Gill Alker has dedicated her working life to sustainability. She is now a recognised expert in the biomass field, having helped more than 90 organisations benefit from renewable heat.
Gill is currently training to become a lead assessor for the ESOS scheme, which will enable AMP to further support its customers in their low carbon agendas. Gill answered a series of questions below about her distinguished career history and highlights.
Have you always wanted to work in sustainability?
From when I was a young child I loved being outdoors, and as I got older, I decided to combine my interests in the environment and science with an environmental and ecological science degree. I’ve now spent more than 20 years in renewable heat and have never looked back!
When did you develop an interest in biomass?
My PhD was focussed on using fast growing biomass trees to treat contaminated land and water. During this time, I met a professor from the University of Florida who was working on exactly the same area and he invited me to do a post doctorate there. It was a pretty exciting time and within three months I had written up my PhD, got married in order for my husband to get a visa, and moved out there!
What has been your career highlight?
There have been many but winning an Ashden Award, which recognises innovators in tackling climate change, during my time at TV Energy, has to be a highlight. TV Energy was a not-for-profit which tried to increase the uptake of renewables. In trying to help organisations implement biomass heating pre-RHI we set up two companies, TV Bioenergy to provide wood fuel supply, and TV Bioenergy Coppice a farming co-operative which planted trees. This is what we won the award for and I was presented with it by Prince Charles.
You worked for the Forestry Commission for two years at a time when it was trying to establish a market for wood fuels. What was that like?
I was seconded from TV Energy to bring under-managed woodland into management for wood fuels purposes. We were having to build a market before the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), it was ground-breaking stuff. It was hard work as there was no large-scale financial incentive. It was rather like trying to push a concept uphill but it was great to be there from the beginning.
The introduction of the RHI in 2012 stimulated a huge market in biomass. What was this period like?
We knew it was coming from 2009 so there was three years of anticipation! When it opened its doors to applicants it was like the floodgates had opened. It was an amazing and busy time, and I remember everyone in the industry was very excited. Shortly after this I joined Anesco where we introduced one of the first biomass ESCOs to the market. It was a 1MW biomass boiler and district heating system at St Marys School in Shaftesbury and for me, I was putting into practice biomass heat on a large scale for the first time.
Moving to the present day, what do you enjoy about working at AMP?
The beauty of AMP is being able to offer customers a wide range of low carbon heat and power services. From a personal perspective it is very rewarding to help organisations and businesses implement sustainable solutions. Many of these issues are complex and require specialist knowledge.
I also enjoy working with my team, who each have different, but complementary skills, to support our customers where it’s needed. For example, dealing with Ofgem for RHI related issues, can be complicated and time consuming. Customers are generally really appreciative when you take that burden away from them and resolve issues that have been dragging on for a long time.
What are your hopes and fears for the next Government in terms of renewable heat?
We must introduce another financial support mechanism for renewable heat, whether that is another RHI and/or increasing taxation on carbon fuels. Our industry is teetering on the brink, in danger of shrinking back to pre-RHI days. We need the Government to be really ambitious if we are to achieve what we need to on renewable heat.
We are still waiting on a Government consultation about the role of urban biomass. I’m hoping for a positive decision on that shortly after the new Government is elected.
What keeps you awake at night?
Climate change. It is incredible to think that when I started out people barely talked about, or knew what global warming was, in comparison to where we are today. The levels of environmental consciousness are unprecedented, and with the UK’s government’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions, it’s a pretty exciting time to be working in low carbon energy.
What is next for you?
I’m currently training to be a Lead Assessor for ESOS which will enable AMP to offer a new service to our customers. I’m really looking forward to widening my own work into energy efficiency, working on other low carbon technologies again and engaging with businesses and organisations on how they can further meet their low carbon objectives.