EACH year, the Ashden charity hands out awards for what judges deem to be the most groundbreaking sustainable energy projects.
As many as 160 applicants are put through a rigorous evaluation procedure ahead of national and international winners being announced in across a range of categories.
This year, three British SMEs were among the companies, social enterprises, not-for-profit and public sector organisations declared winners.
So what can they expect to gain?
“One of the most positive things about the Ashden Awards is that they highlight the possibilities,” says past winner Sara Bell, “because it’s really hard in this sector for small companies to compete.”
In 2016, she picked up the award for smart energy on behalf of Tempus Energy, the company she had set up four years earlier.
Awards judges had hailed Tempus’s efforts to harness customers’ demand flexibility, scheduling appliances like fridges or air conditioners to “turn down” during peak demand and use more power whenever there was an abundance of cheap renewables. This was combined with a supply business that turned a profit by cashing in on pre-bought electricity during periods when energy was expensive.
“It has the potential to disrupt the market and create real change in a slow-moving and highly regulated industry,” the panel declared.
Judges spend a day with applicants to meet staff, go on site visits and talk to their customers. And winners can expect support to help them to both grow and promote their work.
“Ashden spent a lot of time evaluating companies they were looking at so we knew it was a very genuine award and we were really honoured to win,” says Bell.
As it turned out, the award was the high at the start of what would be a rollercoaster 12 months.
At the time, Tempus already had 20 commercial customers on the books across 200 sites, including the Eat food chain and Hertz car rentals. And when Bell explains how the system works, it’s not surprising.
“We went into a big warehouse. They had electric forklift trucks that stopped work at 5pm on a normal working day, when they plugged them in to charge,” she says. “But that’s the most expensive time. They didn’t need to start charging them then because they wouldn’t be used again until 8am.”
Charging them overnight instead could lead to huge savings. So, a no-brainer then?
However, just two weeks after the awards ceremony, the Brexit vote plunged the UK economy into turmoil. The resulting uncertainty prompted Tempus’s board to shelve a fundraising round.
Four months on, it closed its innovative supply business in the face of government policy it says damages its business model.
Tempus had already launched a legal challenge to the capacity market mechanism, which Bell says acts as “effectively a massive fossil fuel subsidy” by contracting generators – most often coal, gas or diesel – to provide back-up in times of extraordinary demand.
The company argues that policies like this – and another paying generators to keep power stations capable of coming back online during a national outage – curb price volatility, and force artificially high prices on consumers in the process.
“[Those in charge] have bought capacity in a way that avoids benefiting the customer,” argues Bell.
“Instead of investing in the future, we keep investing in our past. When the car came along, it was sad for horse owners but should we still be subsidising the horse and cart?”
That view was echoed by MPs on the Energy and Climate Change Committee last year. However, the European Commission concluded the system was within state aid rules. And the government says stability provided by the capacity market ensures “a secure energy supply at a fair price”, and is cheaper for families than power shortages resulting in price spikes.
The government’s industrial strategy commits to spending £400m a year on energy innovation by 2021 but Bell argues a step change in philosophy is needed.
Despite domestic setbacks, it’s been far from a bad year for Tempus.
From its London base it continues to develop tech for use in markets that are left to operate with more volatility, created by the variable output from windfarms, seasonal changes in solar output and factors such as maintenance or closure of existing power plants.
Tempus is setting up a flexible energy market in South Australia, where prices can fluctuate between -$1,000 and $14,000.
“When the market is at $14,000 there isn’t a single customer who it would be hard to convince to use less electricity,” says Bell.
In April Tempus was among a dozen companies selected for the Free Electrons Accelerator, a six-month San Francisco-based program that links start-ups to utility giants.
“We were given the opportunity to explain what we do, what our tech does and how we see the future,” says Bell. “Utilities did the same and we pitched to each other and were given the opportunity to find appropriate companies to work with.”
Bell says the process was exhausting but worthwhile, with venture capitalists critiquing the company’s pitch ahead of speed-dating pitches.
As a result of sessions in Silicon Valley, Lisbon and Dublin, Tempus is working towards a demand-response trial with Australia’s Origin Energy.
It is also in discussions with a venture capitalist, ahead of a the final stage of the accelerator in Singapore, where $175,000 is up for grabs to the winners of a pitching competition.
“The next few years are really going to be about showing in proper markets how much our customers can become flexible,” says Bell.
“The cheaper it is for customers, the faster we’re going to decarbonise.”
Images: Andrew Aitchison/Ashden