Fittingly surrounded by breathtaking examples of technical innovation, Business XL’s New Energy Awards took place in the National Science Museum. The annual event, which celebrates those committed to alternative sources of energy, was held little over a week after George Osborne’s Budget, which offered up a mixed bag for the new energy sector.
The fresh announcement that £3 billion in funding will be used to open up new oil and gas fields left one question hanging ominously in the air: is the government making the case for reinvesting in old technologies more strongly than it is embracing the future for renewable energy?
The general consensus amongst those in attendance, who were obviously determined to celebrate renewable energy, was that the present government has taken steps in the right direction, though much work is still to be done. In particular, the Chancellor’s announcement that the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC) is to be reviewed and possibly replaced with a more straightforward system was welcomed by many.
The CRC, which the Chancellor labelled ‘cumbersome’ and ‘bureaucratic’, is a mandatory scheme that aims to improve energy efficiency in large organisations. Originally intended to provide both carrot and stick, the initiative is now mostly stick, and widely seen as ineffectual. But Osborne’s notion of replacing it with a green tax is mainly driven by a desire to ease the administrative burden on companies, a laudable aim in itself but not a sign of the environmental zeal you would expect from a government that promised to be the ‘greenest ever’.
While entrepreneurs in the sector keep a watchful eye on the coalition’s commitment to new energy, not all of them are relying on state initiatives to support their business models. Chris Farrell is managing director of energy-saving technology creator Zenex, and scooped the coveted Entrepreneur of the Year award on the night. His company designs products such as Zenex GasSaver and Zenex Superflow, which improve the efficiency of domestic and commercial heating boilers and hot water systems.
Farrell admits since setting up the innovative company in 2003 he has been on a tough and challenging journey. ‘It’s sometimes like being an unwelcome guest at a party of marketeers when you’re in an industry that is already well established and are trying to sell something that breaks the mould,’ he remarks.
The entrepreneur, who impressed the judges by the passion and vision he has shown over the past ten years, believes that the coalition government is starting to grasp how important it is to address energy efficiency in the UK, not just for ecological reasons but to address issues of national security and fuel poverty.
‘Basically it’s about helping us cut our energy needs, for example heating and water. It is a huge challenge for the government to address.’
The winner of Advisory Firm of the Year, Altium Capital, advises numerous companies in the renewable energy sector and agrees that everyone in society needs to take up the challenges of new energy.
‘It affects everyone’s lives,’ notes Altium’s managing director, Adrian Reed. ‘In the corporate world, everyone, no matter their business, has to focus on it to develop their company.’
He adds that when it comes to the government, clarity is needed above all else. Reed says, ‘There is too much uncertainty. There’s been the change announced to the feed-in-tariffs, the delays to the Green Bank, and the uncertainty over the CRC. If these things keep changing then we’re going to have problems.’
Championing the cause
One award winner that knows all about convinving businesses to address their energy needs is Low Carbon Business Programme. The organisation was evidently ecstatic to win the first ever New Energy Champion of the Year award, an accolade that commends those that have invested in a project to reduce carbon emissions or encouraged others to do so. Its programme is a three-year, £6.3 million initiative created to lower commercial sector emissions in the Thames Gateway South Essex Region.
Programme manager Peter Wognum points out that the government should take a leaf from the EU’s book when it comes to funding initiatives like Low Carbon Business. ‘Our programme is funded by the EU and it has been so helpful. So can the government do more things like this? Definitely,’ he comments.
However, another victor on the night, ECO Plastics, wants to see the government shy away from subsidising the green sector. Jonathan Short managing director of the firm, which won the Deal of the Year award, remarks, ‘The sooner the government gets rid of subsidies the better. People have to learn to stand on their own two feet and subsidies just breed inefficiency and complacency.’
ECO Plastics beat off stiff competition in the category and brought home the gong for its impressive fundraising of £24 million. Short feels the government would do better to aim its support at ensuring private sector investment like this continues, rather than propping up companies directly.
‘We are a non-subsidised green business in the green economy and we’ve survived,’ notes Short. In fact, ECO Plastics is thriving, with the landmark funding financing an expansion of its Linconshire facility and making possible a joint venture with Coca-Cola that Short views as a milestone not just for his business, but for the drinks industry.
As a vital piece of the new energy jigsaw, investors in green technology and infrastructure were also celebrated at the event. It was Oxford Capital Partners that was crowned Investor of the Year, though Octopus was also highly commended.
Veteran investors in cleantech, Oxford Capital Partners has committed over £20 million to renewable energy investments in the past year alone. Director David Mott says this kind of investment will continue even though there are certain obstacles to overcome in the sector. ‘It’s been a really turbulent year for anyone involved in solar and renewable heating – it has been really hard navigating that whole space.’
Mott is hopeful that further government incentives for green investment will come shortly. ‘The government is fundamentally pretty supportive but everyone knows it has limited money so let’s hope things settle down.’
Another winner that has benefitted from investment is Nujira. The wireless technology company is supported by a raft of VC and angel backers including Climate Change Capital Partners, which led a £10 million round of funding for the company in March last year.
Nujira scooped the top prize of Company of the Year after winning the first award of the night, Innovator of the Year. Vice president for sales and marketing James Hendy remarks, ‘Three out of four of our big investors are cleantech funds and the cleantech angle of our business helps a lot to gain investment, particularly if you go looking in Europe.’
Hendy adds that Nujira has been helped by certain government initiatives, such as the hotly debated CRC. Over the last ten years, the company has developed groundbreaking energy efficient solutions that power 4G cellular base stations and digital TV transmitters.
‘Initiatives [like the CRC] force large companies, such as phone companies or television networks, to look at their carbon emissions,’ he explains. ‘It trickles down the line then as they come to us looking to use our technology to help them.’
Not all large corporates need much persuading to go green. Marks & Spencer, overcoming competition from other retail giants, was named Retailer of the Year but head of energy management for the chain Mervyn Bowden states the Plan A initiative it launched in 2007 was not the result of nudging from the government but simply ‘the right thing to do’. The initiative has contributed £70 million to the company’s bottom line over the past two financial years, proving to others that a commitment to new energy needn’t be costly.
New energy is all about fresh thinking and innovation across the business world. However, driving radical changes through industries that are set in their ways is always challenging.
Malcolm Culverwell is environmental manager at Caledonian Modular, which won the Developer of the Year award for its contribution to the modular building sector. ‘Because we are a construction company we have to try and battle with the established ways of that industry,’ Culverwell notes.
The company’s products reduce energy usage and waste on construction sites. Culverwell believes the government could play a larger role in educating consumers and industry about more sustainable ways of living and working.
The need to adopt a greater sense of urgency over the green agenda is a point taken up by Paul Ekins from University College London Energy Institute, one of the award judges, who strongly believes huge pressures exist for the government and all society when it comes to energy efficiency.
The accomplished academic remarks, ‘There are enormous challenges out there of getting our energy system up to the 21st century needs of low-carbon, energy security and affordability.’
With evident passion, Ekins explains why he took his job as judge so seriously and why it is so important the shortlist of companies be recognised. ‘All modern societies need an affordable, secure and environmentally appropriate form of energy. The kinds of innovations being rewarded here will help us achieve all these aims.’
Winners and shortlisted companies
Innovator of the Year
Sponsored by Business XL
Shortlist: Energetix, EVO, Highview Power Storage, Quadrise Fuels International, Dr Mark Ashe – University of Manchester
New Energy Champion of the Year
Sponsored by ScienceBusiness
Winner: Low Carbon Business Programme
Shortlist: Clayton Hall Farm, Crown Relocations, Glyndebourne, Miele Professional, Stockport Homes, United Biscuits
Entrepreneur of the Year
Sponsored by PER
Winner: Zenex – Chris Farrel
Shortlist: Abundance Generation – Louise Wilson, AMEE – Gavin Starks, eco2 – Peter Darwell, Pelamis – Richard Yemm, Solar Press – Jonathan Halls
Deal of the Year
Sponsored by Fasken Martineau
Winner: ECO Plastics’ £24m fundraising
Shortlist: Enecsys’ £25m Series B funding, Enviroparks’ £2.25m investment from Hotbed, Kedco’s £9m financing, Plaxica’s £5m fundraising, Sterecycle’s £5.1m funding round
University Spin-out of the Year
Sponsored by Isle of Man
Shortlist: Amantys, EVO Electric, i2O,
Molecular Solar & the University of Warwick,
Retailer of the Year
Sponsored by Passion for the Planet
Winner: Marks & Spencer
Shortlist: Asda, The Co-operative Group,
Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose
Investor of the Year
Sponsored by Kreab Gavin Anderson
Winner: Oxford Capital Partners
Shortlist: Bridges Ventures, Foresight Group,
Imperial Innovations, Octopus Investments,
Company of the Year
Sponsored by Matrix
Advisory Firm of the Year
Sponsored by Millnet
Winner: Altium Capital
Shortlist: Brodies, Ernst & Young,
Grant Thornton, Nomura Code
Developer of the Year
Sponsored by Growthbusiness.co.uk
Winner: Caledonian Modular
Shortlist: Build It Green, Citu,
Lancaster Cohousing Company