The main theme of the exhibition in Astana is ‘The Energy of the Future’. Charles Hendry said major oil companies and economies are concentrating efforts on alternative energy because they see it as the way forward. Image Credit: Supplied

ASTANA, Kazakhstan: The growing realising among major corporations that innovative small and medium enterprises (SMEs) hold major ideas will bring a major revolution in energy production, former UK Secretary of State for Energy, the Right Honourable Charles Hendry, said.

Hendry, a member of the UK’s Privy Council, a body of advisers to the Queen, and currently the UK’s Commissioner for Section at Expo 2017 Astana, specifying he was speaking personally and not as a government spokesman, said SMEs.

“If you take wind energy, wind energy was always a small technology, when the next step was done by someone in their garage. The next moment it was the big companies; it started off with BP when they were in their ‘Beyond Petroleum’ phase, when they started to put hundreds of millions of pounds into supporting those technologies. it massively commercialised them, it brought down the cost. The cost has almost certainly halved in the course of the last 5 years.

“It’s because ideas that were done by SMEs were adopted by the companies which could put the investment behind them ad commercialise them, and that’s now, I think, a routine course” that companies looking for the next big breakthrough would look to SMEs for proof of concept at relatively low cost.

“You’ve got venture capital firms that will support that, then you’ve got someone at the end that will absolutely lap it up ad take it forward and make it happen. I think what we’re seeing is the shortening of the time between invention and commercialisation.”

He cited Abu Dhabi’s Masdar as something “incredibly transformative” for the commercialisation of new energy technologies.

Major oil companies and economies, he said, were concentrating efforts on alternative energies because they saw them as the way forward.

“I think there’s a huge amount which is exciting here, and a lot of countries are showing best practice, but some of the most exciting ones, I think, are what have been highlighting in the French pavilion, in the German pavilion, is what’s being done in SMEs. So it’s new ideas entirely that are coming through, some of which are really quite transformative in terms of the way you use power or generate power — more perhaps on the use, than the generation side.”

Many countries, he said, were showcasing alternative energies such as wind, solar and hydro, with the end result that it became a case of “me too”.

He highlighted the UK’s role in innovation in the possibilities of graphene, a carbon allotrope found in pencils, with Nobel Prize-winning potential identified in 2004 at the University of Manchester — “Absolutely extraordinary, and it’s really caught on as a theme” — as an example.

“We’ve got graphene light bulbs, which you can put your hands on without burning them, and which are much more energy efficient than traditional light bulbs.” Later, he suggested the growing ability to transfer energy internationally, over long distances, would be helped greatly by the material.

With graphene, he said, energy transfers would become far more efficient.

“You can’t patent graphene,” he said. “It was a discovery rather than an invention.”

He put the material in his top three items of “exciting presentations” at Astana, an Expo themed around future energy, alongside a presentation by landlocked Kazakhstan on the possibilities of wave power — and graphene would help them transfer energy from countries with tidal waves with much greater efficiency than current commercial technology.

His third choice was, he said, the subject of several pavilions’ presentations — the future of transportation, particularly in cars. “We’re just beginning to understand the concept of driverless cars and are still rather nervous about them.”

But, he said, “A lot of the other stuff, people won’t notice that — you may have a more efficient power plant, a more efficient grid, but that’s not really something you wake up in the morning and think, ‘Gosh, that’s something different from the last 10 years.’ But vehicles, people will look at.”

He said that while Expos had traditionally been handled at the national level, in which the European Union had taken a back seat, the UK’s presence at Astana had taken on a new edge in the wake of the Brexit vote.

“People are seeing it more as a one-to-one trading opportunity in any case, that’s the way it is, but for the UK absolutely it is, and part of our message is saying, ‘The UK is open for business, don’t see Brexit as Britain drawing into itself, see this as an indication that we must be more global in our trade and in our approach to the world.’”

He said other nations were aware of this approach. “I think from the perspective of other countries, that they get three months of exposure to the UK. With every pavilion, I think, there’s been discussion of Brexit and they’re keen to understand what that means and there’s some dialogue there that we can pursue over the months ahead.”

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Charles Hendry described the Astana Expo as “background music” to business deals — a meet-and-greet that helps break the ice, and leads on to greater collaboration between countries, between companies, between innovators.

“Expo itself is fairly frenetic, especially from the Kazakh side,” he said. “Probably in the course of Expo they’ve had, say, 60 heads of state who’ve come through ... So for Kazakh ministers, they’ve been very focused on the big set-piece occasions.

“In terms of getting their attention, as we sometimes do, for a period of a day and a half of detailed discussions of trade opportunities, investment opportunities, Expo doesn’t necessarily provide that opportunity. But what it does do is provide an opportunity to highlight the fact that the UK has prioritised the market here in Kazakhstan, has a significant commitment to it already in terms of investment here, and it gives an opportunity to introduce companies to the market here who’ve never been here before; it wasn’t on their radar.”

He said a business delegation led by Dr Andrew Parmley, the Lord Mayor of London, had great success in promoting London’s financial services — a priority for both the City of London as it seeks to promote itself in the wake of Brexit, and for Kazakhstan, which plans to convert the Expo site as a financial hub after the Expo ends on September 10.

Whether any business deals had been struck, he could not say, but “certainly they all went away, extremely content, back to the UK, and I know there have certainly been some follow-up meetings.”

He added, “For companies that had had no engagement here at all, it’s helped open the door to where some of those opportunities may be.”