Industry observers and analysts have long argued that in order to achieve sufficiently widespread use of renewable energy in the timeframe climate scientists believe is necessary, inter-corporate collaboration in the renewables sector is imperative (in addition to public-private collaboration).
Sharing experience of specialist knowledge in fields like farming, biology and engineering is the fastest way to raise standards across the green sector, making the industry more attractive to investment (both private and public) and to releasing the wealth of specialist knowledge that industry pioneers have accumulated which start-ups or larger non-specialist companies may lack.
Only by abandoning the traditional business practice of keeping accrued company knowledge in-house can best practices be established (in what is still a new and rapidly evolving industry) while rolling out the green revolution towards a net-zero carbon emission economy on schedule.
The energy sector: an unconventional business market
In large part the renewable energy sector also remains a non-conventional business market due to the importance of the fight against climate change in other ways; similar to the defence or intelligence sectors, the renewable energy sector touches on matters of national security for governments around the world.
However, unlike those sectors, secrecy is less important than transnational collaboration. This is because all countries are now suffering from the effects of climate change caused by our current generation of carbon-emitting technologies, and none can escape them until all global economies modernise and become emission-free.
In this case national security concerns for prohibiting firms from rival countries from sharing technologies or lines of research can be somewhat reduced by the common international need to preserve the Earth’s biosphere (as far as possible) and reverse the effects of manmade climate change (as the ultimate goal for international cooperation in the future).
Where can companies collaborate to green the planet
One area of close collaboration between firms could be in reforming international use of gas in sectors, like transport or infrastructure like housing. Natural gas is used across modern life as a source of energy for heating, cooking and power generation, as a vehicle fuel, and as a vital chemical material in the manufacture of plastics and other chemical products which are vital for modern life (and therefore not easily substituted or done away with).
Greening the gas grids of many countries is also an import priority to curbing emissions for both their governments and the established multinational corporations which run the current generation of hydrocarbon-fuelled infrastructure.
For example, in the recent UK budget, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced that the heating of UK homes would need to be carbon-neutral by 2050 and that the government planned to accelerate the greening of the UK’s gas grid via a new support scheme for biomethane. This was to be funded by a rising levy on gas use through the Green Gas Levy to encourage a switch to greener energy sources, a tax which came on top of the pre-existing Climate Change Levy (which is an older tax penalising non-renewable electricity delivered to users outside the domestic and transport sectors).
With incentives now aligning with new technologies emerging from the renewables sector, large multinational corporations are becoming interested in sharing ideas on how best to harness these emerging technologies to rebuild gas-using businesses and infrastructure.
Other actors (such as the UN) are interested in how to combine gas with other green technologies to create so-called energy ecosystems where different green energy sources feed into and reinforce one another. One example of this (in the case of the gas sector) would be hydrogen.
Hydrogen can be used in an energy ecology by blending it into a country’s pre-existing natural gas pipeline network as a means of increasing the output of renewable energy systems such as large wind farms. Nevertheless, even in a small but developed country like the UK (which is looking to modernise between 2020-2030), generating and implementing any such large-scale changes will require considerable collaboration in research and manufacturing to achieve a rapid technological leap forward.
The unique opportunities of the UK energy sector
However, Britain does offer an interesting recent example of the type of industry-focused public-private collaboration which could revolutionise other national economies moving forwards into the 2020s and 2030s.
In March the country saw the formation of an inaugural taskforce consisting of ten multinational firms (Arup, Baxi, BOC, BNP Paribas, Cadent, DBD, ITM Power and Storengy, alongside energy giants BP and Shell) called the Hydrogen Taskforce; this group will work with the UK government to fast-track innovation and investment in hydrogen energy projects.
The UK government itself announced new funding for hydrogen via the Hydrogen Supply Programme and Industrial Fuel Switching Competition when it announced its national budget in 2020. The Hydrogen Taskforce has created a list of key policy recommendations for the government which it would like to see implemented, including financial support for the production of hydrogen for blending into the gas grid, industrial use, power generation and transport, amending gas regulations to allow hydrogen blending into the UK gas grid, and collaboration to establish 100 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2025 to support the roll-out of hydrogen transport in Britain.
The taskforce’s attempt to green the UK’s gas grid with hydrogen is still in its infancy, but it represents a promising national-level initiative for inter-business and public-private cooperation in the field of renewables.