Q4 2020 Newsletter: Hope, Hype and Hydrogen

Published 23 Dec 2020

What a year. As I write this, I am once again locked down in Switzerland. My mum, whom I was supposed to pick up from London and bring here, is stuck in London. Still, things could be worse, we are all in good health.

The news cycle is dominated by President Trump’s extended and undignified departure from the White House and the rollout of more than one effective Coronavirus vaccines. Both are good news stories, though only when seen through the lens of what came before. It will be years before we fully understand the carnage wrought on the global economy and the US political system by the events of 2020.

As you would expect, amidst the craziness of the electoral cycle and the trauma of the pandemic, I’ve been super-busy since my last newsletter. This edition is a bit longer than normal, because I missed sending one out in Q3. So this is a bumper edition covering Q3 and Q4.

I’ll start with a few of the topics on which I have been focusing this year…


Energy Efficiency

One of by-products of this weird year, for me, was that I finally gave energy efficiency the profile it has long deserved in my work. With so much money due to be spent on green stimulus plans around the world, I have been doing my best to ensure that they don’t just focus on long-term projects and shiny political objects, but that they gave a central role to energy efficiency.

My June 2020 piece for BloombergNEF Energy Efficiency Key to Covid Recovery got a fair amount of coverage, in particular the made-for-Twitter line “Energy Efficiency is the Swiss Army Knife of stimulus spending.”

On 23rd June, fresh from serving as a member of the IEA’s Commission on Urgent Energy Efficiency, I delivered the closing intervention at the organisation’s 5th Annual Summit on Energy Efficiency.

Then, on 1 July I did a keynote interview with Luke Menzel of Australia’s Energy Efficiency Council as part of their National Summit on Energy Efficiency and Australia’s Economic Recovery. It’s an hour long – but covers a lot of important ground, from heat pumps to Keynesian economics, and we have a bit of fun too. You can also listen to it on podcast.

And I continue to work on the practical application of energy efficiency via my advisory work with SDCL, whose CEO, Jonathan Maxwell was my guest for Episode 14 of Cleaning Up – of which more later.


Of hype and hydrogen

The world is going through one of its periodic rushes of blood to the head about hydrogen. It seems everyone is trying to get a seat at the table.

In October I published a double-header for BloombergNEF entitled “Separating Hype from Hydrogen”. In total it runs to 8,000 words – if you think that’s a lot to read, I agree! I have never worked so hard to figure out a topic. Even utility reform pales by comparison!

In Part I, I dived into the supply side – and the EU Hydrogen Strategy in particular. I concluded that, yes, green hydrogen (electrolyzed using renewable energy) will end up extremely cheap in a decade or two, but meanwhile don’t be too sniffy about blue hydrogen (from natural gas using CCS).

Part II dealt with the demand side, which is where things get controversial. I concluded that – to paraphrase the famous Heineken slogan of the 1970s and 1980s – hydrogen will decarbonize those parts of the energy system that electricity cannot reach – but no more. Hydrogen makes sense for fertiliser and chemicals, perhaps steel, aviation, shipping and grid backup. But it will find limited niches at most in land transport of any sort. It is a very poor solution for space heating – requiring five or six times as much renewable generating capacity as heat-pump based systems – and even industrial heating will be vastly more efficiently done using electricity directly rather than hydrogen.

There is no doubt we are going to see years of intense debate about the role of hydrogen, and huge sums (of both private and public money), thrown at the sector. There is a real risk of a hydrogen glut along the way: policy-makers will find it much easier to spur production than consumption, particularly if they focus on the wrong sectors.

In the end, physics and microeconomics will win versus lobbying by incumbent asset owners, as we have seen with renewable power and electric vehicles.



Trade is shooting up the agenda, what with the end of the Brexit transition at the end of this year, the arrival of a new US Administration and COP26 looking to put flesh on the bones of net zero commitments by almost all of the world’s major economies.

In September I was appointed advisor to the UK Board of Trade. This was the most senior committee advising the government on trade and commerce between 1622 and 1970. When the UK joined the European Economic Community, it was disbanded, but is now in the process of being reconstituted and resuming its role. Only privy counsellors can be official members of the Board – it is chaired by Liz Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade – the rest of us are appointed as advisors. It consists of eight ministers, the Right Hon Tony Abbott, the Lord Mayor of London and a number of leading figures from business and civic society.

On the day of the first meeting, I was invited to write an editorial for the Times Red Box, in which I described the priorities for which I will be pushing as part of my role.

While on the subject of trade, this week I finally took the time to document a little-known episode in the history of the long path to what I consider to be eventually inevitable: a free trade deal covering environmental goods and services. In 2009, I almost inadvertently revitalised discussions about a plurilateral deal which by 2014 resulted in WTO negotiations over an Environmental Goods Agreement. The negotiations failed in 2016, but a group of countries led by New Zealand are now reviving them under the guise of an Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability (ACCTS). Maybe the time is right to give the issue another push.

Finally, one from the archive: if anyone wants to know why the mantra “you can’t have infinite economic growth on a finite planet” is wrong, read my piece from 2017 entitled The Secret of Eternal Growth. It’s a full-blooded defence of the role of regulated markets and global trade in addressing climate change and other planetary boundaries.


Net zero pathways

One of the most notable trends this year has been, of course, the growing number of net zero pledges. By my reckoning the leaders of countries responsible for 71% of the global economy have now committed to net zero by 2050 or, in the case of China, 2060.

The UK was, of course, the first country to legislate for net zero. I’ve been asked to provide numerous off-the-record briefings with different parts of government – it is truly gratifying to see Her Majesty’s Civil Service getting stuck in to the task in a way that makes me very optimistic.

In October I wrote a piece for the Telegraph on the opportunities for the UK in this new world, entitled Time to double down to reach net zero.

Then, in November, the Climate Change Committee delivered its report on the Sixth Carbon Budget. Meanwhile, I served on a high-level Policy Advisory Group for the Committee, convened by Professor Cameron Hepburn (my guest on the very first episode of Cleaning Up) to produce an accompanying strategic report, which we titled Sensitive Intervention Points to achieve net-zero emissions.


Media appearances

Although I could not travel this year, there were no shortage of virtual speaking invitations. I don’t expect you to watch them all, but if you want to dip in, here are a selection of the best ones – at least where they were recorded and made generally available. Enjoy!

Early in the lockdown I had a really fun and wide-ranging chat with Robert Llewellyn, Kryten from Red Dwarf, who now hosts a wildly popular YouTube channel called Fully Charged. My interview on Fully Charged Plus has garnered nearly 5,000 views, making it probably my most-watched video appearance ever. Had I known, I would have shaved.

16th June, I helped open the online summit of the Cities Climate Finance Alliance, hosted by Barbara Buchner, Global Managing Director of the Climate Policy Institute (and guest on Episode 4 of Cleaning Up).

31st August, I delivered a keynote speech to the ONS Summit, a high-level biennial event for senior energy industry executives and policy-makers in Norway, that has been running since 1974. If you have 25 minutes and are looking for an overview of the Role of Sustainable Finance in the Energy Transition, 2020, this might be it.

7th September, Abu Dhabi-based Women in Sustainability Environment and Renewables (WiSER), where I serve on the Advisory Council, held its inaugural Wisdom Series webinar, during which I spoke on the role that women entrepreneurs will play in the sustainable recovery from COVID-19.

22nd September, the tables were turned and I was the subject of a very wide-ranging interview by Emily Kirsch, CEO of upcoming early stage VC Powerhouse, as part of the Energy Gang’s WattItTakes series. A deep dive into my background, and we talked a lot about inequality, inclusion and significance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

7th October saw the 2020 Swedbank Energy Summit. It’s a wonderful event, 25 years old now, which I have been helping to organise for a few years now. This was the first time it was held mainly online; you can see the whole thing here, or jump straight to my keynote “state of the nation” presentation.

16th October, We Care Solar and ImpactAlpha hosted a panel of international experts on renewable energy and finance, looking at how you could achieve a step-change increase in funding into energy solutions in the developing world, in particular targeting healthcare facilities – a topic close to my heart since setting up Project Bo (of which I’ll be talking more next year, I am sure).

11th November, I was the guest of the City of London Corporation on a panel at the Green Horizon Summit on financing innovation.

And finally, the last event of the year: 8th December, the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy hosted a fascinating discussion, keynoted by Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan, on the role of hydrogen in Canada’s energy future.


L’Affaire Astongate – fun with a serious message

At the end of November, British newspapers were filled with stories about how electric cars only break even on an emissions basis with petrol cars after 48,000 miles. Of course it’s utter nonsense, and Auke Hoekstra of Technical University Eindhoven (my guest on episode 15 of Cleaning Up) quickly established that the correct figure is nearer 16,000 miles.

That’s when things got interesting: I had a sniff around the Interweb, to see who was behind the misinformation. I won’t spoil it here because it really is worth reading the blow-by-blow story of my adventures as a sleuth.

Suffice to say Aston Martin and Bosch were probably not too pleased to find themselves on the front page of the Guardian.

A month later I wrote a follow-up, linking to a selection of the global coverage and discussing the implications. Spoiler alert: although Aston Martin was forced to respond to the media storm, not one of the outlets that covered the original misinformation has, to my knowledge, covered its correction.


Angel portfolio news

As I am sure you can imagine, it has not been the easiest year for start-ups. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, all of my angel portfolio companies seem to have survived, and some of them have done truly extraordinary things:


  • Zeelo. I wrote in my July newsletter about the team’s incredible pivot to providing Covid-safe corporate transit services. As we near the end of 2020, the company’s revenues are up around 3x on this time last year; it is nearing profitability on core operations, launching an SaaS product and starting up in the US. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade! If any institutional investors out there want information about Zeelo’s next funding round, drop me a line.


  • Cypher Coding. Another pivot that was a wonder to see – Cypher went from delivering its coding camps for kids in-person to on-line, without missing a beat – garnering some very nice media coverage in the process.


  • Modo Energy. Signing up the first subscription customers and industry partners for its information services – I know how that feels! Modo has started with asset optimisation data and analytics for batteries, but has big plans to extend its service to every type of power asset in turn. Go Quentin and team!


  • Chargepoint. At the end of September, the US’s leading EV charging network announced that it was going public by merging with a Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation (or SPAC) called Switchback Energy. Since then, Switchback’s share price has soared over 3x, making me a very happy man, but a nervous one – it will be many months before the deal completes and the lock-up ends. Champagne on ice, but no quaffing just yet.



Not every investment ends in success. December also saw the winding-up of Pearlshare, my second (and – I swear – last) traveltech start-up. We swapped it for some shares in a Spanish competitor, but… Covid. When this damn pandemic is over, I promise I’ll host a thank-you dinner for the investors. I would also like to thank co-founder James O’Day, who showed incredible resilience and leadership throughout Pearlshare’s life and death, and with whom I would happily work again any day.


And finally, Cleaning Up

At the end of my July newsletter, I left you with news of my lockdown project, a podcast and YouTube video series called Cleaning Up.

Over nearly two decades at the heart of the low-carbon transition I have met so many impressive people and made so many great friends. I wanted to reconnect with them, have a chat, maybe a drink, and share the results with a wider audience.

I have now hosted 23 guests on Series 1. We are starting to build a bit of a fan-base – we get up to 2,000 people watching or listening via podcast to each episode. Rather than just naming the highest-profile or most popular guests, I’ll list all the episodes so far – with links, so you can dive in as the fancy takes you:

23 James Cameron / Trade & Sustainability – The Radical in a Suit / 16 December 2020

22 Robin Chase / Mobility, Cities & Social Entrepreneurship / 9 December 2020

21 Claude Turmes / Clean Energy Coalition-Builder / 2 December 2020

20 Richenda van Leeuwen / A Lifetime Working on Energy Access & Inclusion / 25 November 2020

19 Mike Bennetts / Middle of the Problem, Heart of the Solution / 18 November 2020

18 Nancy Pfund / Women Backing Winners / 11 November 2020

17 Prof. Ernest J. Moniz / Innovation & Power / 6 November 2020

16 Kandeh K. Yumkella / Sustainable Energy for All / 4 November 2020

15 Auke Hoekstra / The Debunker-in-Chief / 28 October 2020

14 Jonathan Maxwell / Cheaper, Cleaner, More Reliable / 21 October 2020

13 Morgan Bazilian / The Poet of the Low-Carbon Transition / 14 October 2020

12 Ramez Naam / Seeing the Future / 7 October 2020

11 Jon Dee / From Celebrity to Action / 30 September 2020

10 Angela Francis / Green Deal Without Yellow Vests / 23 September 2020

9 Jigar Shah / Creating Climate Wealth / 16 September 2020

8 Roger Dennis / The Price of Resilience / 9 September 2020

7 Bertrand Picard / A Good & Exciting Life / 2 September 2020

6 Christiana Figueres / To Paris & Beyond / 26 August 2020

5 Kirsty Gogan / Fighting for Nuclear / 19 August 2020

4 Barbara Buchner / Counting the Climate Cash / 12 August 2020

3 Antony Slumbers / Real Estate in The Crosshairs / 5 August 2020

2 Rachel Kyte / Investing in Climate Leadership / 29 July 2020

1 Cameron Hepburn / Building Back Better / 22 July 2020


There’s also the Cleaning Up Festive Special, which will go live on 23 December, in which we look back at the best of Series 1. Come for the insights, stay for the bloopers!

It has been great fun recording Cleaning Up, and we are already working on a second series, airing from 6th January. My thanks to Pietrojan Gilardini and the Gilardini Foundation for your support.


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So there you have it, a round-up of my news from the second half of 2020. It has been a strange and difficult year, but also a very productive one (it is amazing how much one can get done when not jumping on a plane every few days).

It only remains to wish you a happy holiday season. Look after your families, and after your own mental and physical health. Don’t take any risks now we are all so close to being vaccinated. I look forward to hearing from you and working with many of you in 2021!

¡Hasta la victoria siempre!