on early projects.

Now, the incumbent industry players are asking existential questions. Established utilities are wondering whether there’s still room for their brand of centralised, large-scale power generation in a decentralised world of microgrids and prosumers. Oil and gas companies are diversifying into renewables, in some cases even shedding their old hydrocarbon assets. Whole systems are being re-thought and redesigned.

A new world re-order

There’s a satisfying symmetry here: the sustainable energy sector as a whole following the same trajectory (as mapped out by the three questions) as the individual technologies that constitute it.

However, perhaps the most exciting thing about the sector’s future, is that the questions are getting shuffled and re-ordered. As the industry has professionalised, its progress has accelerated: now new entrants ask these questions simultaneously, barely pausing for breath.

And that’s exactly how it should be.

For example, look at the nascent ‘cold economy’. The idea here is that the ever-growing need for cooling can be satisfied by a more intelligent link with waste sources of cold (such as LNG terminals). Novel technologies enhance the potential for monetising cold.

In this case, questions are being asked about where the technology might fit before an early rush to monetise it. Can it be incorporated into the LNG industry? What about cold chain logistics for shipping food and medicines?

This is exactly the right thing to do, reducing the chance of time and funds being wasted by over-eager startups and investors on ideas that ultimately won’t find a place in the world. The systems thinking comes alongside the technology and business thinking.

To us, that’s a great sustainable energy step. In the shift in the questions that our clients ask, we see the sign of a sector that, after 20 years, is truly coming of age.

 

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