As the Extinction Rebellion continues to cause havoc in London, is it time for utilities leaders to challenge themselves on whether they are doing enough to bring the full weight of their organisational potential behind tackling climate change?

If ever there was a time for soul searching for utilities executives, this is it.

The so-called Extinction Rebellion (XR) has caused havoc in London as protesters rage against the institutional inertia they see all around them to a barefaced threat to our planet and our society. Utilities have found themselves in the firing line with Shell’s windows smashed and Drax’s AGM attracting hostility.

Meanwhile, on the BBC, the more measured but equally tortured tones of Sir David Attenborough set out more plainly than ever before his view, alongside those of eminent scientists from around the globe, that we are rapidly running out of time to keep climate change within manageable limits for the continuity of our existing civilisations.

Any utility leader in the UK would happily tell you that they are keen to do their bit to combat climate change. Bit is this bit enough?

It is patently clear that energy and water lie at the heart of our climate change challenge. Our long history of reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity and to heat our homes alongside our unsustainable consumption of water for domestic and industrial purposes are key conspirators behind the runaway environmental disaster we are now riding.

It is easy therefore to see why impassioned protesters – and the public at large – should expect more radical action from our utilities than a willingness to contribute to the cause.

Of course, not all utilities are equal in this light. There are those within the sector who I would not be surprised to hear had thrown in their lot with the protesters – largely in the new entrant sphere. Such individuals are writhing with frustration at what they see as endless road mapping and prevarication on decarbonising where decisive action could be taken. All we need, they say, is bravery enough to turn away from profitable but damaging business models and throw all efforts behind low carbon technologies.

There are a few large companies that have done just this. But of course, it is not so easy. Aligning investors, the board, management and all employees behind a new organisational vision is one the most challenging things business leaders can be asked to do. Then too, regulatory frameworks and a responsibility to ensure continuity of supply mean that some utilities cannot pivot with the agility they might like.

But there is a question of collective boldness to be answered. Utilities have critical assets and influence. They have immense reserves of engineering ingenuity.

While huge steps have been taken to decarbonise power generation in recent years, it cannot be denied that we are behind the curve in terms of getting to grips with the wider challenges we need to address to meet 2050 targets.

With greater boldness in leadership, with greater conviction that there is a pressing need to change the way we as a society consume natural resources, could this sector further accelerate the appreciation of experience curve effects for new technologies? Could it shift 100 per cent of its efforts behind decarbonisation and deflect accusations of greenwash? Could it be the driving force rather than the facilitator behind our transition to a low – or zero – carbon future?

Transition is the headline theme for Utility Week Live 2019. Find out more about the show and register to attend at utilityweeklive.co.uk

Letter from the Editor: Earth calling utilities 

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