So Google's new energy policies might actually be the real thing then

Greenzo would be proud.

Fans of 30 Rock will remember a character named Greenzo, played by David Schwimmer. Employed as an environmental mascot to promote GE products and TV network NBC’s sustainability credentials (in about that order), Greenzo starts to believe his own hype, culminating in a hilarious appearance on The Today Show, where, reminiscent of Peter Finch’s deranged newsreader in Network, he rants incoherently about "big companies and their two-faced, fat cat executives”.

There’s always been something messianic about Google’s environmental proclamations – give CEO Larry Page half a chance and he’ll proselytise with missionary zeal about the company’s clean energy policies – but, thankfully, all comparisons with Tiny Fey’s satire on corporate avarice end there. In the short term at least, Google is happy to let its finances do the talking.

In December, the company snapped up a $200m equity stake in the Spinning Spur Wind Project in the Texas Panhandle, bringing its total investment in renewable energy projects since 2010 to $1bn. The deal was significant for two reasons.

First, Google committed to it before a last-minute deal was brokered in Congress that extended the US Government’s 2.2¢ per kilowatt hour tax credit for energy produced at wind farms. This amounts to an emphatic vote of confidence in the long-term profitability of the US domestic wind market at a time when experts were predicting very little new capacity in 2013.

Second, by becoming the first investor in an EDF Renewable Energy project that is not a financial institution, Google is sending a clear message to corporate America that multinationals can and should be an important new source of capital for the renewable energy sector.

“From our perspective, these are smart investments and more corporations should be making them,” said Kojo Ako-Asare, Google’s head of corporate finance.

Google has also completed two power purchase agreements (PPAs), long-term commitments (in this case, 20 years) to buy renewable energy directly from developers. The schemes "green" electricity grids in Iowa and Oklahoma where the company has data centres and directly benefit clean energy developer NextEra by offering it certainty on the payments for its power.

In the future, Google clearly believes that the smart money will, by necessity, invest in sustainable energy initiatives that benefit wider society as opposed to the special interests of the few.

Google’s investments also serve a third important purpose, that of reconnecting the $250bn global brand with its progressive northern Californian roots in the wake of a very public tax avoidance scandal in the UK and ongoing debate surrounding privacy and anti-trust issues in the US.

In 2007, Google became the world’s first carbon neutral corporation. Six years on, the company founded in the back of a garage with the unofficial slogan of "Don’t be evil" still appears to be 100 per cent committed – culturally, ideologically and financially – to sustainable business practices at every level. Greenzo would be proud.

Photograph: Getty Images

Julian Turner is a freelance energy writer for the NRi Digital network

Photo: Getty
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A good apprenticeship is about more than box-ticking

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. 

The political apprenticeships arms race, promising ever increasing numbers of apprenticeships but with little focus on quality, is helping nobody. Playing a numbers game often means the quality and the personal touch that turns a placement into a career opportunity can be lost. The government has set a target of three million new apprenticeships by 2020. In London Boris Johnson set a target for 250,000 apprentice starts, but fell short by over 100,000. Both targets miss the point; any target should focus on outcomes, not just numbers through the door.

Policy makers need to step back from the rigid frameworks and see what works on the ground.  For me this involved eating a bacon sandwich, which is arguably a risky exercise for politicians.  I was seeing how the owner of the Bermondsey Community Kitchen and Café, Mike, has transformed the space above his café into a training kitchen teaching young unemployed people the skills they need to gain qualifications to work in restaurants.

The posters on the wall spell out the choices available to the young people. They make it explicitly clear that there is an alternative to a life in prison, which some of the trainee chefs have already experienced, with pictures of celebrity chefs including Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith and Gordon Ramsay outlining how they worked their way to where they are now. None of the young people have had an easy start in life. Barriers they face include autism, lack of literacy skills, insufficient funds to pay the fare to the café and criminal records. But Mike and the team running the kitchen are determined to give them the chances every young person deserves. From City & Guilds qualifications, work placements and ensuring they have a job at the end of the process, this is the type of grass roots project that the government could learn from. With two groups of eight students over three half days, this is skills training that is about as personal as it gets. The young people are enthusiastic about the course, the practical skills they are learning and optimistic about the future.

The project is funded partly through the café, but mainly through grants and donations (including pots and pans from Raymond Blanc and funding from trusts as well as the local council). Mike has plans to expand. He wants premises with space for a nursery so young mothers who might otherwise struggle to complete a course can attend, he has a vision for two or three more similar enterprises across Southwark. I have no doubt he will achieve this but the challenge for policy makers is making it easier for people like Mike who are delivering flexible qualifications and delivering better results. Bureaucratic processes, lengthy forms and refusals would have put less determined people off. As the funding for skills is devolved, there is both an opportunity and a challenge to look at how innovative models can be supported. Unless more is done to ensure groups that might be defined as ‘hard to reach’ get opportunities, there will always be significant numbers falling through the gaps in a sometimes impersonal system.

Over 60 per cent of the apprenticeships in London focus on low level qualifications with little prospect of employment upon completion. Many skills based apprenticeships fail to match demand, the booming construction industry for example is crying out for skilled workers and with all parties agreeing new homes are a priority its surprising to learn that in London only 3 per cent of apprenticeships are in construction.

Apprenticeships need to focus on leading to work, and work that is skilled and pays enough to live on. They should be about opportunity not opportunistic employers. In a report published in October 2015, Ofsted was critical of apprenticeships saying too many of them ‘do not provide sufficient training that stretches the apprentices and improves their capabilities. Instead they frequently are being used as a means of accrediting existing low-level skills, like making coffee and cleaning floors.’

The new apprenticeship levy charged to businesses with a wage bill over a certain amount could be a useful way of enhancing opportunities but the definition of apprenticeship needs to be refined. On a recent visit to the iconic Brompton Bikes factory, the London Assembly Economy Committee was told that although the firm has to pay the new levy as a result of its size, they have a bespoke way of training their apprenticeships so they have the skills to get jobs with Brompton Bikes at the end of the process. Because this tailored training doesn’t meet the narrow government criteria they aren’t formally accredited apprenticeships and thus Brompton are unable to claim any funding back from government despite their excellent work.

I am increasingly frustrated that the most exciting and inspiring projects I visit don’t always meet the criteria for funding. We are doing something wrong if people are asked to fit something that works into a form that meets criteria rather than rewarding their successes. Instead huge amounts of public money are being put into funding low quality low skilled apprenticeships that sometimes appear to be more about avoiding the minimum wage. This is not just a waste of money; it is a waste of the lives of the young people. As the Bermondsey fishmonger we bumped in to on the way out of the café told us, sometimes what works is smashing the box, not ticking the box.