Looking back to look forward


Courtesy of Energy Institute (EI)

In 2014 we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the oldest of the Energy Institute’s predecessor organisations. We have been publishing throughout the year interviews with eminent figures from the world of energy, reflecting on how the past can inform the future. This month, Dorothy Thompson writes from a power generator currently converting from coal to biomass – Drax.

Dorothy Thompson joined Drax in September 2005. She was previously the head of the European business of InterGen NV, the power generation subsidiary of Shell NV and Bechtel, responsible for the management and operation of four gas-fired power plants, totalling some 3,160 MW of capacity across the UK and the Netherlands. Prior to joining InterGen in 1998, Thompson was initially in banking and subsequently was Assistant Group Treasurer for Powergen.

How would you characterise the key challenges facing the energy industry and society today? It is now an over-used phrase but the so-called energy trilemma: how best to balance supply security, affordability and sustainability, notably climate change abatement, still sums up the main challenges the energy industry faces.

However, too frequently policies are designed for one objective without taking account of the other two. Policies designed to deliver sustainability through climate change abatement often fail to address affordability and security of supply. Such policies are not sustainable in the true sense of the word because, if the solution to a problem is prohibitively expensive or not secure, it cannot be sustainable.

An example of what I mean by that can be seen by the type of electricity generation mix the UK is developing. Many low carbon technologies are intermittent like wind and solar or inflexible like nuclear. Our requirement for electricity however, is neither intermittent nor stable. We are building a renewable electricity system which may not have the characteristics to meet our needs. There is a pressing need t|o bring forward more dispatchable, low carbon generation, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and sustainable biomass. The alternative will be that we have to turn back to fossil fuels to fill the gap. In the long run that may lead to an electricity system which is less secure, potentially more expensive and ultimately not as low carbon as it could have been.

How can the industry use the experience of the past to plot the future?
It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase: 'The further you look back the farther forward you are likely to see* but, almost as if to prove the point, the farther you look back in history the more versions of this phrase you will come across. There are certainly patterns of behaviour which repeat themselves and can be used to plot the future.

A good example of this is the way the industry faced the acid rain challenge in the 1980s and how the lessons from that influenced the way we at Drax faced the challenge of climate change. The key lesson for me was the central role of innovation in meeting these challenges and the need to take bold decisive action. This proved successful and the industry tackled the problem through the installation of flue gas desulphurisation at power stations like Drax. Fast forward 25 years and the industry is facing a similarly difficult problem in climate change. Clearly the specific technologies used to solve the problem are different, but the importance of innovation and the knowledge that bold decisive action will pay dividends, are common to both challenges.

So not to consider the experience of the past would be cavalier but it's not enough on its own to simply look back. Another leader, Abraham Lincoln, said: The best way to predict your future is to create it* and I think there is truth in that too. It is not always enough to re-learn old lessons. Sometimes you need to take a step back and re-appraise your situation from a new perspective. That is what we had to do at Drax.

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