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Sustainable energy shouldn't make businesses feel green

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While it is now clear that the UK must do more to create its own energy, there is no consensus as to how and where this energy should be produced. Each possibility poses its own concerns – has ‘fracking’ been suitably tested? What if nuclear goes wrong? How long can we rely on fossil fuels? And, although renewable energy is a nice idea, who wants a wind/solar farm in their back garden?

Despite news that MS Power Projects Ltd is to build south-Essex’s first major solar farm in Laindon, with further proposals in Wix, Landermere and Thorpe, Essex as a whole appears unconvinced by ‘green’ energy. Although there are already around half a dozen schemes planned for the region, more than 600 campaigners signed a petition against a proposed farm in Halstead. The majority of objections stem from an understandable desire to preserve the area’s agricultural heritage and protect ‘natural beauty’. Of course it is possible to contend that the objectors are talking a ‘short term view’ and that if we do not all act against further climate change then that heritage and those views will be lost. Perhaps there is a ‘greater good’?

But sustainable energy’s biggest challenge, it seems, is that most people still perceive ‘green’ as costly, inefficient and unprofitable – arguably an outdated and unjustified viewpoint. Only when this attitude changes and businesses start to think not of the economy and green matters, but of the green economy, that headlines will concentrate on the benefits of these projects – which in many cases are more persuasive than the detriments.

For example, the Laindon project will create jobs and will generate enough energy for more than 2,300 homes at a greatly reduced cost for 30 years. This is on an area of 22 acres, which is dwarfed by the proposed Halstead site, measured at 300 acres. Furthermore, even owners of commercial premises or large estates in land can exploit their assets to earn themselves free electricity and generate additional revenues from more modestly-scaled solar installations.

There are also a wide range of grants available for SMEs (up to £10K) to invest in resource efficiency projects. At a recent seminar hosted by Birkett Long, Low Carbon Business outlined how numerous SMEs had already recouped their outlay in efficiency savings, well within the 3 years targeted. Reduced energy, material or waste management costs coupled with an increase in capacity, compliance or revenue streams can mean real business and environmental benefits in one hit.

Yet the firms who work with these grants have not been inundated with requests to take advantage of the offer. One factor for this may be the economic downturn, which has discouraged investment, especially for smaller companies who cannot afford to take the risk. But all too often the implication is that ‘green’ is something superfluous to requirements and that costs will outweigh benefits. Although Low Carbon Business has already helped with £1.7 million of EU grants in the region to date, it is necessary to remind businesses that profitability is often integral to ‘green’ interventions. Perhaps rebranding ‘green’ to ‘eco-Commerce’ would help?

When considering energy source alternatives as part of a bigger picture, it is difficult to deny that the UK’s best bet is to use a combination of each source – making an increase in renewable energy inevitable. Consequently the prevalent discussion for sustainable energy is not ‘NIMBY’ but to determine which potential UK sites are best placed to maximise energy production whilst minimising environmental impact. There is every chance that several of these will be in Essex, meaning local businesses ignoring opportunities today will miss out on future profits.