Monday, 27 June 2011

Inspiring Energy Events

The annual Ashden Awards for sustainable energy enterprises were presented in London this month and I was lucky enough to be able to join their seminar at the Royal Geographical Society.  The morning session, chaired by Jonathan Porritt, focused on UK projects and the international session in the afternoon was chaired by the Guardian editor, Madeline Bunting.  During each session, the five finalists in their category screened a film summarising their project's achievements and the representative of the organisation gave a short speech about their work.  In the case of the UK finallists, this was posited as an "elevator pitch" to Chris Huhne and David Cameron, to persuade them what needs to be done to make Britain a great place to invest in sustainable energy technologies.

The films themselves are one of the Ashden Awards greatest achievements.  I look forward to screening them to the right audiences when the opportunities arise but you can view them yourself on the Ashden Awards website, for both the UK and international finalists.

After the films and pitches, the Chairs facilitated a couple of really useful discussion of pertinent issues - in the case of the international session, Local Clean Energy for the Poor.  This brought in technologists, regulators and investors and considered some of the artificial obstacles raised by institutional backers, aiming to verify the outcomes achieved with their support.  This discussion also highlighted the merits of grid vs. off-grid energy systems, with all parties agreeing that mini-grids, as seen in Peru and Ecuador, are often the best way to bring efficient, low carbon energy to poor rural communities.

As in previous years, I was greatly inspired by the overseas projects, which seem to exemplify courage and creativity in meeting the needs of - literally - billions of under-served people in the developing world.  I was privileged to chat at length with Suraj Wahab Olugburo, the founder of Toyola Energy Ltd of Ghana, who explained his elegant business model that provides work and income for over 500 entrepreneurs in making and selling the Toyola stove, which allows families to cook on half the charcoal needed for traditional stoves.  His simple credit scheme allows the local sales agent to give the stove to a family, with a collecting tin: each day that the customer does NOT need to pay for charcoal (because the stove halves their usage), they put their charcoal money into the tin.  After a few months, they have saved enough to pay for the stove!

The UK projects were also an inspiration this year and I was delighted to learn that one of the finallists, Radian Housing, was about to open a flagship project in Windsor, where they have built 9 new houses in Tinkers Lane - one is Code 6 (essentially zero carbon) and the others are all Code 5 dwellings, which are highly efficient in the way they use energy.  I was delighted to attend the opening ceremony last week, where our Mayor cut the ribbon and some of the residents opened their new homes to all the visitors.  We were a distinctly non-technical audience and the main take-home message was that these houses are very attractive, liveable homes that require no special skills from their residents.  Sure, some behaviours can be learned (for example, with a huge solar PV power station on the roof, it's worth running the washing machine when the sun is shining) but all the buildings' clean technologies simply run themselves itself without placing any responsibilities on the household.

It was a great pleasure to learn that these two finallists, Toyola and Radian, received the two Gold Awards at the Ashden Awards ceremony, on the evening of the day after the conference.

The other inspiring energy event that I have attended this month was, surprisingly, the RBWM Sustainability Panel at the Town Hall in Maidenhead.  After a slow start, discussion moved to the Government's disclosure requirements for greenhouse gas emissions.  The responsible officer outlined the framework of Scope I, Scope II and Scope III reporting but focused on the costs and complexity of data-gathering and analysis.  The councillors set a different pace, however, reminding the panel that residents expect leadership from their council and that time is of the essence in moving to meaningful reporting of these GHG emissions.  This decision was passed unanimously.  Good on them!

The same tone was maintained when considering energy reporting, with annual overviews by invoice described as insufficient and unsatisfactory.  The vice-chair, Councillor Sharp, called for electricity and gas usage by site to be reported "at least monthly".  On Energy Action Plans, the Chairman called for focus on the significant few actions, to make real progress.  Lastly, proposals for solar photovoltaic installations up to 50kWp on council buildings were reviewed and the vice-chair, Cllr. Sharp, now well into his stride, said, "We must do it now.  Must do it now!"  The Chairman concurred, saying "We want it and we want it tomorrow."

Having sat through a few of the previous administration's Sustainability Panels, which I felt were typically bogged down in politics, I found the new council's can-do mentality so empowering.  In the closing words of the Chairman, Cllr. David Coppinger, it's time to move from talking to doing.  Amen to that.