Energy Act - The time for action is now

18 Dec 2013

Greater Gabbard offshore wind farm

After more than two years, countless column inches, and a mind-boggling number of man hours, the Energy Bill has been granted Royal Assent. And now the hard work really starts.

For all its imperfections, for all the Ministerial casualties and media controversies, the arrival of the Energy Act on the statute book is a major achievement. It potentially marks a sharp and positive turning point in the UK's meandering journey towards a low carbon and sustainable economy. As Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey is keen on saying, this legislation will create the first clean energy market anywhere in the world. Regardless of what happens next, it is a historic development.

However, the policy framework delivered through this legislation will not magically deliver the clean, reliable and affordable energy infrastructure the UK urgently needs. Politicians, businesses and investors of all stripes now face the daunting task of making sure that the ambitious vision that underpins the government's electricity market reforms is delivered upon.

For the political class that means tearing down the remaining barriers that could discourage firms from investing in new clean energy infrastructure and correcting the flaws that remain in the legislation.

Most notably, those MPs who understand the importance for the clean technology supply chain of a decarbonisation target for 2030 need to keep pushing for the early adoption of a binding goal, just as those who have been warning about the loophole that will allow coal power plants to continue to pollute long into the 2020s and beyond need to continue to raise the alarm. More specifically, tomorrow will offer more detail on how the early stage contracts for difference (CfDs) will be dished out and how the promised capacity mechanism and development of an demand management market will be managed - investors urgently need to see ambitious plans and clear timelines for their introduction. Similarly, State Aid questions need to be resolved as quickly as possible if the UK's nuclear renaissance is to stand any chance of delivering power by the early 2020s as planned.

Going forward, more needs to be done to help overcome the technical and logistical challenges faced by clean energy developers, and in this regard news today that the Able Marine Energy Park on Humberside has finally been granted approval is hugely welcome. Equally, more needs to be done to ensure smaller independent energy suppliers really can compete on a level playing field with the Big Six.

Meanwhile, the entire green economy will be watching closely to see how the new electricity market reform programme is managed and how inevitable future changes to the regime are handled. There is little doubt some of the support levels delivered through the Energy Bill will be too high and others will be too low - that is simply the nature of technology subsidies. Ministers will need to manage changes in a mature manner if they are to avoid spooking investors, just as they will need to be extremely careful as they transition to a more cost effective mechanism of auctioning contracts.

A significantly more ambitious national energy efficiency programme is also urgently needed to help hold down energy costs and defuse the increasingly toxic accusations that this entire exercise will burden households and businesses with excessive bills.

Most importantly, perhaps, all three of the main parties will have to ensure that the policy foundations established by the Energy Act are built on through consistent and coherent political rhetoric and supporting policies. CfDs and the capacity mechanism might offer competitive returns for investors, but projects will still struggle to move forward if they are hampered by hostile planning policy, weak carbon taxes, and a nagging fear that some members of the government are so unreceptive to the green agenda that they would think nothing of trying to unpick a legislative framework that now unashamedly favours clean energy.

But while the politicians' to do list remains as long as ever, businesses and investors have responsibilities too. It may not be perfect, but the Energy Bill delivers much of what green businesses and NGOs have been calling for - stable and predictable financial returns for clean energy and back-up power capacity, an end to new build coal power plants in the UK, and a mechanism for encouraging energy efficiency and demand management technologies. This is a broadly attractive package of incentives and regulations at a time when the UK urgently needs to deliver new energy capacity - developers, investors, and energy companies need to respond.

We will only know in a few years' time if the Energy Bill has delivered, by which point it will probably be too late to tackle the energy and climate security concerns that sparked the bill in the first place if it hasn't worked. But as the Bill today secures Royal Assent, the opportunity on offer for those businesses willing to embrace it looks to be considerable. It is not perfect, but there are attractive returns on offer for those organisations that can deliver the well managed clean energy projects that the UK desperately needs. Meanwhile, businesses outside the energy sector need to be aware that while the Energy Bill will deliver greater energy security and lower carbon emissions it will also push up the price of energy, making investment in energy efficiency and engagement with the demand management mechanisms enabled by the bill ever more important.

The UK's energy industry is about to undertake one of the biggest transformations since its formation. And as every good entrepreneur knows, where there is change on this scale, there is also huge opportunity. Business leaders from across UK Plc need to now seize that opportunity. We have an Energy Act, now is the time for energy action.

Welcome to the BusinessGreen Solar Hub

16 Dec 2013

Israel's first photovoltaic power plant Ketura Sun installed by Siemens

One of my favourite questions for green business leaders and policymakers is to ask which clean tech sector they would invest in personally if they had to select one technology that is likely to change the world over the next two decades. It is, of course, an unfair question, given everyone who works in the green economy knows we need a mix of low carbon technologies to deliver steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions - a silver ammunition belt rather than a silver bullet, if you will. As such, you get an unsurprisingly wide range of answers from obvious clean tech categories, such as energy efficiency or energy storage, to more niche emerging technologies such as algae-based biofuels and advanced light-weight materials.

However, in my experience there is one clean technology that gets tipped more often than any other: solar. The reasons for solar's popularity range from the psychological to the technological, but often boil down to the innate elegance of directly transforming solar radiation into usable heat and electricity.

The vast majority of the energy used to power the global economy is at root solar power, be it the highly condensed solar energy found in the fossilised organic material that is otherwise known as coal, oil, and gas, or the manifestation of solar power in the atmosphere in the form of wind energy. Faced with this reality scientists and engineers have long laboured to try to harness that solar power directly, inspired in no small part by that famous map demonstrating how all of the energy used to power the global economy is equivalent to the energy that falls on an area of the Sahara so small that it is barely visible.

In the past few years, these scientists and engineers have enjoyed considerable success. An underreported global energy revolution is gathering pace with solar in the vanguard. The various facts and figures are truly remarkable: the IEA reckons 28.4GW of solar capacity was added last year, while the European Photovoltaic Industry Association puts the figure at over 31GW; the 100GW installed capacity mark should be reached this year; and projections suggest the market could be adding 84GW of capacity a year by 2017. All of this expansion is driven by one remarkable achievement: according to the US Solar Energy Industries Association the price of solar power in the US has fallen 60 per cent since early 2011.

Inevitably, this sunny assessment is not without its clouds on the horizon. The actual pace of solar technology deployment has slowed slightly in the past two years as the mature markets of Europe have been affected by policy changes, while the rapid fall in prices remains partly the result of a glut of panels from China that has led to industry consolidation and a simmering trade row with the US and EU. Moreover, like many other renewable energy technologies solar power remains a variable source of energy and despite falling solar panel prices the levelised cost of solar power currently remains well above that of grid power in many geographies.

But the industry is both aware of these challenges and working hard to address them. The fact remains that the cost of solar technologies has fallen drastically and there is plenty of evidence to suggest advances in nanotechnology and manufacturing will allow this downward trend to continue. It does not have a name yet, but something akin to Moore's Law - the rule of thumb that computing power doubles every two years - appears to be at play in the solar sector as efficiencies steadily rise and costs steadily fall. There are growing numbers of examples of regions where solar technologies can undercut fossil fuels as a provider of both on and off-grid power, while advances in solar thermal and PV storage technologies are making round-the-clock solar power a reality.

Arguably most exciting of all is the way in which solar technologies are showing themselves to be remarkably malleable, both literally and in terms of their numerous applications. Everyone will be familiar with rooftop solar panels and solar farms, but we are also seeing the emergence concentrated solar thermal towers, flexible solar thin film cells that can power solar clothes, solar gadgets and solar lights, building integrated solar technologies, such as solar windows and even solar curtains, ultra-high efficiency concentrated solar PV, and portable off-grid solar generators that can support development projects by providing clean power to off-grid communities. All of these technologies are maturing, enabling equally innovative business and investment models, ranging from solar financing and leasing to community solar investment and humanitarian development.

The potential for solar technology is as virtually limitless as the solar radiation that warms our planet each and every day. It is one of the most compelling clean tech success stories and a source of constant innovation, and as such it is the subject of BusinessGreen's first content hub.

Delivered in partnership with Solarcentury and Solar Aid, and designed to highlight all the latest news, analysis and opinion on emerging technologies and projects, the hub will keep you up-to-date on all the developments in this most vibrant of industries. Drawing on expert analysis and opinion from across the sector, including Climate Change Minister Greg Barker, former Chief Scientist Sir David King, and Solarcentury Founder Jeremy Leggett, this dedicated new BusinessGreen service will demonstrate why solar power is so popular, explore how it is overcoming barriers to deployment, and highlight the huge economic and environmental benefits that come with this most elegant of technologies.

The launch of the hub also comes hot on the heels of the news Solar Aid has secured a match funding agreement with DFID, meaning all donations made this winter to support the charity's work to deploy solar technologies in developing countries will be doubled.

There has never been a better time to engage with the UK's solar industry and the new BusinessGreen Solar Hub will help to keep everyone from senior corporate executives to green campaigners and consumers up to date with this most exciting of sectors. 

Greetings from green geek heaven

11 Dec 2013

NREL building

Green geek heaven can be found a short drive outside Denver at the point where the vast Mid-Western plain meets the majestic Colorado Rockies. At this time of year the air is cold and thin, the ground is covered in snow, and the campus feels strangely quiet following the Thanksgiving weekend. And yet the environmental innovation nirvana that is the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) remains one of the most inspiring places in the world for anyone who cares about the future of the planet.

Guiding representatives of the UK's Clean and Cool Mission around the giant campus, NREL's James Bosch stresses that it is a "living laboratory", providing both state-of-the-art facilities for the 2,500 engineers, scientists, and support staff who work at the site and the perfect demonstration site for new clean technologies.

As such, visitors to the facility are welcomed by a sign lit up with LED lights that are powered by solar cells, the multi-storey car park boasts a 1.13MW solar array on the roof and 36 electric vehicle charge points in the bays, electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars journey around the campus, and a biomass boiler fuelled by beetle-killed pine wood provides heat for many of the site's buildings. In addition, construction materials and furniture that make use of recycled materials are evident throughout, while the use of ultra-efficient lighting is kept to a minimum by building designs that optimise the use of natural light. Meanwhile, electro chromic windows respond to temperature and light to minimise glare and optimise temperatures in the buildings, so that on a freezing cold day in winter some south-facing windows automatically show black on the outside in order to help absorb as much thermal energy as possible.

Offsite a dedicated wind farm and solar farm provide both power and test facilities for new turbine and solar panel designs, while back in one of the largest buildings on campus a specially designed air-cooled data centre provides usable heat for much of the rest of the lab and boasts a data centre Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) ratio of just 1.06. I had to double check with Bosch to confirm he had not misspoken, given PUEs for typical data centres can reach as high as 2 and some reports suggest that globally the average is still thought to stand well above 1.5. But no, for every watt of power used to drive the servers at NREL only 0.06 watts are used to power supporting infrastructure.

The use of these various pioneering clean technologies means that several of the buildings are "net zero" users of energy over the course of a year, generating more power on site than they draw from the grid - a performance that is emphasised by real time smart meter displays that demonstrate how much power a building is either drawing or feeding to the grid at any one time.

However, the green building technologies installed at NREL are just a fraction of the story at this remarkable facility. The real news is to be found in the work that goes on in these buildings.

Inside just one of the buildings a series of giant labs sit next to one another, providing state-of-the-art research facilities for work on solar cells, wind turbines, power systems integration or smart grids, ultra-efficient vehicles, energy system fabrication, materials characterisation, electrochemical characterisation, energy system sensors, batteries, and thermal storage materials, to name but a few. A dedicated hydrogen fuel cell lab provides hydrogen on tap as well as bays to test up to 15 fuel cell stacks. A lab for smart building technologies looks like an IKEA shop floor, providing full-scale mock-ups of livings rooms and kitchens for testing new green devices. And perhaps best of all a giant computer screen that looks to be at least 25 feet by 10 feet is combined with special sci-fi goggles and what looks like the largest ever Playstation controller to allow designers to model the use of new technologies in the real world. On the day we toured a wind farm was being planned that tracked the impact of turbines on wind flows, but Bosch insisted the giant modelling system could be used to predict real world environmental impacts of everything from cityscapes to nanotechnologies.

The NREL's track record is as impressive as its showcased technologies. Originally launched as the Solar Energy Research Institute in 1977 as the Carter administration responded to the first oil crisis, it was reinvented as NREL in the mid 1990s. Through both guises it has produced countless patents and Bosch argues that it can reasonably claim to have had a crucial role in many now well-established clean technologies, developing much of the underlying technology used in solar PV systems, optimising wind turbine designs to help support big gains in efficiency, and playing its part in the development of hybrid engines.

This pursuit of clean technologies is ongoing with the Lab's $325m annual budget supporting countless standalone research projects, enabling co-funded initiatives with businesses, providing facilities for corporates to test and validate new clean technologies, and allowing partnerships with around 50 labs in other countries. "We encourage working with others as we all breathe the same air and drink the same water," explains Bosch. "We are very open to institutional partnerships."

In recent years a number of initiatives have been set up to try and inform business leaders, politicians and other public figures about the grave threat posed by climate change, with Al Gore's series of lectures and workshops the most obvious example of a well-meaning and largely effective trend. But NREL highlights the need for a counterpoint to these initiatives through a series of activities and campaigns that ensure business, political, and cultural leaders are also aware of the remarkable new technologies and opportunities that are being developed to help address those same climate change threats. Perhaps Gore should consider a Convenient Truth campaign, that truth being that all of the technologies we need to tackle climate change have already been invented and are now being optimised.

Places like Colorado's green geek heaven exist, just as the group of remarkable British clean tech start-ups that made up last week's Clean and Cool Mission also exist - it is only by recognising, supporting, and nurturing them that we can avoid the nihilism that almost inevitably comes with an honest assessment of current environmental risks. Just as it is only by understanding the work that is going on at the cutting edge of clean technologies that policymakers and business leaders can avoid making short-term investment decisions that lock us into the polluting technologies of the 20th century at a time when the clean technologies of the 21st century are on the cusp of viability.

Institutions like the NREL and companies like the Clean and Cool Mission alumni with their high powered magnets, electric superbikes, and biomass breakthroughs have a responsibility to highlight their work and do everything they can to co-operate in order to provide the most effective crucible possible to accelerate the development of the cost-effective clean technologies we all need. Just as the media and NGO community also have a responsibility to let the world know that encouraging technological progress is being made to tackle the grave environmental risks that we all face.

Perhaps not every country can afford its own NREL, but the dedicated and integrated public-private approach to research, development, and real world deployment that it has pioneered is a model every government and business can learn from. The UK and the EU have several of their own world-class clean tech research institutions, but what NREL demonstrates is the myriad benefits that come from creating a genuine hub that brings together a host of different but complementary disciplines.

More broadly the US approach to creating clean tech clusters from regions that combine academic and government institutions with those start-ups which are capable of producing both cutting-edge technologies and the kind of ambitious business and marketing plans that can attract investors is something the UK should certainly seek to emulate. Without this co-ordinated approach clean tech start-ups will find it harder than it should be to raise investment, optimise technologies, and commercialise their products. A failure to build on the success of NREL threatens to deliver a hellish scenario - and not just for green geeks.

BusinessGreen was a guest of last week's Clean and Cool Mission Colorado

Going green doesn't cost the earth, not going green does

05 Dec 2013

georgeosbornegasman

"Going green doesn't have to cost the earth," says George Osborne. He's right, but the problem is that the opposite is also true: not going green will cost the earth, taking the economy down with it.

The Chancellor's nods to the green economy in his latest mini-budget were characteristically hostile, nakedly politically-motivated, and, most of all, utterly intellectually incoherent.

The key line was the latest outing for Osborne's oft-repeated assertion that "going green doesn't have to cost the earth." It is possible to read this as evidence that the Chancellor has finally realised green technologies are increasingly affordable and will benefit rather than hamper the economy. It is possible to argue the Chancellor has finally realised the truth in the Stern Report's conclusion that deep cuts in carbon emissions will cost just a percentage point or two of GDP, while protecting the world against losses that will be an order of magnitude larger. It is possible to conclude that the Chancellor has finally realised that he should explicitly commit to managing the low carbon transition in the most cost effective way possible. Possible, but sadly inaccurate.

Green business leaders and campaigners do not have to indulge in conspiracy theories to interpret the Chancellor's phrasing as an attempt to imply the UK's previous approach to "going green" - an approach Osborne himself has signed off on during five years in opposition and three years in government - does "cost the earth".

As David Nussbaum of WWF observed, "claiming that ‘going green doesn't have to cost the earth' is simply putting a deliberately negative spin on green technologies, in a week when the Government has clearly recognised that this industry is growing and driving down costs".

The justification for this bleak interpretation of Osborne's comments is provided by the context in which they were delivered. If the Chancellor was serious about delivering decarbonisation in the most cost effective way possible he would not have just engineered a cut in energy efficiency schemes when every analysis shows energy saving is the lowest cost means of cutting emissions. He would not be actively trying to restrict onshore wind when it is the lowest cost form of renewable power. He would not be blocking a decarbonisation target that the Committee on Climate Change has highlighted as a mechanism for lowering the cost of decarbonisation. He would not have just opposed the closing of a loophole on coal emissions that represented one of the simplest ways of cutting emissions in the 2020s. And he would not be pointedly ignoring the huge climate and energy security costs that come with a failure to decarbonise rapidly enough - it is that which will really "cost the Earth".

More generally, the line that proceeded Osborne's green cost mantra only underlined the incoherence of his approach to the green economy. "My political philosophy is clear," the Chancellor declared, as if it had ever been in any doubt. "Instead of penalising people with more taxes and more regulation, give them incentives by reducing their taxes and their bills." But here's the problem, delivering decarbonisation by focusing solely on incentives and reduced taxes is likely to prove more expensive than a more balanced approach that actually adheres to centre right free market principles and uses taxes to correct the market failure that is climate change. It is not necessarily more taxes and more regulation that is "penalising people", but the wrong taxes and regulation.

For example, the most efficient means of decarbonising remains the introduction of an effective carbon tax that puts a price on polluting externalities coupled with the phasing out of explicit and implicit subsidies for fossil fuels. Similarly, one of the most efficient means of driving down the cost of clean tech is the use of appropriate regulations and standards to help create a market for new technologies that benefit consumers through lower running costs. Both of these approaches apparently run counter to the Chancellor's philosophy - a fact underlined by the way in which, when he does decide to dish out incentives to reduce taxes and bills, he hands them to the fossil fuel industry. There is a way to incentivise "going green" while lowering people's taxes and bills by shifting taxation from employment to pollution, delivering an explicit political commitment to decarbonisation, and prioritising energy efficiency and clean technologies that serve to lower bills. Sadly, this is not the Chancellor's vision. When he talks about cutting taxes and bills he means slashing efficiency schemes and ensuring fossil fuels get ever lower taxes.

The most depressing thing about Osborne's green philosophy is it doesn't have to be this way. He could and should have celebrated how yesterday's flurry of green infrastructure announcements demonstrate that the cost of clean energy technologies is already falling and will fall further as a stable policy environment supports a UK supply chain that will create jobs, bolster energy security, and drive economic growth. He could and should have prioritised energy efficiency as a cost saving means of decarbonising. He could and should have explained how the coalition is committed to a package of long term cost effective policies that will drive billions of dollars of investment and deliver decarbonisation over the coming decades, creating export opportunities and minimising climate change costs in the process.

He could also embrace the centre-right arguments for "going green" articulated by the likes of Greg Barker, Zac Goldsmith, and, on occasions, the Prime Minister himself, and explain how a coherent and consistent approach to decarbonisation that prioritises lowest cost measures, empowers communities, and drives innovation is entirely consistent with Conservative values.

But once again Osborne chose to do none of this, instead opting to contradict his own commitment to deliver cost-effective green progress with inconsistent and incoherent policies and rhetoric, and all in pursuit of a handful of votes. As yesterday proved, the coalition does have an expanding suite of ambitious policies that are likely to help ensure that the UK does "go green" over the coming decades. But for every two steps forward the government takes the Chancellor insists on taking one step back with his fixation on fossil fuels, his undermining of effective green policies, his mixed messages on decarbonisation, and his thinly veiled denigration of the green technologies of the future.

The Chancellor is right, "going green doesn't have to cost the Earth". The problem is he clearly hasn't the faintest clue how to deliver on his increasingly tired catchphrase.

Anyone fancy some free power?

02 Dec 2013

Solar array promens rooftop site beccles 3

Free - is there a more attractive word in the English dictionary? Free speech, free markets, free wifi - we all love free stuff. It is the root of freedom, the promise of something for nothing, the politicians' stump speech and the marketeers' gold dust. We all want things to be "free".

For years the left has bemoaned the way in which the neoliberal right has annexed the word "free", equating freedom and free markets in a way that gives the freedom to do something - minimise taxes, evade "red tape", own a gun - primacy over the freedom from something - decrepit infrastructure, exploitative working conditions, not getting shot by a gun. This trick has been so successful that it has been repeated time and again in the positioning and branding of countless policies and products. So free schools are free from the "dead hand" of central state control and we'll ignore the fact that some kids are no longer free from the teaching of utter nonsense. Free online services are empowering and cost you nothing, so long as you can ignore the truth in the old adage about you being the product. And free markets ensure goods and services are distributed in the most efficient manner possible, assuming you ignore the way in which unaccounted for externalities leave us all free to pollute the atmosphere.

Like I say, many industries have been highly successful with this linguistic gambit. But there is a notable exception - clean energy. For what is renewable power if not free energy? While companies have attempted to position this energy as green, clean or secure, they have often missed the most obvious benefit, it is also free. When the UK generated a record 6GW of wind power last Friday, it was, in some important respects, free power. That is to say the marginal cost of providing it was so negligible as to be close to non-existent. The 6GW of wind power delivered on Friday afternoon meant that there was no need to fork out for 6GW worth of gas from Vladimir Putin at that point in time, because the UK was generating its own power from a fuel that is entirely free.

Now, like any use of the word "free" this is something of a trick. The fuel is free - the wind, the sun's rays, the movement of the tides cost nothing. But the means of harnessing that fuel is obviously not free, you have to invest in building and maintaining the technologies needed to exploit the fuel. That is why we face the perverse scenario where the only energy technologies that rely on genuinely free fuels are regarded as being amongst the most expensive forms of generating power (as long as you ignore the polluting externality costs associated with fossil fuels).

And yet, I'd argue providers of clean power have a justifiable case for positioning themselves as providers of "free power" as they look to build upon the already high levels of public support they enjoy.

Firstly, the calculations that compare the costs of different energy technologies are increasingly contested, and not just because of the continued failure to properly account for the off balance sheet economic, environmental, and health costs of greenhouse gas emissions. There is growing evidence from regions as diverse as Africa, Brazil, Germany and the US that wind and solar farms in the right location and the right circumstances can undercut fossil fuel power on cost even when the relatively high initial capital cost of renewables projects is taken into account. The virtually non-existent marginal cost of delivering power from renewable sources is reshaping the power market in the southern states of America and Germany in ways that not even the most astute energy analyst could have predicted. Meanwhile, the cost of many renewable technologies continues to fall, in some cases drastically, even as the cost of oil and gas remains stubbornly high in most parts of the world.

Secondly, consumers are much more savvy than many politicians and businesses give them credit for. They understand that clean energy costs more upfront, but the quid pro quo is that they then generate power from a free fuel source, meaning energy is provided at a predictable and low cost. Kirsty Alexander of the Nuclear Industries Association, which faces a similar challenge with high capital costs and relatively low and stable running costs, argues there is powerful precedent for people agreeing to pay more for a service where the costs are predictable in the form of fixed rate versus variable rate mortgages. Millions of people are willing to pay more for their mortgage for a period of predictable costs, why shouldn't the same rationale be applied to clean energy, particularly when those predictable running costs are so low?

Thirdly, and most importantly, the simple rationale that the fuel that generates power from wind and solar farms is free remains unimpeachable. People understand that the "free minutes" on their phone contract are dependent upon them buying the phone and signing the contract. They know that the "free" access to BT Sport is dependent upon them becoming a BT Broadband customer. Well, the "free" power from your rooftop solar panel is dependent upon you buying and installing said solar panel. Once the upfront cost is covered you will see your energy bills plummet as you make use of free clean power whenever it is available. That is why growing numbers of factories and corporate offices are deploying solar arrays, that is why the likes of Google and IKEA keep buying wind and solar farms, and that is why you will find no more powerful advocate of domestic solar panels than the people who have installed them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that people like free power.

Inevitably, critics of clean energy will reject this positioning, fixating on the high capital costs of clean energy while ignoring the extent to which the current energy system is reliant on costly, volatile, insecure and environmentally damaging fuels. They will also argue, with some justification, that the "free" power provided by renewables has a sizable downside in the form of its variable nature. This is a fair criticism given we cannot guarantee that the wind will always deliver the 6GW of free power we saw last week. But grids can and do cope with high levels of variable power and they are already helping to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels that we have to pay for. Moreover, we now know we have access to large scale sources of free fuel that can provide the backbone of a decarbonised energy system if we can just develop viable storage technologies. We are one piece of the jigsaw away from power that you can justifiably classify as "free".

This understanding of the merits of free power is already evident at the individual business and household level where numerous companies and individuals are opting to deploy onsite renewables, because with conventional energy costs soaring they like having access to virtually free power whenever it is available. Solar and wind power may not always deliver high levels of output, but as growing numbers of companies and factories are finding, it is worth being able to slash your use of grid power when clean and free sources of fuel are available.

It is possible to envisage a scenario where free clean energy provides free fuel for electric cars and homes that have taken advantage of energy efficiency financing to undertake building improvements that are effectively, you've guessed it, free.

I have long argued the clean energy sector has not done nearly enough to build on its natural public popularity and aggressively market itself as an attractive, cost effective, and essential source of power for the 21st century. The term "free power" has the potential to emphasise the innate elegance and competiveness that makes fast-evolving clean energy technologies so much more attractive than spending billions digging up costly and polluting fuels. After all, we all prefer free stuff.