Exclusive interview: Nick Medic, Head of Communications

After a couple of months searching for a spot in our respective schedules, IRJ finally managed to pin down RenewableUK. They’re a busy bunch, but a mere glance at all that this association has accomplished in its 30-plus year lifespan proves enough to warrant the chase. From its beginnings as a research and academic forum, to its current role as a business trade association, government and policy converser and all-round educator, it’s been quite a ride for this, the association formerly known as the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA). With the rebrand in place, poised to best represent some 600 members in its midst, now seemed like an opportune time to catch up with Nick Medic, Head of Communications, to talk all things offshore, onshore, wind, wave and tidal. We had a big ask of RenewableUK; how are we going to get the United Kingdom to achieve those 2020 targets? Fortunately this association has plenty of answers, guidance and vigour to help the country along.

Nuala Gallagher: The name change seems to be as good a place to start as any. What factors contributed to this and why now? What does RenewableUK specifically do differently from the BWEA identity today?

Nick Medic:
Our association was founded in 1978 and until March 2010 it was known as the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) but in those 30 years much has changed. When we started out in 1978 we were an association bringing together academics, engineers, and wind energy enthusiasts. It was basically an opportunity to exchange research and scientific papers, to look at research and development and so on.

But then in the 90’s there was a distinct shift in gear in terms of deployment. In ‘91 we saw the UK’s  first commercial wind farm in Cornwall and since then the industry has grown tremendously. So really the focus of the association has changed from being an academic talking-shop to being a business trade association actually promoting renewable energy business opportunities, deployment and policy in the UK.

The emphasis of what we and our members do has changed from facilitating research and engineering to doing business and actually providing electricity. That was one of the most significant changes, and then there was another change. In 2004 after about 26 years we’ve started representing companies from the wave and tidal sector. The rationale behind this was that there is  a lot of overlap between the technologies in terms of engineering, solutions, logistics and so on. For instance, some of the proposed tidal current turbines resemble wind turbines. Obviously they’re placed in the water, but work on the same principle, by harnessing the kinetic energy of the environment within which the turbine is placed. What we’ve also noticed is that a lot of key people from the wind sector are lending their skills or working parallel in the wave and tidal industry, so there was a lot of crossover.

The third thing we noticed is that a lot of companies which we represent started developing a commercial  interest in the wave and tidal sector. When you put all of these things together it makes perfect sense for us to start representing these companies, because we’re a democratic trade association. Our policy work and our lobbying work are really directed by what our members tell us to do. Our members are organised in working groups and these cover economics and markets, offshore, onshore, health and safety, and so on. These working groups actually steer in a democratic way the work of the secretariat – which is us here in Westminster. We don’t sit here and make up policies, it’s more the case that our members vote and decide what the policies are and then we go with those policies  to the media, general public and the politicians.
So, in conclusion when you put together the changes in the emphasis and how we went about doing our work, then add to that the fact that we started to represent marine energy companies, we felt we needed a name to reflect that. Basically our scope has broadened. We now represent a sector with tremendous growth potential and we’re representing a range of renewable energy technologies so it makes sense to call ourselves RenewableUK.

NG: And how did you go about adding wave and tidal to your activities and improving upon the work you had already begun doing before the name change? How does this sector tie-in with wind in the services you currently offer members?

NM: From 2004 we started working with wave and tidal companies in the same way we were working with wind energy companies: taking their concerns to the policy-makers, to the media, to the general public, lobbying for more deployment, working hard so that the sector gets the best possible deal.

At the moment wave and tidal energy is about 10 years behind wind in terms of deployment and commercial potential. But the potential is undeniably there and what we’re seeing is plenty of people who were involved with wind energy at the beginning of the deployment in the UK, now  lending their skills and expertise to the wave and tidal sector. Some of the pioneers of wind energy in the UK are now working in the wave and tidal sector. There’s a lot of overlap and it makes sense that the people who have taken wind energy in the UK to the commercial deployment stage are now doing the same for wave and tidal.

NG: Let’s talk about your work with what is now our new coalition government in the UK. A lot has been said and some promises made in regards to renewables over the last few weeks. How do you think the sector is placed politically right now?

NM: Statements on renewable energy in the Coalition Agreement and those made by officials since the Government started work in May, are positive and very promising.   What sends a particularly encouraging signal to the industry is the stated aim to increase renewable energy targets. This shows Government confidence both in the technology and our renewable energy potentials.

The Government has recognised that the UK could be a lot more ambitious. In saying that it’s also important to build on what we have already achieved. For instance, at the moment we have two very good support mechanisms in the UK: the feed-in tariff and the Renewable Obligation. The feed-in tariff can address the needs of one side of the market while the Renewable Obligation can provide continuity.

We would be expecting to see that both mechanisms strengthened further. I think there’s also recognition that when it comes to deployment, particularly offshore, we have only dipped our toes in the water. We have something like one gigawatt (GW) now providing a fraction of our electricity but that could go up to a third of our total electricity consumption from offshore alone. I think there’s a dawning realisation amongst policy-makers that wind is indeed a sector which could deliver significant electricity within a very short timeframe. Within the next 10 years, if we play our cards right, we could be looking at significant percentage contributions from renewable energy in this country. We could be looking at 20 per cent-plus, moving to a full third and beyond, or over 125 TWh per year.

To illustrate this, if you step back 20 years the UK was in a very good position as  we were amongst European leaders in terms of deployment, and research and development.  Internationally there was Germany, Denmark, the UK and the US; these were the countries leading on renewable energy. Now 20 years on, you see Spain which, on the back of very generous government support, actually has six times the installed onshore wind capacity that the UK has, or close to 20GW compared to UK’s 3.5GW Time was lost in the ‘90’s in terms of deployment, ,  but we have been steadily making up for that lost time. Now what we need to do is shift gear and make sure that the policy-and financials frameworks are in place, and deliver on that promise.

NG: So how are we going to do that? What steps has RenewableUK taken in order to support your members and encourage shifting gear? I see there are many different publications on your website but one which caught my eye, Manifesto 2010, appears to tackle this?

NM: Our Manifesto outlines policy actions for wind, wave and tidal in the UK. We’ve identified a number of key policy challenges that need to be addressed in the coming months rather than years in order to start preparing to reach our 2020 targets. If you look at RenewableUK and what we do, we effectively represent four technologies: onshore wind, offshore wind, small wind systems and wave and tidal. Although these four technologies sound similar and work along similar principles they have distinct challenges and they evolve in different ways.

But, there are common areas of concern which we have identified as four cross-technology policy challenges:  planning, grid,   finance and finally skills and supply chain. When you look at the four technologies we represent, you will find that these four policy challenges are common to all of them. But then there are also technology-specific challenges, for instance aviation. Now for offshore and onshore wind aviation is basically a problem that needs to be solved rather quickly, whereas when it comes to wave and tidal the key is financial support. [The manifesto] is a pretty revealing document because it really groups these questions under distinct headings and gives a good run-down of what needs to be done in the next few months and years.

NG: You also have an entirely different publication titled the Consumer Guide for Generating your Own Power. It’s interesting to see this sort of document coming out for small-scale installation, especially from a business trade association. What sparked the need for this sort of guide?
NM: I’m delighted you say that because we’ve been spending a lot of time and resources on trying to get that document right and we’ve been getting some really good feedback on it.

The rationale behind this [guide] is that when you look at our wind energy potential in this country and you talk to people in the industry, we have the best wind resources in Europe; meaning that if you put the same turbine in Germany and in the UK –same size of turbine—you get more electricity on average out of that turbine in the UK than anywhere else in Europe. The development of our wind resources need not just be based around large wind farms. There’s a huge untapped market for people with rural businesses, farms, households, and people up and down the country who can generate their own electricity. Now we have the feed-in tariff so not only can you get your own electricity from the turbine but you can actually put the surplus in the grid. Let’s say you have some savings in the bank, if you were a private investor even it makes sense to erect your own turbine if you have the right conditions, and you can actually get a better return on your investment.

Whether you’re an environmentalist, someone concerned about their carbon footprint, whether you’re a technology enthusiast or simply an investor looking to return a profit, you would be well-advised to install your own turbine. For years now farmers and landholders have been installing these turbines and getting good results, but as we convey in this guide, this now opens the door for all sorts of applications. In the recent past, wind turbines were often used to power feed mills and cut down farm electricity bills, for example), but now you can just be a person living in the country, generating your own power and earning from it. That’s the flavour we’ve tried to convey in this consumer guide and we’re hoping the message will reach a wider audience.

I am also very happy with the images in this guide. A lot of the images came from our members and stem from current projects , and there’s also a tremendous amount of pride in what they do visible in these images: our members are extremely responsible and serious about what they do, and that shows.

Many of our member companies, especially in the small wind sector, were formed by pioneers who have dreamed of the moment when we would be able to have our own turbines and generate power and earn money off the back of that, effectively empowering people to do something about renewable energy and climate change. What you see through these images and through this information is that pride in doing what you do.

NG: So what about all of us here in the UK looking to future deployment of renewables. What do we need to do today in order to ensure success in this tomorrow?

NM: First and foremost there’s got to be a clear commitment to our 2020 renewable energy targets and obligations under the agreement with the European Union. A few years back we signed up to reduce our carbon emissions, and now there’s got to be a clear commitment and a clear resolve to reach these targets. Whatever we do we must not go back; we must not ask for extensions or try and dilute this target. We must face up to our responsibilities.
Let’s step aside slightly and look at the situation from a more overarching point of view. Yes, we’re facing issues in terms of energy security, and this is a key driver for deployment. We need to cut down on the energy we import, we need more home-grown energy. But in an overarching way there is also pressing need to reduce carbon emissions across Europe and show that a low carbon economy can work.

I say across Europe because this would send a clear signal across the world to emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil, that there is a different way to generate energy; that there is an alternative. Europe and the Western world has long-been leading on innovation, on electricity generation and so on. This will send a signal that these key industrialised nations are doing something about carbon emissions and that this the right way of doing things. That’s why there’s a huge significance to what we’re trying to do with these targets, over and above just getting our electricity from renewable sources.

NG: Now where does Renewable UK come in? What are your strategic goals in order to get things moving and aid future growth and development of wind and wave and tidal for the country?

NM:  Our mission is to promote and encourage as much deployment of wind, wave and tidal energy in the UK as possible, in a sustainable and responsible way. So our key work stream is to raise awareness of the potential for these technologies in the UK and facilitate timely deployment. That really ties in with servicing our members because they’re the ones with projects on the ground and they’re the ones at the coalface so to speak. We need to make sure that their interests are properly heard and protected.

That’s our day-to-day concern but in the medium term we’d like to see some of the policy challenges mentioned in our Manifesto resolved. .We’d also like to see some of the recent commitments to raising renewable energy targets firmed up. I think we’ve seen extremely positive signals to begin with and the industry will be delighted once these proposals are turned into firm policy statements and legislation so that we actually see an acceleration of deployment which we will bring more business opportunities and employment.  A Bain and Co study, which we commissioned in 2008 shows that we could have 70,000 jobs by 2020 in the wind energy sector in the UK, while the recent Offshore Valuation Report says that offshore wind alone, and using only a third of the resource, could bring 145,000 jobs by 2050.

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