Last week’s ‘Upgrading Our Energy System’ release from the government came as something of a surprise.
Not so much in that it was in the pipeline; the energy department’s now traditional leaks to national news outlets meant we knew something was in the offing over the course of the weekend, and the oft-delayed response to the Smart Power Call for Evidence has been in the pipeline for some time now.
No, the surprise was in the detail. In 32 pages the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and industry regulator Ofgem had offered a neat surmise of the power market’s direction of travel, how current systems would need to evolve, and how the two would look to further that evolution.
As a journalist you can usually gather how positive or divisive an announcement is by the number of people willing to respond to it. Within minutes of business secretary Greg Clark leaving the podium at the University of Birmingham and BEIS firing the document out into the ether, our inboxes were filling up with commentary, opinions and offers for think-pieces. All of which – with the exception of the GMB union – were overwhelmingly positive in nature.
Storage stands to be the main and considerable beneficiary. No longer will the technology be shrouded in red tape and bureaucracy. No longer will an energy system designed decades ago impede cutting edge developments by double-charging them for the power they store, nor will connection agreements take an age and cost almost as much as the battery itself to arrange.
Other technologies, namely demand side response, smart meters, connected appliances and electric vehicles, will also feel the warm glow of government embrace.
The reviews were more akin to those of Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster than a piece of delayed government legislative procedure. “A fantastic move,” said Good Energy’s Juliet Davenport. “[This] can only be a good thing,” chimed Rob Marsh of Norton Rose Fulbright. “A positive next step for the electricity sector,” said IMechE’s Jenifer Baxter.
It was enough to leave one considering just where this government had been for the last 12 months, if of course the answer wasn’t ‘contending with the pending nightmare that is Brexit and an ill-conceived snap election’. Indeed, one renewables installer writing for sister publication Solar Power Portal concluded that the government was “suddenly showing signs of getting it”.
In fact the only quasi-negative noises seemed to emanate from the formerly mentioned GMB, who said Clark needed to keep his feet “nailed firmly to the floor” and that the secretary of state could not simply drive storage through “wishful thinking alone”. But that’s to be expected, sadly. You can’t please everybody and there are still 7% of people who don’t think Dunkirk’s enough to write home about.
But the union does have something of a point. The government can postulate and legislate all it wants, but no amount of wishful thinking – or wishful policy – will further the energy revolution that so desperately has to happen.
The bulk of the work will have to be done by the energy and technology companies who make up the power sector. The legions of clean energy experts, engineers, installers and supply chain professionals – more than 125,000 of them according to the Renewable Energy Association’s most recent review – whose job it is to be at the forefront of this transition.
This is already starting to bleed through. No sooner had Clark & Co started to bathe in the glory of last week’s strategy had UK Power Networks revealed that it was to begin fast-tracking domestic storage connection agreements through a newly-revamped internal procedure.
UKPN has already charted its evolution. Earlier this month it documented precisely how it intended to transition from DNO to DSO; a major scope of work that its chief exec Basil Scarsella said would be “as significant as the advent of broadband” was for the telecoms industry. It joined Western Power Distribution, which at the start of July detailed how it was to spend £125 million to transform itself for the future.
Then there’s the legion of storage developers and installers who are busily planning, constructing and, now, selling batteries of all scales as the industry not only gets to grip with the technology, but has grown adept at convincing investors of their viability and reliability.
To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, the energy revolution will not be compartmentalised, but corporatised, driven by exactly the kind of innovative thinking and appetite for change that has served the solar and wind industries so well over the last decade.
For all the government’s willing work – and it really must be commended for last week’s news – its job will simply be to get out, and keep out, of the way.