Green technology: CAs combining financial expertise with a passion for change
As COP26 focuses attention on the climate crisis, CAs’ critical role in the flourishing world of green technology will come under the spotlight. Fraser Allen hears from four CAs combining financial expertise with a passion for change
Few business challenges today inspire the level of debate we see around finding solutions to climate change. It’s an area that many CAs are passionate about. And yet, as green technology continues to evolve at a dazzling rate, they are often the unsung heroes who ensure that investment in the sector is wisely managed.
Four CAs – specialising in fields as diverse as waste data, renewables, forestry and fusion energy – relay why they’re excited about the future of greentech, and how they’re tackling the considerable challenges and opportunities that reversing climate change entails. The big themes that emerge are the case for a stronger culture of cross-sector collaboration, closing funding gaps for early-stage SMEs and harmonising support for renewables across the UK – as well as some surprising statistics about UK forestry.
We have an opportunity in Scotland to pioneer the materials revolution.
Jane Stewart CA
Chair, Circular Economy Investment Fund
Jane Stewart CA’s route into accountancy was not conventional. It came about through her love of football. “Growing up, I dreamt of being a professional footballer,” she says. “But it wasn’t a viable career option for girls then, so I decided my route in was via the backroom or the boardroom. I was inquisitive about business and had a head for numbers, so training to be a CA was a natural step forward.”
Stewart qualified at Grant Thornton and spent her early career in equity investment. For 12 years, she was Group CFO, then Strategy Director, at recycling provider William Tracey (now Enva). For the past four years, she’s been pursuing a portfolio career that includes non-exec roles at data analytics business Topolytics and digital services provider IFB, as well as chairing the Circular Economy Investment Fund.
Stewart is a strong advocate for the role of CAs in the climate change battle. “CAs are analytical, inquisitive and accustomed to making sense of complex data from multiple sources,” she says. “We base decisions on evidence and are constantly adapting to evolving policies, standards and stakeholder needs. These are skills that are essential to understanding the risks and opportunities around climate change.
“I was attracted to Topolytics due to a shared vision that solving the waste data challenge globally is key to unlocking significant environmental and social challenges,” she adds. “Understanding that data is essential to extending the life of the world’s finite resources and reducing the significant volume of waste that ends up in landfill or leaks into the environment.”
Topolytics has developed a platform that enables producers, recyclers, brokers and government bodies to map the flow of waste, understand what happens to it and drive the insights necessary to make it visible, verifiable and therefore valuable.
Stewart’s experience across growth sectors has supported her belief in the power of collaboration. “This is a time for a more open approach, forming alliances across sectors, seeding and partnering in new, creative ways,” she says. “We have an opportunity in Scotland to pioneer the materials revolution.”
Barriers remain, though. “There’s a funding gap for early-stage SMEs that’s holding back the innovation and creativity required to accelerate our climate change efforts,” she says. “And much more needs to be done to ensure fair and equal access to funding for female, black and minority ethnic business leaders.”
As a CA, the low levels of forestry simply don’t make sense to me.
Kirstin Donaldson CA
Head of Finance and Company Secretary, Confederation of Forest Industries
When Kirstin Donaldson CA moved into the world of forestry, she was astounded by some of the stats she encountered. “I’ve always been interested in the environment but this has been an education,” she says. “Take the fact that the UK is the second-largest net importer of timber in the world. That’s crazy when you think about it. Moving so much wood across the world flies in the face of tackling climate change and we have much higher forestry standards in the UK than in many other parts of the world. Clearly, the solution is to plant a lot more trees and manage existing woodland more productively.”
Donaldson qualified as a CA at KPMG and, after four years at Scottish Power, joined the Glasgow-based investment firm Speirs and Jeffrey, becoming Chief Operating Officer. Then, after leading the company’s integration into Rathbone Brothers, she left early in the pandemic, quickly embracing another challenging project – home-schooling. She was offered her current role at the beginning of this year.
Of course, commercial forestry hasn’t always had the most positive of reputations. “It developed a bad name in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Donaldson. “The focus was simply on planting and harvesting as much timber as possible. But UK forestry standards changed that. The industry has moved on considerably, and I think society has too.
“Yet, while 40% of the EU is covered in forests, that figure is just 13% for the UK. As a CA, that simply doesn’t make sense to me. There is tremendous potential for creating new bioproducts from wood and, as well as supporting rural communities, forests are essential to tackling climate change.”
We need to be building gigawatts of this stuff every year.
Simon Wannop CA
Director, REG Power Management
Simon Wannop CA came early to greentech. “I was reading about global warming and climate change when I was six or seven,” he says. “It’s always been something I wanted to pursue.”
After graduating in mechanical engineering, Wannop saw chartered accountancy as an attractive route into the renewables business. He started with PwC, joined the renewables team at EY and then moved to Renewable Energy Generation, an AIM-listed business developing greentech energy projects across the UK.
“Things became difficult under the Cameron government,” remembers Wannop. “Shortly after coming into power, they announced they were going to withhold all subsidies for renewables. They then barred onshore wind from entering the planning system in England and called in several projects that had received consent. Our share price fell dramatically in the space of a couple of months.”
Realising that the business had become a prime target for acquisition, Wannop and his colleagues initiated a management buyout in 2016, establishing REG Power Management. “This is a much better time for renewables, but there are still a lot of challenges,” he says. “The Scottish and Welsh governments are very supportive but, in England, planning consent often depends upon the support of local councillors and MPs. What you read in the papers about government climate change targets doesn’t always align with what’s happening on the ground.”
Wannop believes that good intentions need to be backed up by significantly bolder action and better policy design, citing the low take-up of the green homes grant and the promotion of “blue hydrogen” (made from fossil gas) as examples of where improvements can be made.
Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for greentech remains undimmed. “It’s a great industry to be in, with massive growth potential,” he says. “To meet our 2050 targets, we have to build an eye-watering amount of renewables capacity. We need solar, onshore and offshore wind and we need to be building gigawatts of the stuff every year. We’re running as fast as we can to secure sites, get them through planning and build them with our development partners.”
Fusion is the holy grail of clean energy.
Jenny Liddle CA
Financial Controller, Tokamak Energy
When Jenny Liddle CA joined Oxfordshire-based Tokamak Energy earlier this year, a big part of the attraction was the company’s bold ambitions for fusion energy.
“Fusion is the holy grail of clean energy because it harnesses the power of the sun safely, without long-lived radioactive waste and carbon emissions,” says Liddle. “The challenge is to develop and deploy the technology quickly. The world needs it.”
Ambition comes with risk, but it also offers greater rewards, both in terms of the impact on climate change and investor returns, and Liddle urges support for “long-term transformational solutions”.
“ESG investors have generally invested in government-subsidised or guaranteed schemes,” she says. “We represent a different proposition because we’re tackling very difficult technical challenges. The goal of plentiful fusion energy is so important and so valuable that owning these solutions represents a huge opportunity.”
Tokamak is currently building its intellectual property through 50 families of patent applications to demonstrate the best route to commercial fusion energy. “This is expensive but we’re commercialising our superconducting magnet technology for a range of applications including space propulsion, proton beam therapy, chemical analysis and scientific research,” says Liddle.
With the annual investment of Tokamak Energy and its shareholders amounting to around £30m, Liddle’s CA skills are pivotal to the success of the company’s risk management strategy.
“The investors want to be absolutely sure that their money is being spent wisely,” she says. “My role involves ensuring that all costs are properly tracked, both for accountability and to maximise claims for R&D tax credits, which are vital to us.”