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Monday, 29 January 2018

Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye

You know how it is. You sign up for this or that event and forget about it. Then it comes around and you think “why did I want to go to this?” That happened to me last Tuesday. On the dot my Google diary reminded me that on 23 January I was attending “Energy storage: automotive and grids” at The Royal Society.

I’m a retired civil servant, I know nothing about cars (do 2,000 miles a year) and even less about grids – so why did I sign up to the full day conference. As I looked at my diary entry two reasons immediately occurred to me. It was free and I wasn’t doing anything on that day. So why not: even if Registration started at 8:30. I’ve  forgotten what  it’s like to get up to go to work.

The Royal Society is an august establishment having  appropriately august premises off Pall Mall. I had my Eventbrite e-ticket to hand as I went up to reception. Waving my phone and shouting “I’m registered”, I was taken to one side and my name plate attached to my jacket. They pointed me towards one of the rooms where tea, coffee, water, fruit juice, fruit, Danish pastries were on offer. I  had eaten before I left home! I of course knew no one – I imagined I recognise a face or two off the telly I stood in a corner being enigmatic. 

The plenary sessions were held in the Wellcome Trust Lecture Hall. It was at this point I realised academia had sold out to commercial interests. I took my place near the front and started to read the bumf. A professionally produced folder told me that I was attending part of a conference series “Breakthrough science and technologies Transforming our future.” At which point I realised that science had been well and truly captured by McMafia.  

I will gloss over the Ministerial address. The Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was unavailable so her deputy was roped in. Frankly I warmed to him. He was harmless, and knew bugger all about what he was talking about. He told us he’d been in business for years before becoming a politician – and frankly he was as surprised as we were that he’d reached junior Ministerial level. But being a businessman he knew about science.  And the £40 odd million his department had given for some major innovative initiative or other. 

Then we were into the real nitty gritty. You may think “Energy policy approaches and the energy transition” is not  super sexy but when Joan MacNaughton CB of the Climate Group stood up to speak – I wondered why she bothered. Her CV is immaculate. From Director General of Energy at the DTI to Chair of the The Climate Group she’s done it all. Even  Director General of Policy at my old department, the Lord Chancellor’s Department. Google her and you’ll be impressed. Which made me wonder why her talk was so turgid and boring. But then if you’re going to talk about “the forces of decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitalisation.” you’re bound to drown in verbiage.

I have to declare an interest here. I hate Centrica. My investment in their shares has fallen by over 50%. They must be doing everything wrong. Dr Jorge Pikunic, Centrica Managing Director of Distributed Energy and Power business was on hand to talk about.. well that. This is my take on his session. Companies like Centrica have finally realised that they don’t hold all the cards when it comes to energy distribution – hence their shitty stock market price. Small, local generators (wind, solar,water) operating close to customers: massive improvement in battery storage means that large distributive networks may be old hat. Centrica and the other energy lumbering giants are trying to figure out how they can stop themselves from becoming victims of evolution. He made a valiant attempt to be both innovator and maintainer of the status quo. I still haven’t sold my shares in Centrica.

Next we were onto that really sexy topic – cars. And American Cars! Because the US administration had shut down on the Sunday, David Howell from the US Department of Energy was unavailable to attend  but his stand in was well worth the ticket price. I have no idea who he was but he’ll know.  We had facts about car usage, the life cycle of the American car. Did you know that most Americans hold on to their cars longer than Cubans? So introducing any new technology is going to take time. We learnt about the analysis of average motor mileage and its correlation to the up take of EVs ( It sounds so sexy!). The PowerPoint presentation was stunning – so much so that franklyI remember little of the content of the lecture – Trump's Law. 

We then had a coffee break followed by Professor Peter Littlewood. At this point I have to own up. I have no idea what his lecture was about. It might have been that I was pre-occupied by my over full bladder or the pressure on my piles – but he could have been talking about little green men. My apologies Prof.

Prof Alexander Slocum is an American. We knew that because he wore extremely 60’s hippy clothes and had a great deal to say in a short time. Not that what he said wasn’t extremely important and interesting. We learnt that if the US spent all the money it spent on fighting unwinnable wars on building renewable technologies the US would be carbon neutral. He want on to demonstrate how deep thinking delivered technological solutions that dramatically reduced the costs of wind power. His message was clear – we can save the planet – it’s doable. Bit like the thesis set out in David Deutsch’s “The Beginning of Infinity”. “Do the Maths.”

Our US cousins won hands down on the positivity stakes –I suppose they have to be given who they have to contend with.

Then it was the turn of Professor Ian Metcalfe. A man who clearly knew his subject and would let us know that too.  All I can say is that his description of methanol production from combustion flue gas was mesmerising. As was Dr Christos Markides and his talk on thermo-energy storage options. I went to lecture at Imperial College a year ago and Dr CM was there astounding us with questions about generation intermittency and the higher penetration of energy storage technologies. 

And so it was lunch time. Lunch was free! I, however, had had enough. I couldn’t cope with the afternoon sessions on Energy Policy Research or Battery storage in the GB power market, rounded off by Energy markets regulation – a no doubt fascinating session by Chris Brown Ofgem’s Head of Core and Emerging Policy. 

I didn’t feel I could take advantage of the free lunch since I wasn’t a kosher boffin or policy wonk. So I crept home to switch on my single bar electric fire after feeding the meter with 10 pence pieces.         

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