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Business Forum

News - 3 April 2009
photo source@ kevindooley

Economic Partnership counsels caution over green industries for the city

The Economic Partnership gave evidence about the potential for the development of green industries in Brighton & Hove at the City Council’s Overview Committee on Tuesday. It called for a measured and careful assessment of what would constitute a good fit.

The term ‘environmental industries’ has become a bit of a ragbag into which a great many different activities are bundled. Low carbon goods and services currently have a £3 trillion global value, which is rapidly increasing. Consequently it is tempting for cities to want a piece of the action, not only because they will contribute to solutions to climate change but also because they generate employment opportunities.

The drivers of fundamental change proposed in the government’s recently published Low Carbon Industrial Strategy (see earlier story) are to be found in four key areas: -

  • Energy efficiency
  • Creating a low carbon energy infrastructure: renewables, nuclear, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and ‘smart' grid that can accommodate local electricity production
  • Making the UK a global leader in the development and production of low carbon vehicles
  • Making the UK an example of the best place for low carbon business to locate and develop.

Deciding which of the above would could be exploited and developed by the city requires a detailed study but, bearing in mind the fierce competition between cities for establishing environmental industries, a starting point would be to see what Brighton already has in place that could give the city an advantage.

Energy efficiency includes improving the environmental performance of buildings throughout their life cycles including raw materials, design and the construction and operation of buildings through to demolition and re-use and recycling of materials and components.

Brighton University’s Centre for Sustainability of the Built Environment (CSBE) led by Professor Andrew Miller and Dr. Kenneth Ip has an international reputation and links with other similar organisations in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia. It hosts an annual conference aimed at professionals engaged in delivering sustainability in the built environment.

One of its long-term projects monitors the Brighton Earthship recording and analysing data from thirty sensors around the building. The city also has examples of good practice in The Jubilee Library and more recently One Brighton (see earlier story) which has used building techniques that are at the forefront of environmental endeavour.

However the field is not without stiff competition. Construction giant Arup has announced that it is to work in partnership with one of the UK’s 40 new centres at the University of Reading funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council which is focused on the development of zero carbon buildings.

A low carbon energy infrastructure will be key if the UK is to deliver an increase in energy from renewables by 2020. Controversially the Low Carbon Industrial Strategy highlights nuclear energy and a shift to clean coal through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as important factors in achieving our aims.

Carbon Capture and Storage and nuclear are both longer term strategies, with the technology for the former not yet fully developed or commercially viable and large, long-term and ultimately uncertain investments needed for the latter. Both are also extremely controversial on environmental grounds.

Given the environmental and economic urgency of a transition towards a low carbon future, as well as declining government revenues, there is always a danger that a focus on CCS and nuclear will undermine the push for renewables. At the very least prioritising old technologies like coal (albeit with the new twist of CCS) together with the new technologies of renewables sends mixed signals to the private sector which may deter investment in R&D and manufacture.

Wind power is the obvious renewable for the wild and stormy UK to develop but the principal barriers are planning, raising finance and connection to the national grid. Onshore wind power is the most cost effective but windy spots tend to be beauty spots which adds to the barriers.

Indeed there is evidence that investors are already wary of renewables with Royal Dutch Shell pulling out of the London Array in the Thames estuary and the other two principal partners Eon and Dong suggesting that they may need 100% subsidy, not the 50% on offer. BP has pulled out of the British renewables market altogether because it feels that the returns are not cost effective.

Balanced against this the Norwegian company Statkraft - Europe's largest generator of renewable energy - announced last week that it was investing £500m in a Scottish wind farm project but there is still considerable uncertainty around the Government's attitude to renewables.

Also other countries are streaking ahead of Britian. Germany, Spain and Portugal have all out-stripped the UK in the devlopment of wind and solar renewable industries and we currently languish 31st out of 35 countries on green energy performance according to the International Energy Agency

The policy director of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) - Andrew Simms - fears that the government has simply lost interest in renewables. By contrast it has moved at lighting speed to revive the nuclear industry which was roundly out-of-favour only five years ago. Consequently Brighton & Hove needs to tread cautiously when it comes to involvement in renewable energy although there will be scope for our universities to exploit R&D opportunities.

Low carbon vehicles are considered to be the only sustainable future for private and public transportation, and the Government has set out the vision for the UK as a global leader in the development and manufacture of low carbon automotive technology, in both vehicle technology as well as other systems such as rail transport.

Ricardo Engineering based at Shoreham airport already has a world class reputation in this field and the University of Sussex has the Automotive Dynamics and Control Group which has an international reputation for its work in the dynamic behaviour and control of non-linear systems with particular relevance to automotive applications. This could be an area where the city could build upon existing advantages that have already led to job creation.

Any new technology will have three elements: - R&D to develop the product ready for market (and ongoing R&D to perfect and imporve it), manufacture of the product itself and finally installation and maintenance. Brighton & Hove has precious little manufacturing capacity (although our neighbours to the east and west certainly do) and much of the manufacturing will probably happen outside the UK (most of our wind turbines for example are built in continental Europe).  But with our two universities (combined they would be the fourth largest in the UK) there is plenty of scope to exploit R&D opportunities and with a workforce that is highly skilled there is also scope to take advantage of installation and maintenance opportunities.

Ceres Power based in Crawley, for instance, is using fuel cell technology to produce domestic Combined Heat & Power (CHP) units to replace traditional central heating boilers. With nearly 1.5 million new homes needed across the south east over the next 20 years there will be huge demand for skilled tradespeople able to install and maintain new green technologies like domestic CHP units.

There is no doubt that the next few years will see a continuation of the almost exponential growth that we have seen in a wide variety of green industries. Brighton & Hove already has a cluster of small scale eco-industries numbering almost 100 and with careful consideration there is undoubtedly scope to nurture them, attract new ones and exploit any opportunities that make a good fit with our economic offer.

Read related items on:
Climate Change
UK Energy Strategy
Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership
University of Brighton
University of Sussex

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