News this month that the world’s first solar road has opened in France is hugely exciting and shows – once again – how far ahead of the game Britain’s Continental cousins are when it comes to investing in innovation.
It may in itself be modest – Colas subsidiary Wattway has embedded 2,880 photovoltaic tiles into 1km of road surface at Gué à Pont west of Paris – but the statement of intent is there: France wants to lead the way and has made clear its plan to lay 1,000km of such roads.
But will it ever be thus? Does Britain always have to follow?
This year promises to be a hugely significant one for Britain as Brexit negotiations get into full swing. Depending on your view it is either doom and despair or a beautiful new dawn. It could be either: few, if anyone actually knows – that much we do know.
But what it most definitely is, is an opportunity for Britain to reinvent itself as a global leader in technology, much as France (and others) have done over the last few decades. Early last year – pre-referendum – we mooted that one technology where Britain could present itself as a global leader was in high speed rail; capitalising on our bold plans for High Speed 2 (and even 3) to lead the way in designing and delivering 21st century railways.
That suggestion got a rather lukewarm reader response at the time (“Are you having a laugh?” was the typical one). So this month we’re trying again: this time with energy, or more specifically, low carbon energy.
We have unique opportunities in Britain. Our coasts provide us with a reliable, renewable energy source, which is just beginning to be explored. Some estimate that we could have as much as 50% of Europe’s tidal energy resources.
We are pushing the boundaries with other renewables too in this country, as we have shown by building Europe’s largest solar photovoltaic farm in a London reservoir. The wind even blows occasionally, offering opportunities there.
We are even beginning to explore the opportunities presented by small scale nuclear power.
So is this the moment?
OK, yes, we are forging ahead with a fairly large, fairly conventional nuclear power station and Hinkley Point. And yes, while UK suppliers will be heavily involved, it is a French design. So right now it perhaps doesn’t feel like the moment Britain shows the world the way.
But let’s say, for the sake of not re-opening a long and tedious argument, that Hinkley, while not entirely showcasing the best of British, will buy us time. It will provide the UK with a valuable baseload for 20 years or so. That’s 20 years to really kick on and invest in other renewable technologies; renewable technologies the world wants, technologies that Britain can sell.
And the global market is developing. According to climate change investment tracker Climatescope, Asia, led by China and India, installed far more clean energy capacity in 2015 than the other 56 countries it surveyed combined – and in doing so secured £102.8bn in clean energy investment. Surely that’s a market worth investing in?