Roll out the barrel?

The fact that the renewable energy sector has run into the teeth of the most ferocious global economic storm for a century just as it was trying to find its feet is serious and, to say the least, highly regrettable.


The fact that the renewable energy sector has run into the teeth of the most ferocious global economic storm for a century just as it was trying to find its feet is serious and, to say the least, highly regrettable.

It seems like another era now, but just a few years ago the weather seemed set fair for wind, solar, wave and other emerging renewable technologies that we are relying on to nudge us towards a cleaner, greener economy.

Investment funding was plentiful, governments and other regulators were setting environmental targets by the dozen and the world’s energy giants — the likes of BP, for example — were keen to be seen putting their money where their mouths were by shifting their focus over to renewables.

And, just for good measure, the competition seemed determined to price itself out of the market, with oil producers making the global economy squeal with pain as the cost of a barrel spiralled upwards towards $150.

A couple of years later, any investors left in the game are nervous of risk, governments are more focused on rescuing their economies than setting environmental targets and oil is a bargain at $50 a barrel.

The result is a sense of renewables in retreat even before they had established a bridgehead, with projects mothballed or cancelled altogether, plants closed and jobs cut — BP’s decision to axe hundreds of posts from its solar business being the latest example. Companies set up purely to commercialise renewable technologies are struggling to secure the investment they need to continue the tortuous path to commercial roll-out.

Meanwhile, the energy majors are grappling with the corporate orthodoxy that suggests that when times get tough you focus on the core — the core in their case being oil and gas, not wind turbines and solar panels.

Despite all the above, the fundamental drivers towards a growing renewable energy technology sector have not changed. Emissions reduction, the need for more flexible, local sources of generation and a general sense that it would be good to be free from the whims of the global oil price (what goes down can also go back up again) are all still as relevant as ever.

What we are all searching for is a model for how this will work in practice. Who should develop these technologies? Who will pay for them, who will make money from them and how? How will they fit in with other power generation technologies, such as nuclear? In this respect, renewables and the energy sector in general join a queue of industries (automotive springs to mind) where all bets are off and everything is up for grabs.

The trouble is, if you believe the climate-change forecasts of the more pessimistic end of the scientific community what we don’t have a lot of is time.

Andrew Lee, Editor