Sustainable energy: 20 years in three questions, part one – exploring early promise

Here at E4tech, we’ve been advising businesses, governments and investors on the sustainable energy sector for 20 years. It’s gone by in a flash, but it’s worth looking back seeing how much has changed. Tony Blair was prime minister; the first Harry Potter book had just hit the shelves; and, in our sector, the UK met just under two per cent of its electricity needs with renewable energy.

Now? Now we have Theresa May (correct at the time of publishing); seven books, nine films and a play; and around a quarter of our electricity needs satisfied by renewables.

The stats alone tell a compelling story. However, one of the most telling shifts we’ve experienced over these 20 years are the different type of questions people ask us.

Broadly speaking, they shift from exploratory (what is this shiny new technology? How does it work?). Then comes the exploitation (sounds great, how do we monetise it?). Finally, there are the existential questions (wait, this actually looks pretty transformative – what does it mean for me and my business model’s future?).

This is the first of a three-part blog series exploring those questions. Part two can be found here and part three here.

Exploratory questions – what on Earth is it?
Imagine you’d never known anything but fossil fuel power generation, then someone shows you an experimental wind turbine. Your thought process would probably go something like this: what on Earth is this thing?… Really?… Okay, great – how does it work?

At this stage, interest is typically from trend-spotting venture capitalists, or future-looking industry players. The ‘influencers’ tend to be universities and research and development institutions.
An example: despite the fact that fuel cell technology was first demonstrated in 1839, this was pretty much the stage the market was at regarding hydrogen fuel cells 20 years ago. Hydrogen cars? Really? We’ve just started hearing about the Prius!

Initial surprise and scepticism gives way to inquisitiveness though, and at E4tech we soon found ourselves advising on how the technology worked, which fuel sources were best, what they could be used for – just cars or are there other applications such as backup power?

We’ve progressed past this stage for hydrogen fuel cells (more on that in the next blogs), but it’s a pattern you can see repeated time and time again when new sustainable energy technologies emerge. For example, look at where nuclear fusion or small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear technology is today – there’s early investment sure, but we’re still very much at the feasibility stage.

In parts two and three of this series, we’ll look at the evolution of the questions asked about a technology as it matures, and take a step back to ask what it means for the industry.

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