ourEconomy: Analysis

It’s time for the renewables industry to get dirty

The industry must step up and beat fossil fuels at their own game. Here’s the plan

Joseph K. Bennett
8 November 2021, 12.00am
The renewables industry needs to fight back against fossil fuels
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Ian Rutherford / Alamy Stock Photo

We know that fossil fuels must be left in the ground and that a zero carbon society will need to be powered substantially by renewable energy. We also know that fossil fuel companies are actually planning to scale up production and that the actions of governments and banks are helping to entrench fossil fuels further. These tensions are especially visible during COP26, for the UK and many other states.

How does the fossil fuel industry get away with this? The answer is that fossil fuel companies do not play by the rules of ‘the market’ as it is usually understood, but convert their massive economic power into political power and vice versa.

It’s no secret that fossil fuel companies are very active in lobbying. In fact, they don’t just lobby, but are deeply engaged in ‘upstream’ political activities. These include (allegedly) funding think tanks that shape a friendly media, helped by aligned groups promoting complementary industries like cars, roads and gas boilers. The fossil fuel industry benefits all over the industrialised world from this political landscape.

The renewable energy industry, meanwhile, prioritises ‘market’ solutions and offers itself as a market solution – which underestimates the extent to which fossil fuel interests rig the market for themselves. Although they engage in some lobbying activities, with long-standing industry groups in Scotland and the rest of the UK, renewable companies spend relatively little on this. Several of the very largest companies appear not to be members of the established lobbying groups.

The renewables industry lacks the reach, ruthlessness and broad horizons of its fossil fuel competitors. The result of this reticence is that renewables have a much weaker voice than they might.

And it isn’t all about PR and political engagement – parts of the renewables industry are being gently co-opted into ‘junior partner’ roles to fossil fuels in a range of areas, which is both strategic madness and dreadful optics. If fossil fuel companies make strategic investments in clean technology, you can be sure it is not with the intention of replacing their core business.

I have spent almost 20 years working in the UK’s renewable energy and infrastructure sector. Here is what I think the renewables industry needs to do, if it wants to push back against fossil fuels and actually begin to replace them:

1) Stop helping them

The renewables industry should stop helping fossil fuels greenwash their portfolios.

Fossil fuel majors are not entering into collaborative projects like this joint venture between Shell and Iberdrola to help renewable energy replace oil and gas as the leading energy source. Renewable energy chiefs should not get involved in collaborative projects with the fossil fuel industry unless they clearly and measurably wind down and close a part of that industry – such as providing renewable power to a time-limited decommissioning project.

Special caution should be taken over joint ventures with oil and gas companies. Commercially, these are likely to involve restrictions on using any designs developed within the joint venture later. This would be especially bad for something like floating offshore wind, which could be on the verge of game-changing new platform designs. Joint venture contracts also usually place a non-criticism obligation on the renewable energy partner. All of this further curtails the ability of the renewables sector to wield its own power to affect public and political opinion.

These projects also look terrible, and contribute to extremely damaging public perceptions that renewable energy is a scam, or not really a replacement for fossil fuels.

2) Invest in a think tank

A think tank could help coordinate how the renewables industry positions itself towards developing stories and long-term trends. It could operate a media grid to get ahead of the news and build helpful narratives.

It could carry out political planning and liaison, throw dinners, run events, write research papers, and propose ready-drafted policies to benefit renewables generally. There is reportedly a high degree of coordination between the various ‘libertarian’ think tanks and institutes organised around fossil fuels. There ought to be some effort to organise one in opposition.

3) Promote complementary systems

Fossil fuel companies ensure that high-carbon infrastructure like airports, roads and gas boilers (which lock in long-term need for their product) expand, while reasonable alternatives like new rail and heat pumps are blocked, with supporters of those industries duly smeared. See how this Telegraph front page on heat pumps follows the line of this campaign funded by lobby group Global Warming Policy Forum so closely – or how the current gas price crisis has often been framed as an indictment of climate change policies.

Much plausible evidence suggests a world running substantially on renewable energy will not be able to power existing transport, heating and other systems on a one-to-one replacement basis. Renewables companies should assist in promoting alternative systems that are sustainable. Decentralised systems in particular tend not to complement fossil fuel generation but could be well-suited to distributed renewable energy.

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Governments, financial institutions and ‘the market’ are not going to deliver the future to the door of renewable energy unbidden

Municipal bodies may be interested in long-term ownership of wind, solar or even tidal projects to power local public transport like trams or electric buses – and the industry could take an interest in the legislative changes that would make that easier.

Well-insulated houses and heat pumps help to make the electrification of domestic heating viable. Obviously, anything that enhances grid scale storage – facilities that can store and re-supply large amounts of electricity back to the grid – has a direct benefit for renewable energy. In contrast, the push for ‘blue hydrogen’ and hydrogen grids seems driven by gas interests, which see the development of the infrastructure as a route to gaming the regulator and selling more natural gas.

4) Know who your political friends are, and are not

Let me not dance around the point. The great majority of the bodies through which fossil fuel companies convert their great economic power into political power are conservative think tanks and forums. The industry understands implicitly which political tendencies will help it.

Renewables companies almost certainly don’t want to be seen to be ‘party political’, and I agree that this is not a desirable orientation. But political engagement is much wider than support for party platforms. Arm’s-length research, social media campaigns, think tanks,’institutes’, and even litigation can all be funded at one remove if that is what companies want.

5) Break structural links with fossil fuel groups, and make that a selling point

Many renewable energy businesses, such as SSE Renewables, are owned as part of fossil fuel groups. They will be curtailed from competing with, or criticising, fossil fuels in their public communications because of who their shareholders are.

The renewables industry should look to break these businesses away from fossil fuel or mixed utility ownership through management buy-outs or similar. These could be funded by ethical banks (and the many non-ethical banks under mounting pressure to take climate action). The more the renewables industry positions itself as a viable, independent successor to fossil fuels, the more lenders will see it as that, opening up new funding, and further opportunities to counter fossil fuel dominance.

6) Align with climate litigation and help it along

Climate change litigation has resulted in some really promising rulings, most notably the Netherlands’ court ruling against Shell based on its climate plan this year. More and bigger cases are likely. The law is not sufficient by itself to turn the tide on fossil fuel dominance, but these cases signify big potential shifts in how states may change their orientation towards the fossil fuel incumbents.

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The renewables industry should boost these courts’ findings to the public, and be ready to capitalise on the disruptions that climate litigation will create. The industry could also help to fund climate litigation, but it appears not to at present – there are no renewables companies listed as funders for the Paid to Pollute case, for example.

7) Material reality is helping you

Concerned you don’t have the funding to mount sophisticated campaigns and years-long misinformation battles like the oil and gas majors can? You don’t have to! Look at the work being done by volunteers and activist organisations. These are gifts to your industry.

There are scandals involving fossil fuel industry influence being exposed constantly by professional journalists like those from openDemocracy (as well as Unearthed and Desmog), and academics (like Geoffrey Supran and Ketan Joshi). This is not to advocate that renewable energy companies become activists. Plainly, there is a core business that must be looked after. But for any renewable energy executives reading this who may think that wider engagement with the political sphere is inappropriate, I simply ask you to look at what your competitors are doing, and have been doing for decades.

Oil and gas companies are not giving you a leg-up. They plan to co-opt you at best. Governments, financial institutions and ‘the market’ are not going to deliver the future to the door of renewable energy unbidden. The good news is there are unprecedented opportunities in political engagement right now – if we grasp them.

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