Doing the dirty: coal, gas, and cleantech in the UK

Oil and gas prices, it is often said, do more to influence the development of the cleantech market than the appetite for clean technologies in themselves. This is, largely, a truism: investment amounts in cleantech in the past 10 years have largely tracked rising oil prices, as alternatives are explored and investigated. Rising oil prices also make alternative sources of energy more affordable, and potentially profitable. And as the post-Cold War world struggles to realign itself, energy security has become a geopolitical as well as an economic issue. So far, the focus has largely been on those parts of the cleantech sector which have addressed ‘peak oil’ issues through large-scale engineering solutions: wind power, solar, and – yes – nuclear.

However, a niche market is developing in the exploitation of ‘pockets’ of energy left over from the industrial era and its abandoned landscapes of resource extraction. This niche market is proving especially interesting in those countries like the UK, where industrialization and extractive activities like mining have left opportunities for smaller-scale operators to benefit from the efficiencies to be found in former mining areas. This is the case, for example, with cleantech firms which exploit gas deposits in mines. The potential benefits are twofold: first of all, these pockets of resources are local nuggets of opportunity for firms able to utilise them; secondly, their extraction and use in energy generation feeds in to larger utility and power companies’ need for alternative generation sources to stabilize peak demand during critical periods.

An example of the potential benefit of links between firms which exploit the ‘left-overs’ of extraction and energy firms is Alkane Energy plc. The company has benefited from recent cleantech interest in the ‘greening’ of more traditional utilities and energy firms. Alkane Energy is based in Nottinghamshire, and focuses on the capture of coal mine methane (CMM) for use as fuel for electricity generation. It is one of a handful of players active on the CMM scene and its offshoots, which includes UK Coal’s flaring and gas generating and utilisation facilities at its UK sites.

Another key player is Greenpark Energy, with its business focus on onshore, UK-based coal bed methane (CBM). Alkane Energy currently has a capacity for 37 MW, which is can generate from 25 modular reciprocating engine units at 9 sites across the UK. The basic idea is to exploit gas reserves in coal mine areas – of which the UK has more than a few. The power generated from the engines at the firm’s UK sites feeds in to the grid through a deal with Gaz de France Suez: this is aimed at stabilizing peak supply and demand.

Another example of UK cleantech’s increasing engagement with technology deployment focusing on energy can be found at the venture level. In the past few weeks, Intelligent Energy has announced a successful partnership with the Suzuki Motor Corporation in producing the fuel cell-powered Suzuki Burgman scooter. Intelligent Energy has offices in Loughborough and London in the UK, as well as in Long Beach, California, and a presence in Japan – and it has a long and distinguished track record in technology development and research. The firm was founded in 2001, when it started operations both in London and Loughborough, as a result of its close collaboration with technology know-how at Loughborough University. Fast-forwarding to 2010, the company’s main remit is the development and production of clean power systems, including fuel cell stacks and integrated technologies.

The company has hit the headlines by being selected as a member of the UK’s Cool & Clean Mission 2010 to California, aiming to foster links with investors and other tech firms and potential partners. This means that it has been ranked among the top twenty most innovative and growth-focused cleantech firms in the UK. Nonetheless, Intelligent Energy’s working partnerships have also included Scottish and Southern Energy plc, showing that a focus on utilities and grid energy providers is increasingly seen as the way to go in deploying innovation and clean technologies.

Reporting by Federico Caprotti, writing for Skipso from London