As Cameron headed east, UK cleantech went west

Visiting Colorado with the best of the UK cleantech sector to develop contacts with investors and partners.

Ten days ago, as David Cameron flew to China on a mission, 16 of the top UK cleantech companies flew in the opposite direction on a Clean and Cool mission to Colorado.

It was as much a case of being eager to escape the horrible environment for energy debate in the UK as it was to seek much needed cash and new sales internationally.

The energy infrastructure remains the biggest and most complex machine in each country, but without much love, investment, and new technology it will struggle to puff out the electricity needed to keep economies growing. It will also come unstuck with migrating to cleaner renewable energy and hitting climate targets, keeping weather disasters at bay and not polluting our children.

It is of course also one of the biggest growth markets for technologies that solve the problem.

Arriving in the US again, over thousands of miles of flat land that is Colorado ahead of the Rockies, is always fascinating.

Together with me, on a packed BA flight from Heathrow one Saturday, included four grid energy storage-related companies (Moixa Technology, Sunamp, PJH Partnership, Wind Power Performance, renewable solutions (Flint Engineering, Fullsun PV, Each for All Productions, Renovagen), new fuels (Green Fuels – bio, Strawfuels – logs from straw!, and Arcola Energy – fuel cells), green data centre services (Icetope – cooling, Alquist – temperature monitoring), and electric vehicles (Vantage Power – hybrid powertrain for buses, and the UK ‘Tesla’ equivalent, a new electric bike Saietta from Agility Global), which is so powerful and visually cool it acts as a crowd magnet as strong as Magnifye (another mission company).

We arrived in a state that has seen population in half a century grow from one million to over five million, and has grown to be one of the leading pioneers and researchers in clean and renewable technology through academic and government research institutions.

This is not a state caught up in the current venture bubble that is the disposable app/software models, but one founded on deeper research and development. 

More on trade missions:

Arriving in Boulder at the foothills of the Rockies, it is like a Palo Alto of the north and a current Mecca for business start-ups – aided by clean air and altitude breathing new life into optimism. 

Here when they say ‘have a nice day’, they really mean it. It feels a long way from the superficial valley buzz like an art market auction of latest venture fad, or the gloomy debate that prevails any work to help the UK energy system. 

Here we were visiting the NREL  (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and its annual ‘International Growth forum’. It proved to be an excellent network and validation point on what technologies are making progress, and how companies are struggling through the ‘valley of death’ in early and later stages of cleantech.

This is not just a UK problem, but in strong evidence here in US. However, beneath the surface, major deals are underway with hardware and technology plays being valued – not least because Tesla is up 825 per cent and SolarCity up 650 per cent since IPO. 

Here engineering talent and innovation is being seriously rewarded and driving value. What could our UK mission companies in storage, electric vehicles and renewables achieve here? We brainstormed ideas with Mission supporters from the Technology Strategy Board, Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Innovation programme, and UKTI. There was also time to fit in a workshop with Shell Gamechanger.

We also met an exemplar, a UK company called RES Energy group (which has developed 8GW of wind capacity) established as RES Americas locally in Colorado. We got a lay of the land from their CEO Susan Reilly and were encouraged that smart solutions and skills from the UK are making such an impact in the US market.

Overall the US has shifted, with shale gas exploited driving lower bills, lower sector investment and calming some critics. Electricity network pressure and clean air remain drivers, particularly as there is a growing local perception of association between disasters (e.g. US storm Sandy), and an acceptance that something needs to be done on climate damaging technologies.

We were reminded of nature’s awesome power, as the temperature dropped from +10 to -22 in a day! Over the weekend large ice storms and snow hit across the US, and the largest tidal surge ever seen in the UK.

I was reminded of an American philosopher – Buckminister Fuller’s observation that a majority of humanity live within a narrow band of the earth and narrow temperature. Today with larger population and growth outside this band, more energy is being consumed cooling and heating our environments to accommodate. Yet nearby at the Rocky Mountain Institute, smart design and thinking is allowing houses to be built sufficiently insulated that they don’t need a heating or cooling system, and consume nominal electricity.

Perhaps, the answer to fuel poverty lies in such ‘net zero’ grid energy use, or potential ‘zero bill’ households – as well as a mass migration of pensioners and innovators to Colorado. Or, perhaps until the UK politics settles, allow us to continue building the UK future at home.

I returned early, via the cold expanse of Iceland to grid locked London traffic, and arrived with 15 minutes spare for a local investment pitch – the cold expanse of funding technology through the valley of death at home.

Simon Daniel

Yessenia Hermann

Simon Daniel is the inventor of the USB battery and folding keyboard. He was also CEO of Moixa, the renewable energy group.

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