Last week, Aspectus joined entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts at ecoConnect’s UK Wave and Tidal: Maximising the Momentum event in the City of London. After weeks of doleful headlines from the wider renewables industry, it was refreshing to be in a room so full of optimism for the sector. It’s clear that tidal and (to a lesser extent) wave energy are riding a wave of public popularity and support – but will it peak and break?
There was certainly no indication from the panelists that it would. A mixture of representatives from public and industry bodies – as well as players in the industry itself – all argued that the future was bright. Discussions revolved around the myriad technological innovations in the space, the accessibility of funding and investment, and just what scale of success the sector can achieve. It was a welcome change to hear so much positivity from the panel and audience, but – from a communications perspective – how does this all fit in with the very public recent troubles for the renewables industry?
Since the UK general election, the new Conservative Government has moved to remove subsidies for onshore wind, large and domestic scale solar, and biomass, citing concern for consumer bills and overspend on the Levy Control Framework. The renewables industry has responded with fury, arguing such changes undermine both the UK’s position as a leader in green technology, and investor certainty in the sector. It’s a public relations battle as much as anything else; with one side trying to win support through concern over bills and the other through concern for the environment.
But wave and tidal doesn’t seem to have been caught up in the conflict so far. Why could this be?
Perhaps it’s because – unlike more mature technologies – the government’s rhetoric has actually been extremely supportive of the sector. No talk here of ‘green crap’, but rather both Chancellor George Osborne and Energy Secretary Amber Rudd talking up the potential of the planned flagship Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. This despite suggestions of a strike price as high as £168 per MWh, dwarfing Hinkley Point’s much protested £92.50 per MWh.
Another factor in favour of wave and tidal is the relative lack of Nimbyism. Though some might live by the coast and see an installation out at sea, there’s simply much less scope for these technologies to be in anyone’s ‘backyard’. What’s more, most installations will sit either beneath the surface or float on it, offering a very different vista to a fleet of towering turbines.
Or perhaps it’s simply the stage in the sector’s lifecycle: new technologies capture the imagination with innovation and novelty. When they start to become commercialised and widespread, that excitement can often fade, especially if the demand on public funds grows with the sector. It may be at this point that the industry starts to accumulate more detractors in the government and the media, and that’s when a very different PR challenge begins.
But there’s still cause for optimism. The fact remains that the British Isles are almost uniquely placed to take advantage of wave and tidal energy. If the UK can keep up its lead in the sector, marine energy can become a point of pride for the country, boost the manufacturing sector and revitalise coastal communities with an influx of investment and talent.
So, will wave and tidal be relegated to being more ‘green crap’? Or will the UK be a leading light in a promising industry of the future? It’s not clear from here which way the wave will break, but communications will have a big role to play in deciding the answer.