npower’s Wayne Mitchell’s Blog

Providing a cash carrot to speed up innovation In the new low-carbon economy, it goes without saying that different solutions and approaches are needed to help us thrive. But the […]

Providing a cash carrot to speed up innovation

In the new low-carbon economy, it goes without saying that different solutions and approaches are needed to help us thrive. But the speed at which new products and services evolve to market – and the timeframes within which we actually need them – are often out of step.

Take electricity storage for example. As we increase the volume of energy produced by intermittent renewable sources – such as wind and solar – having the ability to store it is essential to ensure continuity of supply.

Having large-scale energy storage in place forms a key part of the government’s future energy policy – and not just in the UK, also in pretty much every developed nation. But we are yet to see a commercially-viable solution take shape.

Innovation is clearly the key. But how do we move from knowing what we need to actually having a workable model?

The government is clearly hoping that the offer of cash prizes may help to speed up the process. Last week, it announced the launch of yet another energy-related competition, this time offering £20-million to fund the development of large-scale energy storage systems or the components they require.

This follows hot on the heels of a £15-million Energy Entrepreneurs Fund to support innovative new technologies for both energy efficiency and power generation, launched in August. A few months earlier, in June, up to £20-million was put on the table for innovators looking for funding to deploy pre-commercial wave and/or tidal stream energy devices. I could go on and on – but if you check out the DECC website, you’ll find a pretty impressive list.

I think it’s interesting to see public funds being used to encourage innovative solutions via competitions. And it’s not just the public sector using the lure of prize money to entice new ideas. Sainsbury’s is running its own competition for innovations that promote more sustainable lighting and water use. In partnership with the Institute for Sustainability, the aim of the competition is to “identify new solutions to real world sustainability challenges while helping innovative businesses get their products to market”.

Competitions are also emerging as a potential vehicle to meet the challenges of less developed nations. The Bill Gates Foundation, for example, recently ran a competition to find a new toilet design for the developing world that also makes electricity from the waste. The ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’ was won by the California Institute of Technology, whose design uses the sun to power an electrochemical reactor that breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy. The treated water can then be reused to flush the toilet or for irrigation. Clever, eh?

It’s clear to see these competitions do encourage greater innovation. But individuals and companies with bright ideas need more than the possibility of prize money to help them bring their innovations to market. The UK Government has sometimes been criticised for not offering more support – although in our age of austerity, public funding is not exactly plentiful. But then neither is private sector investment.

However, the long-term gain of leading the way in low-carbon solutions will bring economic rewards. For example, successful delivery of energy storage systems could create up to £25.7-billion in business revenues by 2050, and save up to £10.1-billion towards meeting UK emissions targets, according to the government’s recently released Technology Innovation Needs Assessment (TINA). That’s quite a sizable chunk of money to further inspire successful innovation. Let’s hope it works!

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