The Observer Ethical Awards – the ‘green Oscars’ – are billed as an annual celebration of environmental and social justice. As one of the sponsors of the awards, National Grid is keen to support ideas that mirror the company’s own approach to responsible use of natural resources for the benefit of society. Stuart Bailey, National Grid’s Head of Sustainability and Climate Change and a member of the Ethical Awards voting panel, outlines what he hopes to see among this year’s entries.
With the recent launch of the 2014 Observer Ethical Awards, the search is on once again for the best and most innovative examples of environmental and social justice.
National Grid has been involved with the Ethical Awards – happily known in some circles as the ‘green Oscars’ – since they began nine years ago.
Last year, we sponsored a category called The Big Idea, the aim of which was to recognise and reward ideas with genuine world-changing potential. It was all-encompassing – some of the ideas entered were focused on energy, but the breadth of sectors addressed was wide.
As it happened, the Big Idea winner was a small start-up company called Loowatt, with a project to create energy from waste aimed primarily at the developing world.
Loowatt’s waterless toilet uses an anaerobic digestion process to create methane that is then used to generate electricity. The company plans to pilot its energy-creating toilets in 2014 at UK outdoor festivals.
Since our award, Loowatt has received a Gates Foundation grant of £1million and looks to be well on the way to becoming a successful business with great ethical intentions.
Community energy projects
This year, we’re sponsoring the category for community energy projects. This fits in with some of our work on engaging with communities so they have a better understanding of what we’re doing and why. In particular, it dovetails nicely with our public acceptability campaign, and our objective to heighten awareness of the UK energy industry generally and National Grid’s particular role in connecting people to the energy they need.
One of our objectives is to encourage more communities to get involved in generating their own energy by coming up with schemes for themselves. In the context of the Ethical Awards, we expect to get people who are generating energy by installing their own devices such as small wind turbines or solar farms. This also connects with what the UK government is trying to do with its vision for community energy.
However, generating your own energy can be difficult to achieve. Even if you have a great idea, a bit of land and you know about the technology, you still need finance and a commercial contract. Although it’s not easy, we hope the benefits will encourage more communities to persevere – and these awards are a great opportunity to show what’s possible.
The rewards of community energy projects can be both personal and financial. For example, hot water is often a by-product of energy generation. Most of this is normally lost, but it could be used to heat people’s homes. This sort of use has to be built in as we create new communities, because it’s difficult to retrofit, but it does demonstrate how a single source of power and heat can generate financial savings.
Different ways of funding
The technology behind renewables, especially solar power, is actually quite easy to integrate into a local community. People just need some way of funding it.
Through the Observer Ethical Awards, we’re hoping to discover different ways of funding or operating community energy projects, or some technological innovation about them.
I’m already aware of schemes where a community puts in the capital, builds the project and takes the benefits – essentially a group down payment against the future.
Increasingly projects are being ‘pro-funded’: somebody offers bonds in a solar park or in renewables located on various local government buildings. ‘Crowd funding’ is also popular – where individuals and communities come together to put up the capital to build a renewable energy project – but it’s not all about finance.
‘Trilemma’ of energy
Affordability, security and sustainability are the priorities – the ‘trilemma’, if you will – of energy. That trilemma pulls us in different directions.
It’s pulling strongly in the direction of affordability at the moment, at a time when energy prices seem to be constantly in the news.
Access to energy on demand is also really important, but it’s difficult to put a value on it. In the developed world, we take our energy supply for granted. Compare what we consider normal with the developing world where, if people have energy, they tend to enjoy it for limited hours in a day.
In the UK, the Government is taking steps to rein in some green initiatives, while there’s a perception that going greener costs a lot more money. I think the public in general doesn’t understand the economics of sustainability – it takes effort and ingenuity. But there are those who do get it and are keen to push the envelope. These are the people who will hopefully enter the community energy projects category in the Ethical Awards and share their knowledge and experience with others.
I expect to see examples of renewable generation among the entries; perhaps whole communities who understand that they stand to gain better prices by changing their approach to energy. In picking a winner, we’ll be looking for that fantastic renewable project that delivers genuine financial or social benefits for the community.
To read more
Click here to read more about the 2014 Observer awards.
Stuart Bailey, National Grid’s Head of Sustainability & Climate Change, explains the importance of being ‘climate positive’
Click here to find out more about Loowatt and its waterless toilet.