Doctor in the house

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:
Dr Nina Skorupska CBE, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association

The Renewable Energy Association’s CEO discusses the positive environmental potential of energy storage, the fallout of the Brexit vote, why separating food waste is an issue that deserves real action, and the controversial Hinkley Point C decision. Geraldine Faulkner reports

There are contradictions in everyone’s lives and none more so than in that of Dr Nina Skorupska CBE, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association. A biochemist with more than 25 years in the energy industry, and a vegetarian, in the course of her career she has had to run tests on organic materials such as meat and bone meal, and although committed to the ethos of renewable energy has worked at sites such as natural-gas-fuelled Didcot B Power Station – natural gas of course being a fossil fuel along with crude oil and coal.

But to take an industry in a new direction, you have to understand where it is coming from and Dr Skorupska is eminently well qualified to do so.

When RWW caught up with her, the chief executive had just returned from South Korea where she had been the chair of a special session on energy storage as part of Global Green Growth Week.

“It’s a follow-on from the UN Climate Change Conference where ministers and leading lights of the climate change movement gathered on Jeju Island to discuss how South East Asia and its impacted areas could be helped by renewable energy and energy storage. It was humbling to hear the countries’ aspirations and exciting to talk about technologies for island nations and how energy storage could help,” explains the Polish-born biochemist.

Managing energy

When I look puzzled, Dr Skorupska explains that: “Energy storage is about storing electricity. For instance, if solar PV is producing too much during the day, you can store it in batteries. Energy storage is about energy management when you want to hold back what you produce. However, a great deal has to be done to look at the economics, particularly as energy storage is already viable in some parts of the market. Heat storage is also a growing area.”

But like everyone else in industry, the chief executive was obliged to put topics such as energy storage temporarily on hold when the announcement was made on June 23 that the UK had voted for Brexit. “Leading up to Brexit, I had said to my policy team, ‘We think we’re going to vote to remain, but if it’s Brexit we need to pull the members together and listen to them.’ As a trade association with over 700 member organisations, we have to put together a framework as to what is the right way forward, putting in place milestones, a process of how to gather the information, and how to position ourselves,” states Dr Skorupska.

She pauses before adding: “We want to provide that unified voice for the government, which wants to engage with industry. The civil servants are also in a state of shock and they want to engage with a reputable partner like ourselves. That is the first step. Like the rest of the community we are waiting to see the direction taken by the new government and to work with them.”

Two of the REA’s members, SUEZ and Eunomia Research & Consulting, published a report last month that argued how more than £9 billion could be added to the UK economy by integrating circular economy principles into the country’s emerging industrial strategy. Entitled A Resourceful Future – Expanding the UK Economy, it aims to be the first comprehensive assessment of the long-term direction of travel for the recycling and waste management industry following the EU membership referendum earlier this year. The report proposes a series of policy measures directed at the newly formed Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) as it considers how to reinvigorate the UK’s industrial fortunes.

Dr Skorupska nods when I mention the report. “We benefit from members like SUEZ and Eunomia and their expertise. We need more certainty and, as Donald Rumsfeld said: ‘There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.’ Every business in the REA will make its own case and our job is to pull them together.”

Best practice

When it comes to low-cost renewable energy generated by waste, the chief executive points to examples of best practice such as Peterborough, where Viridor has built an 85,000tpa energy recovery facility close to the city’s power station, which has a generating capacity of 7.25 megawatts and which brings Peterborough a step closer to a decentralised energy network.

“Nottingham and Robin Hood Energy is also providing its residents with a more decentralised delivery solution. They are doing it to help people and it’s a societal thing, but it also has to make money,” she notes.

A not-for-profit company with no private shareholders, Robin Hood Energy was launched by Nottingham City Council to provide low-cost energy to its householders.

“Energy companies such as these are not an ‘either or’,” says the chief executive firmly. “But an ‘and’ along with the very large energy companies that have large assets.”

She expresses regret, however, over the lack of enthusiasm by regulating bodies in England to make it obligatory to separate out food waste.

“We know there’s an initial outlay and that it’s challenging to introduce change, but it is disappointing that England has not made it mandatory to separate out food like Wales and Scotland. The new government could trigger new ways and bring it to the attention of people and introduce cleverer ways to do it. It’s concerning that much of the recyclables cannot be reused.”

The biochemist points out that a move towards the separate collection of food waste in England will require a concerted push from the waste industry, forward-thinking councils and a framework from the government.

“It can’t be done overnight,” she states. “But it needs to be done soon. The point of general refuse-derived fuel, straw, food waste and different combinations of organic waste is to deliver calorific value with some of it being fossil-derived and some of it renewable. As we are all going to continue to produce waste, let’s make the most of it.”

Demonstrating that climate change needs to be addressed in a practical way and not simply by taking the high moral ground,

Dr Skorupska notes: “Climate change is not on the everyday agenda, but people in this industry are doing their best to reduce our impact on climate change and it’s important that we do it in a marketable way.

“If you want to have a sustained process, people need to make an investment in building infrastructure that is not undermined by changes in government and subsidies that chop and change. The majority of businesses want to do it in a common sense and respectable way.”

Nor do businesses appreciate the heavy-handed approach sometimes taken by the regulator.

“The environment agencies tend to treat people as cowboys and introduce regulations that are not workable,” says the chief executive in a tone that brooks no argument.

The recent announcement that Hinkley received the UK government’s go-ahead prompted a no-nonsense response from Dr Skorupska: “Renewables such as solar, onshore wind and biomass are already cheaper than nuclear, are quicker to deploy, and have none of the construction or economic risk. From the time Hinkley Point C was proposed to now we’ve seen extraordinary advancements in technology, falling costs, and high deployment rates. Since the project’s initial consultation in 2008 the UK has gone from producing less than 6% of its electricity from renewables to over 25% in the first quarter of 2016. Our analysis shows that for nearly every renewable technology, the equivalent amount of capacity could be procured at much lower cost using renewables.

“While we welcome a diverse low-carbon energy mix, we urge the government to consider the costs and support other industries in which the UK could be a global leader, such as energy storage.”

The chief executive points out that when former secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Davey was arguing the case for the construction of Hinkley Point C four years ago, the government wanted to make a decision that was energy- and technology-neutral.

“We’ve moved on,” reiterates Dr Skorupska. “Solar PV has come down in price and energy storage is on the threshold of playing an exciting role. It can help existing fossil and renewable plants optimise efficiency – for example, when many fossil plants ramp up and down their power production it means fuel is burnt less efficiently, releasing more emissions. Storage can also reduce the need for the construction of new ‘peaker’ gas plants that lay dormant until times when demand spikes.”

With her experience of having worked in the fossil-fuel-generated energy sector, who better than a ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’ like the REA’s chief executive to promote the interests of renewable energy?

Five things I can't live without...

My husband Martin (Tedd): It will be our silver anniversary on Christmas Eve and I could not have asked for a better partner for all my life adventures.

Working with amazing people: I have had the good fortune to be part of great teams and to have also had the privilege to lead them.

Living by the sea: My husband and I have fulfilled a life-long dream to renovate a beautiful building on the coast and make it our eco home. As soon as I step through the door and see this view, I find all the weight of my responsibilities sit more lightly on my shoulders.

My friends and family spread across the UK, Europe and beyond: We may not see each other every day, but sharing in their lives enhances my life.

My signed copy of The Big Five for Life by John P Strelecky

Fact file: Dr Nina Skorupska CV

Dr Skorupska is a chemist with more than 25 years in the energy industry. She joined National Power in 1993 as a fuel specialist and moved through the ranks to become the first female power station manager of RWE npower’s Didcot B. Since then she has led a UK energy trading team, been director of technology services, spent time in Germany as RWE Group’s director of performance improvement, and then the Netherlands where she was chief technology officer at Essent NV, a wholly owned company of RWE Group and the Netherlands’ largest energy company. There she was responsible for its entire generation fleet, innovation, R&D and renewable energy developments. Dr Skorupska joined the REA as chief executive in
July 2013.

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