REFF focuses on the silver lining for clean energy

Starting in the UK in 1998, REFF began to spread in 2003, first to Wall Street and now to San Francisco, India, Brazil, Prague, Beijing – and Canada next.

This year's London event saw a total of 74 presenters and 394 delegates from 30 countries attend the two-day conference, down about 10% from last year.

While the recession was on everyone’s mind, so was the road to Copenhagen. To what extent would this financial forum reflect the urgency to act swiftly to avoid global average temperature exceeding an increase of 2 degrees Celsius? Do conservative financiers feel enough sense of urgency to put aside their fear of risk and invest in cleantech, even at the early stages?

Sadly, the answer is still mainly in the negative. However, given the economic climate and perception of risk in the sector, the conference was surprisingly upbeat. Several delegates used words like “reassuring” to sum up the conference.

While the renewable sector faces three challenges – Money, Money and Money, in the view of Aquamarine’s Martin McAdam - serious first-day discussions of policy, sources of capital, global trends and investor attitudes conveyed a sense that something important is happening in the renewable sector right now, if not quite the sense of urgency on climate change one finds in films like “The Age of Stupid”.


Progress in the sector was recognised at a dinner at the Science Museum.

Amongst the winners of the 6th annual Euromoney and Ernst & Young Global Renewable Energy Awards were Iberdrola for its acquisition of Energy East; Rabobank Project Equity for its realisation of the Belwind project;  the European Investment Bank for its support of the sector; biomass company Bronzeoak as entrepreneurial developer of the year; and EDF - as corporate developer of the year for its commitment to wind and solar PV.

Panel discussions

Separate sessions looked at renewable sectors and at sources of finance, trends, and the future. In the bioenergy session, for example, Janine Freeman, head of the sustainable gas group at National Grid, put forward her hopes for renewable gas. “I’ve been raising awareness of renewable gas for a year,” she said, referring to methane from biomass - including energy crops and waste. “We are wasting our waste resources.”

Up to 50% of residential gas could come from renewable biogas by 2020, she claimed. “Renewable gas ticks all the boxes – decarbonising, energy supply, energy security, and a solution for heat. Best of all, no consumer action is needed.” At present National Grid has some biogas on the grid (BtG) demonstration projects including one with United Utilities in Manchester, UK. This is likely to be the first injection of renewable gas to the UK grid.

In a panel of “energy majors” such as E.ON, RE Innogy and Vatenfall, encouragement for renewables came from a company not usually thought of as an “energy major” – British Telecommunications (BT). Richard Tarboton, energy and carbon programme director of BT, explained that his company, which consumes 2.4 Twh energy per year - approximately 0.7% of the UK national total - currently gets 41% of its electricity from renewable sources, and 58% from CHP.

To date BT has tried to cut its own energy use and respond to demand from its customers for energy saving. It also has a “wind for change” project which aims to produce 250 MW of green electrical energy by 2016, equivalent to around 25% of BT’s current electricity needs. Photovoltaic electricity (PV) is used at the company’s California, USA HQ, and biomass is being used in Wales.

Global trends

Andrew Ryan, MD, European Electricity at forecasting company IHS Global Insight, said: “the environment for renewables is strong but the pace is too slow.” He complained about overlapping EU policy objectives but sees Asia as a bright spot.

Angus McCrone, chief editor, New Energy Finance, forecast a continuing drop in new global investment in renewables this year, with his estimate set at US$115 billion, down from US$155bl last year.

On another topical issue - December's COP15 in Copenhagen - Kirsty Hamilton, associate fellow, renewable energy finance project at Chatham House, remains optimistic. “My goal is to get financiers and policy makers together. Since Obama, science is higher on the agenda and Copenhagen will establish a new climate driver with finance as a key part. The pressure from the media and the public will be enormous.” And she added, "I think there will be a deal and I hope for an implementation agenda post-Copenhagen, one that will cascade down to the domestic level.”

“Crystal ball” session

Looking further into the future, panellist Stephen Mahon, cio of Low Carbon Investors, sees wind, solar and biomass as the big sectors, and also predicted a £1bn UK market for “balancing services” – i.e. using smart meters and the smart grid to balance energy supply and demand. He also saw a need to cut communications costs.

Dr. Vicky Sharpe, president and ceo, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, stressed the need to ‘de-risk’ renewable energy. After discussing the national Canadian model, which covers 171 clean technologies, she appealed to the audience "to look at projects involving infrastructure. Look at urban design – how energy efficiency can be improved. Look at transport.”

Closing the conference, head of Euromoney Energy Events Gerard Strahan cited the “different climate” for this REFF: “I am encouraged by the positive indicators for development, given past and even recent reluctance to commit to this sector.”