Carbon crusader

The Carbon Trust’s director of innovation is out to persuade firms it makes economic sense to think green – and his organisation is there to help. Stuart Nathan reports

Mark Williamson is the sort of person who puts his money where his mouth is. The youthful director of innovation at the Carbon Trust makes a point of tracking his family’s carbon emissions from household energy and travel every month and, by using efficient lighting and appliances, remembering to switch things off when not in use, using more public transport and holidaying close to home, he reckons he and his wife have almost halved their carbon footprint over the past two years.

It’s a small contribution to national carbon reduction targets, he admits, but it demonstrates a commitment to the concept that has taken him on a major career swerve, from his original work as a wireless telecommunications specialist with Hewlett Packard, through an MBA and a second career as a management consultant.

‘The environment is a long-standing personal interest, but energy and climate challenge has become a personal fascination,’ he said. ‘And where that fits with the role I have at the Carbon Trust is in joining together the concepts of a strong, technical idea with a commercially viable output.’

This, said Williamson, summarises Carbon Trust Innovations: identifying good technological ideas with potential to cut carbon emissions in a cost-effective way, helping to attract investment and know-how for effective management and marketing, and helping others turn the idea into a product and the concept into a viable company.

‘The mission of the Carbon Trust is to accelerate the move to a low-carbon economy and it’s clear that, if you look at the challenges around energy and climate, we need a significant ramp-up of activity and investment in this area,’ he said:

There are several bodies with a similar remit, such as the Energy Technologies Institute and the Technology Strategy Board (The Engineer 26 November), but Williamson does not believe this will cause confusion. ‘I think it’s essential to have a number of players in the energy research and low-carbon landscapes, because different organisations have different styles and address the issues in different ways.’

One thing that distinguishes Carbon Trust Innovations is its accelerator programmes, which focus on a particular technology area to identify the barriers to developing products and bringing them to market.

These barriers might be because nobody knows how a particular type of equipment will work in the field, Williamson explained, or government policy in the area is insufficient or hinders progress, or that customers are unaware of the technology. ‘There aren’t any real technical nuts to crack any more, but there are still problems which it’s vital to solve if we’re going to get to market.’

The Trust runs five accelerator programmes: advanced metering; low-carbon buildings; biomass heating; marine energy; and micro-CHP (combined heat and power), launched late last month.

To illustrate how accelerators work in practice, Williamson explained how the marine energy accelerator came about. The Carbon Trust reviewed the technologies of nine companies in the field and concluded that although there was a great deal of innovation in the area, the sector was far from cost-competitive. ‘There had been a lot of focus on making devices and energy capture, but not enough on making sure the economics were as good as possible, and that’s what’s going to sell the devices in the end.’

One possible way to bring the cost down is to look at the common elements between the different types of device, such as the materials they are made from, the type of machinery they use, how they are moored, how they are maintained and so on. ‘There’s a lot of expertise in that area outside the marine sector, so we’re trying to bring in people with expertise in drive trains and rotors and so on to see to what extent they can help with existing devices,’ said Williamson.

‘We’ve also now got a very strong methodology for looking at any marine device and identifying what it can deliver versus its costs, and we’ve used that to identify two very early-stage technologies, very different from what’s currently out there, which might be more cost-effective.’

The Anaconda, made by Checkmate Seaenergy, is a wave energy converter made from low-cost rubber, and the Minesto Deep Green tidal device increases the relative flow of low-speed tidal streams and could potentially increase the number of usable tidal energy sites around the UK.

The idea of matchmaking between companies with differing technical skills and possible investors is a big part of Carbon Trust Innovations’ work, said Williamson. ‘You often find that a good technical idea, and even a very strong technical team, doesn’t necessarily have the ability to turn that into a viable commercial venture. So we provide a business incubation service. If you’ve got an idea which we’ve seen has technical and carbon-saving potential, we can help you get to the next stage.

‘We work with companies and provide guidance on how you build the right management team, because often the entrepreneur isn’t the right chief executive for the company. And we can help you decide what the right target market is.’

More than half of the companies that have been through the incubator process have attracted private sector investment, Williamson said, which usually dwarfs the funding the Carbon Trust can supply.

Williamson says the Trust tries to avoid the Research Councils’ model of funding, which calls for volunteers for project grants. However, in many cases, it does hold competitions to identify interesting projects and technologies.

‘We will use a competition to get the best value for money — you have to have some sort of mechanism,’ he said. ‘But the goal, which is vital for us, is to bring organisations and companies together and form partnerships that didn’t already exist.’

For the organic photovoltaics project, which aims to produce a lightweight, low-cost solar power generation material (The Engineer, 15 October), the Trust ran an exercise to identify the leading academics in the field, industrial companies with interests in solar and — crucially — manufacturing companies with expertise in complex thin-film production. ‘We bring them together and allow the natural consortium-forming process to happen,’ he said.

Unsurprisingly for a former management consultant and an MBA holder, Williamson constantly stresses the need for cost-effectiveness and the importance of economics. For example, he believes low-carbon energy generation will only take hold if there are financial penalties for carbon emissions and incentives for reductions.

‘But when we talk about economics and the cost-effectiveness of a solution, that’s much broader than just the basic pence/kWh argument,’ he insisted.

‘It’s about businesses looking at their future competitiveness. We’re encouraged that those in the UK and globally are starting to get the fact that [reducing emissions] not only leads to reductions in the energy bill bottom line, but also that there’s a major consumer drive to demand lower carbon services and products.’

This means adopting low-carbon techniques in itself improves competitiveness. ‘It makes economic sense from every angle, in terms of customer attraction and retention, to put money into cleaner technology, products and services,’ he said.

The message could be sinking in. ‘It’s going well beyond the corporate social responsibility movement — we’re now seeing major UK companies starting to build in a move to lower carbon in their corporate strategies. Every aspect of climate change has an economic aspect, and we have to make industry see that the right answer to a technological issue is the lower-carbon answer.’