Welcome to the third article in RenEnergy’s Future Voices content series. Every month, we’ll be talking to a different individual with a clear vision on how we can safeguard the future of the planet. Our Future Voice this month is Nigel Cornwall. Nigel founded leading energy consultancy firm, Cornwall Insight. He now runs community energy consultancy, New Anglia Energy, and contributes actively to the conversation on shaking up energy systems in East Anglia.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’ve worked in the energy sector for the past 35 years. I started life as a civil servant, working on energy service reforms. I spent the last 20 years growing my own business, Cornwall Insight. I built this energy consultancy from just me to a team of 80 people based in Norwich, Melbourne, and Dublin.
I’ve taken a step back from that over the last three to four years, and have chosen to focus on decentralising and decarbonising regional energy systems. Most of this work is conducted through New Anglia Energy: a community energy consultancy, supporting local energy markets in Norfolk and Suffolk.
I’m also working on some interesting projects embracing hydrogen energy infrastructure in our region. It’s a pleasure to get back to focusing on things that I enjoy, such as changing programs and pushing the change agenda, rather than the day-to-day of running a business.
How did you end up where you are now?
I studied Modern History at Oxford University, intending to become an archivist afterwards. I didn’t plan to join the civil service, but it turned out to be a very fortunate move. As a junior civil servant in 1982, I was lucky to receive lots of motivation and autonomy from my managers. I immediately got involved in some interesting policy-centred projects. My first piece of legislation was the Energy Act 1983, which was the first attempt to allow open access to the electricity market.
After many years in the civil service, I moved into the private sector. While working as a regulatory manager with the National Grid, I was seconded overseas. I spent five years working actively on energy market reform in New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
In 1998 I returned to England and started working as an independent energy consultant, then launching my own company. Cornwall Insight is considered a great regional success story, but I’m not originally from this part of the country. A chance holiday on the Blickling Estate in 2000 led me to resettle here.
Can you tell us more about New Anglia Energy?
I founded New Anglia Energy while I was still running things at Cornwall Insight. I officially left the board earlier this year, but have been stepping back for the last three years. While decentralised and decarbonised energy are interests of mine, my work through New Anglia Energy also helped Cornwall Insight diversify into the low carbon agenda.
New Anglia Energy explores energy market innovation in East Anglia, working closely with the LEP and local authorities. Our work is concerned with transforming the energy market through the use of the four Ds:
Decentralisation: localised energy ‘grids’ are more efficient than centralised ones, often with more competitive prices and less threat of downtime.
Digitisation: applying technology such as cloud computing and blockchain to manage energy systems more effectively.
Democratisation: making clean and affordable energy available for all.
Decarbonisation: If we are to reach net-zero carbon, all energy must be net-zero, too.
I am a big advocate of these four principles, and New Anglia Energy is my vehicle for such market transformation.
However, this is not my only project. Over the last six months, I have become involved in Hydrogen East: a new body exploring the potential of hydrogen energy in East Anglia. When produced using renewable energy, hydrogen is a clean fuelling option for larger vehicles (transit, public transportation, etc). Blue hydrogen produced in combination with carbon capture and storage also has an important transitional role to play. Since East Anglia is one of the world’s largest producers of offshore wind energy, Hydrogen East proposes that surplus energy produced in the North Sea be used to supply local markets.
Despite our recent launch, Hydrogen East is already attracting a lot of attention. So far we are collaborating with oil and gas stakeholders at Bacton and EDF at Sizewell to create local low carbon infrastructure, and have also launched our Hydrogen Highways initiative: a project to create hydrogen fuelling points running from east to west of the region.
Is there anything particularly interesting going on in East Anglia when it comes to fighting climate change?
Yes, plenty. As well as groups such as Hydrogen East and New Anglia Energy, our region is home to world-leading scientists and research into climate change.
While East Anglia has plenty of green initiatives, some of these pushes are perhaps a little isolated. If you look at the interactive map of community energy projects on Community Energy England, you’ll see that our region is very poorly represented.
I have made it one of my personal objectives to join up energy and climate change initiatives in the region. While there’s plenty of hard work happening here, these organisations and groups aren’t working together and I think we need a systems-based approach to negotiate that. We also need to share access to skills and infrastructure to help projects scale up.
What are some achievable steps that businesses or organisations can take to operate more sustainably?
The fight against global warming requires change at both an individual and systemic level. Reducing our carbon emissions by 80% was already very hard, but instigating the behavioural changes needed to achieve net-zero by 2050 is a profound challenge. Everyone can start by being more aware of their own carbon footprint. I think those within the energy sector, especially, could be accused of not practising what they preach.
I have personally started to pay much more attention to my carbon footprint. As we speak, it’s a Friday afternoon, it’s windy, and the sun is shining. Therefore, I have set my EV charger and washing machine to start at times when there will be an abundance of energy and low demand. By being more organised, I can achieve the things I need to do anyway while saving a few quid and supporting the system.
What do you think is the single most important change that must be made for the world to manage the climate crisis?
We need a fundamental knowledge shift and resetting of expectations if we are to make any kind of climate recovery work.
Public awareness is increasing. Relative to where we were two years ago, most people see that extreme weather events across the world are linked, and recognise that the climate is already changing. However, people who keep abreast of climate change news can see that the planet is already changing much faster and greater than scientists predicted.
I am a great watcher of policy, and I engage well with policy-makers, but I feel that global political policy has not yet grasped the severity of the climate crisis. And until it does, any progress made will be fraught. We need more institutionalised solutions, with problem-solving powers devolved among local authorities and delivery bodies.
At the moment, there seems to be a lot of political ‘fudging’. Things like carbon budgets aren’t comprehensive enough, so we’re not able to accurately measure progress, and policy is inconsistent. At the start of lockdown, one of the few good news stories was the improvement in air quality. And yet the government’s strategy for building back better includes the creation of more roads. We seem to have a disconnect here.
In your opinion, are local authorities doing enough to respond to the climate crisis?
Some are, some aren’t. I know Norwich is very proud of its award-winning green initiative, but we can still do more. Progress is much slower than it needs to be. Local authorities are notoriously poorly-funded, so, despite their good intentions, they are often unable to deliver due to a lack of resources.
Do you think a top-down approach or grassroots impetus is more important in the fight against climate change?
Both are important. In an ideal world, we’d have a lot more leadership on climate change, supported by the right policy. However, changing policy takes time and is unfortunately weighed down by corporate interests. The scale of the challenge necessitates that everyone is aware of the changing world around them and does their bit to tackle the problem.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee. If you’d like to be part of RenEnergy’s Future Voices series, email Melissa.