Michael Lewis, chief executive, Eon UK Company strategy, Customers, Energy retail, Low-carbon generation, Policy, Policy & regulation, Regulation, Solar, Wind, Opinion, Michael Lewis, Eon

"Over the last 10 years, we’ve invested more than £2.5 billion in renewable energy in the UK"

There is a common view that things like evolution or even climate change happen gradually, imperceptibly, over time and can’t easily be observed over the short-term. But government statistics show that efforts to combat climate change – in the energy sector, not least – have moved, and moved quickly, with real impact.

Since 1990, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 41 per cent – carbon dioxide is down over a third. Emissions related to energy supplies also fell 57 per cent over that time. Declining coal use has pushed UK carbon emissions to levels last consistently seen in 1890.

In my time at Eon – Powergen when I joined as an environmental specialist 25 years ago – renewable energy was seen as a niche set of technologies. It’s taken time, but we’ve taken those technologies mainstream; we’ve made sustainability business as usual.

We picked those technologies where scale and cost reductions could allow renewables to compete on a level playing field with fossil fuels. Offshore wind is now at a record-low price, enabling renewables to truly compete with other energy sources. Onshore wind and solar are even cheaper and should continue to be deployed at scale where there is local support, so UK consumers won’t necessarily pay more than is needed to successfully decarbonise the power system.

Our past performance on renewable energy, networks and new solutions and services to customers mirrors the massive shift in the UK and elsewhere towards renewables and other new technologies.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve invested more than £2.5 billion in renewable energy in the UK, building major onshore and offshore wind projects such as the London Array in the Thames, and Rampion off the south coast. We’ve developed clean tariffs that let customers benefit from energy supplied from 100 per cent renewable sources and we’re developing city-based solutions such as our Blackburn Meadows plant in Sheffield that uses waste wood to power the local grid as well as feeding heat to a district scheme in the Lower Don Valley.

Changing times

Last year 90 per cent of the 4 billion kWh of power generated in the UK came from renewable sources. Indeed, the UK saw its first day – 21 April 2017 – without coal power since the industrial revolution. Just a month later – 26 May – the UK reached its highest recorded level of solar generation at 8.7GW: around a quarter of total demand at the time. That is change you can see.

At Eon we believe our capabilities are better deployed where there is still a problem to be solved, so we need to turn to transport and heating. For example, transport has not progressed as quickly and finds itself the largest contributor to UK emissions. In the last reporting year of 2015/16, transport emissions increased by 2 per cent on the previous year.

Here too, the energy system is providing a solution. Even without reaching for the stars like Elon Musk, electric vehicles are the game changer – swapping petrol and diesel vehicles for alternatives that are low-emission by nature, that have little or no impact on air quality in our city streets and are fuelled by an ever-greener energy grid or directly by homes and businesses using solar panels, battery technology and other lower carbon solutions.

Improving competitiveness

It’s worth noting while the UK has cut emissions by more than 40 per cent, our economy has grown during that time by more than two-thirds – the best of any G7 nation.

This pleases me no end and reminds me business can make long-term sustainable change happen while also improving competitiveness in global markets. This is precisely why it is so vital that a planned price cap is developed and set in the right way – we need to get this right, so companies can make a fair return and have the confidence to invest in future energy solutions such as helping to enable the EV revolution.

We want to build on success, which is why customer solutions are at the heart of our ambitious strategy across the UK, Europe and around the world, ensuring our customers at home, in business or across entire communities and cities, are well-placed to take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by the switch to a low-carbon economy.

From our city-wide partnership to help deliver a zero emission Berlin by 2050 to our flexible CHP and e-mobility solutions for businesses in Britain or our deployment of cutting-edge smart home systems in Malmö, we have many live examples of where we are already sharing experiences with our customers and working together now to create a better tomorrow.

Michael Lewis will be speaking at Utility Week Energy Summit in Westminster in June