Opinion: the future of the Clean Tech Industry is in our hands

“Beijing’s plans for renewable energy could blow a hole in Britain’s eco-industry”, wrote Sunday Times writer Danny Fortson (5/9/10).

I struggled to understand the angle of the story: surely we should be delighted to know that rather than more dirty coal powered plants polluting the atmosphere and choking China’s population, she is now investing in wind power with a vengeance?

By the end of last year, China already had an installed base of 25GW which is a fifth more than all of Europe. And by 2020, her government expects to generate 150 GW from wind turbines or 6 times more than the British target, many of which are installed on the sand dunes of Inner Mongolia.

But why the need to pit UK’s progress against that of the world’s second largest economy? According to the said article, there are currently 80 turbine manufacturers in China, including 3 of the world’s largest Sinovel, Goldwind and Dongfang. Britain has one, Clipper Windpower. If China can in future produce wind turbines, or indeed solar panels and other clean tech gizmos more cheaply than the rest of the world, it would “disrupt” the market place.

As Lib Dems, we have long called for the green road to UK’s economic recovery. And now in coalition we support the creation of a green investment bank though the details of its remit and reach have yet to be agreed.

Significantly just this week on 7 Sep, Climate Change and Energy Minister, Greg Barker enunciated his vision of London becoming the global hub of green finance and urged the City to be innovative in creating more financial products to finance this sector. There is according to industry experts currently an “equity gap” for clean tech companies. It is not so easy for start ups struggling to expand to take advantage of the low carbon boom to find support from angel investors or venture capitalists. The latter prefer safer investments such as management buy-outs or mergers of established companies than to take on riskier investments where working capital is needed, say, to build prototypes.

On a recent visit to the Carbon Trust, a not-for-profit set up to help UK companies reduce their carbon foot print, I learnt that there is in fact a very efficient and well focussed team there that helps entrepreneurs on their fast track scheme which helps entrepreneurs make the leap from risky start-ups to commercially viable investment opportunities. This project presently only costs £6 million a year and for every £1 they spend, the private sector puts in £12 – leveraging over £90m in private capital to date.

However funded by the Department of the Environment and Climate Change (DECC), I am fearful of the coming Comprehensive Spending Review and to possible future abolition of this scheme, without any replacement. There may be the possibility of incorporation within another Lib Dem Department, BIS, or even within the Green Investment Bank, but all of these are medium term options and in the meantime, our Government’s support to UK low carbon entrepreneurs is at risk, alongside our claims to be leading a green economy.

I believe there is still much we can still do here the UK, especially if we wish to be leading manufacturers and exporters of clean technology. We need to create an environment where the financial as well as the investment communities are incentivised to nurture and support the commercialisation of home grown clean tech companies.

And instead of fearing countries such as China leaping ahead of us, we should work to take advantage of their low manufacturing base as well as demand in order to stay ahead of the game and compete effectively in the global market.

Merlene Emerson is Parliamentary Spokesperson for Hammersmith and Chair of Chinese Liberal Democrats

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7 Comments

  • Its sad when a headline talks about “blowing a hole” into a British industry. It first of all denotes fear of a competitor, in this case Chinese; it’s also disrespectful to British business, as though our managers and workers are unable to compete. But in this case, as Merlene suggests, shouldn’t we be collaborating with and complementing Chinese initiatives? If any eco-tech business out there needs a Chinese partner, let me know.

  • It isn’t particularly difficult to understand why finance isn’t forthcoming for these riskier projects in the current economic climate. Nor is it to understand why we’re falling behind other countries, with pretty much every industry involved in science and engineering in the UK lamenting the absence of qualified graduates in those fields to fill positions.

  • Philip Ling 9th Sep '10 - 9:30pm

    I think the China debate is a red herring and not really the issue (and disappointed it’s even mentioned in the article). The point is once again the lack of foresight and industry support by the British Government is leading to long term decision making being dragged out. We know we, and the the rest of the world, will be looking towards renewable technology, but instead of trying to be market leaders we drag our feet and hope the private sector will just take off.

    I really don’t think this will happen. The support for emerging industries is always difficult but in this case where we can see a future lets lead the world. Give a boost to manufacturing and export the goods, or at the very least the technical know how (and let another country manufacture the products). Instead we’ll import and give Germany, Sweden and China a market for them to dominate.

    During the general election voters I spoke to could see and understand the logic for a “green economy”, we should be making it happen. It is one of the routes towards a sustained long term recovery.

  • I am sure the mention of China in the article is a red herring but dosen’t continue to reflect a view of China that is misleading the public.

    There are many articles listing Chinese threats to its neighbours over remote islands in the Pacific and South China Sea. We read of troubles in Tibet and Xingjiang. We are constantly told how, if it wasn’t for China, all Americans and Europeans would be leaping around in a sea of money and the joy of jobs for everyone. It seems the papers are saying “if only China would raise its currency and stop trying to pull its massive population out of poverty then all would be good in the world.”

    Of course there is always apprehension during periods of change and uncertainty. In Hong Kong there was certainly a nervous welcome for the Chinese troops in 1997. Times are still uncertain here, but Hong Kong now sees mainland China as a great opportunity to invest and develop business. In fact while Europe and the USA have fallen on hard times China has been the motor that continues to drive growth in South East Asia. The Chinese economy may now be bigger than Japan, but without the massive amount of trade between Japan and China how much worse would the Japanese economy be?

    China’s closest neighbours have benefitted hugely from the Chinese growth. Do we ever hear this in the UK papers? Taiwan and South Korea are now moving to have closer relationships with China. Chinese companies are now investing in Vietnam and Cambodia and creating real jobs that improve the lives of poor people in those countries.

    As far as the green economy is concerned the Chinese demand for innovative ideas for alternative energy can only be a good thing for the green economy. Necessity is the driver of invention and China needs alternative sources of energy more than anywhere in the world.

    I accept that not all is rosy in South East Asia, but come on! Let’s have a balanced view. A bit more Yin and a little less Yang form the British press please.

  • I know this a not really a comment on the article of Marlene, but I just like to ask if anyone wants to be involved in an informal Liberal Democrat group based in Hong Kong? I have been in Hong Kong for a few years and would like to get plugged in with and help the Liberal Democrats again. I am open to all suggestions on what an informal group in Hong Kong should do and how it is set up.

    If anybody is interested perhaps they can let Marlene know.

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