Innovators need a voice in government too

bubblesThis post is by independent researcher and Green Alliance associate Rebecca Willis.

It’s obvious, when you think about it, that emerging industries and innovators have less of a voice in government than established players. Incumbents have a lot of advantages: they have a proven technology or system which regulators understand; they can afford to pay staff or consultants to engage and lobby; and policies and regulations are designed with them in mind. In contrast, innovators put all their effort into getting their new approach off the ground (with little time left for lobbying); regulations aren’t designed for them; and policy makers may not understand what they do.

In short, it’s easier to defend the status quo than to sell a promise. Any government serious about promoting innovation needs to think about how it involves innovators as well as incumbents in decision making. There’s a rich seam of academic thought on this, called ‘transition theory’, which is surprisingly well summarised on Wikipedia.

The energy market favours established players
Nowhere is this more true than in the energy sector. The energy market is based on rules set by government which implicitly favour established players. As I’ve written before, our energy market favours ‘big kit’ solutions supplying large amounts of energy down the wire to passive consumers, who have little incentive to think about the power that they use.

The future of energy will be radically different to this. We need to incentivise demand reduction, be smarter in the way we use networks and have a much closer relationship between energy demand and supply. For more on this, see Exeter University’s iGov project, a brilliant exploration of the energy system we need.

So, who’s making the rules? At present it’s the big generators and suppliers, whose influence on government is impressive to say the least, a dwindling band of DECC officials and a regulator, Ofgem, set up in very different circumstances to oversee privatisation.

Give innovators more say
There’s a lot the government could do to give innovators more say. First, it could stop relying on trade associations to provide an ‘industry voice’ and go out and find the innovators, rather than expecting them to prowl Whitehall’s corridors. And it should think about the resource mismatch which allows energy incumbents to provide free staff to DECC while innovators can’t even afford to send someone to a meeting.

All those working with energy innovators could contribute too, by helping them to get their voice across. That’s what I’ve been doing with the community energy sector. As part of my work with Co-operatives UK, I’ve helped to set up a peer mentoring programme which pays and supports established community energy projects to help new ones get off the ground. And, alongside this practical help, I’ve worked with our peer mentors and their protégées to provide a much needed voice back to government.

My new report for Co-operatives UK recognises the steps that DECC has taken to put community energy on the map, including the 2014 publication of the UK’s first ever Community Energy Strategy. But it also reveals a frustrating picture: of inconsistent regulation, constant uncertainty and unnecessary bureaucracy. As one group told me, “we fight every step of the way”. Despite strong support from ministers, politicians and public opinion, we still don’t have a policy framework that nurtures community energy solutions.

The report is full of quotes straight from the horse’s mouth about what needs to change. I hope those voices get heard above the hubbub of the established energy crowd.

@Bankfieldbecky

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