Two of Britain’s engineering giants have been accused of taking the idea for a multi-billion pound renewable energy project from a lone inventor without thanks or payment. They – Rolls Royce and WS Atkins – deny they did so. He – renewable energy pioneer Rupert Armstrong-Evans – insists they did.
The story is this: the government wants to build something big to generate big energy from the Severn Estuary. It‘s prepared to pour billions into the scheme. An initial shortlist of possible projects is drawn up, which doesn’t include a proposal from Armstrong-Evans for a ‘tidal reef’.
The government’s shortlist is rubbished by environmental groups, including the RSPB, who employ Atkins to evaluate the tidal reef idea. Atkins comes back and says the government has 'significantly underestimated' just how good the reef could be. Brilliantly, it would also be cheaper than any other proposals, partly because it doesn’t involve knackering - and having to pay to replace - the habitats of tens of thousands of birds that winter on the estuary.
An email I’ve seen by the report’s author, Atkins-employee Professor Rod Rainey, and sent to Armstrong-Evans goes further:
'I think it is a brialliant (sic) suggestion - Herman Bondi would have saluted you, I believe, and I propose to also,' Rainey writes.
Which meant Armstrong-Evans was dissapointed when the government recently announced £500,000 in funding to develop a very similar tidal power project, led by ... Rolls Royce and Atkins. As even Atkins insiders privately admit, it doesn’t look good.
The row shines a spotlight on the fierce competition, and the money to be made, in the market for dealing with climate change. The Severn Estuary tidal power station will cost around £12 billion to build and be Europe’s largest green project. The company that gets the contract will also position itself nicely to bid for other, lucrative, green projects in the future.
Atkins already knows there is money to be made from fighting climate change. In an FT interview posted on their website, CEO Keith Clarke describes it as a 'moral imperative', albeit one that presents a 'staggering opportunity' for the economy. Would his company be interested be interested in green projects if there was no business case? If there was only moral imperative, not staggering opportunity?
Atkins is recognised by City analysts as being in the front line of companies shaping up to deal with carbon reduction. But what motivates the company is the money they can make from doing so. Does that matter? Ultimately, what is more important, that the right thing gets done, or that it is done for the right reasons?
Armstrong-Evans is, unhappily, well-placed to answer that question, having spent 18 months and mortgaged his house on a tidal reef that will now make him no money at all.
'From my point of view, its that the right thing gets done,' he says.
Disclaimer: WS Atkins were one of a number of sponsors who supported me on an expedition to Papua New Guinea earlier this year.