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Should we believe the hype when it comes to Government competitions?

Written by Tom Reynolds, Account Director at Madano's Energy Practice.

A new competition to support the development of battery technology – the Faraday Challenge – announced last week, provided Greg Clark with an opportunity to sign-off for the summer on a ‘high’, provide industry with some positive news, and distract us briefly from the obvious “Brexit” challenges the country faces.

However, given the Government’s recent track record when it comes to running competitions, is this latest one from BEIS any different?

Many wonder, what ever happened to the small modular reactor (SMR) competition? Launched over a year ago, it remains to be seen how this will move forward. Given events over the last 12 months or so – Brexit and the General Election – the lack of progress is understandable and for now it would seem that we are in the midst of a hiatus.

With the newly announced battery competition, what is different? One element that indicates that the Government is learning from past experience is the clear structure put in place.

The Faraday Challenge competition has been neatly divided into three work streams through which money can be channelled – research, innovation and scale-up.

In contrast, Phase One of the SMR competition has involved so many different technologies, no wonder BEIS has found itself comparing apples to oranges in some cases.

It is of course easy to make such observations with the benefit of hindsight and although the SMR window of opportunity is closing, the Government still has time to turn things around. Perhaps the Faraday Challenge competition will give impetus for the SMR competition to be rebooted along similar lines.

That being said, one limitation of the Faraday Challenge competition is that it won’t go far enough to make a significant impact on development. Battery technology is not new and given the unfathomable amount of money and resources invested by industry and academia over decades, what will a first phase of £45 million investment actually achieve?

The same can also be said of efforts to support SMRs. The Government committed £250 million last year for nuclear R&D over five years, supposedly half of this would be for SMRs. It’s estimated that around £1 billion would be needed to take any given SMR technology from design through to commercialisation.

Even when some technology vendors have significantly progressed their development programmes, it’s clear that any contribution from Government only scratches the surface.

Nevertheless, a £45 million first phase investment for battery technology (of a total pot of £246 million) – a technology that will no doubt play a very important role in our future, whether it be for electric vehicles, energy storage or everyday devices – is nothing to be sniffed at.

When it comes to developing innovative technologies, ultimately industry will need to drive things forward. So in terms of any Government contribution, if we are to be optimistic, let’s be realistically optimistic.