The Ashden Awards

09/07/2013 14:31 BST | Updated 08/09/2013 10:12 BST

It's not easy being a green entrepreneur. Start-up investment is hard to find; regulatory and technical standards are even harder to meet; and compliance processes are slow and onerous; politicians keep changing the rules; and most companies and individuals are so risk averse (or even indifferent) that it's very difficult securing that first cohort of "early adopters".

And if you're a green entrepreneur in the field of energy efficiency or insulation, it gets even tougher. For most non-specialists, you only have to say which field you're working in for people's eyes to start glazing over!

The contrast with the visually compelling world of renewables and micro-generation was there for all to see at this year's wonderful Ashden Awards. Anything to do with photovoltaics, solar lanterns, cookstoves and biomass, especially when there are lots of smiley faces either demonstrating or benefitting from such technologies, lifts the spirits. Bring on the efficiency wallahs, and those same spirits start heading downwards.

This is ludicrously unfair! Whether you're talking big picture geopolitics or small-scale implementation on the ground, the whizzy, high-tech world of renewables can only deliver its full benefit if every unit of electricity/energy those technologies provide is being used as efficiently as is technically possible.

Ashden has some cracking efficiency-based winners this year. The 2013 Gold Award went to the partnership of the Sustainable Energy Academy and United House for what is in effect a new supply chain for doing internal solid-wall insulation, taking off-site what is often a very messy and disruptive business when it is done on-site. Millimetre-accurate measurements are transmitted to a factory where insulation panels can be cut out with equal precision to be installed later with the minimum fuss. Reduced costs; reduced pollution and waste; reduced disruption: why would anybody's eyes glaze over at that little beauty?

And if you think that's smart, check out the "COOL-PHASE®" innovation from a company called Monodraught. CoolPhase provides such efficient low-energy cooling and ventilation that air conditioning becomes unnecessary in most climates - but not tropical climates. And this is critical. The growth in air conditioning around the world is rapidly becoming one of the biggest problems we face in terms of carbon intensive technology impacts.

CoolPhase is one of a number of new technologies that depend on what are called Phase Change Materials (or PCMs) - and we're going to be hearing a lot more about them in the future. All such materials absorb heat when they melt and release it when they freeze; the PCM used in CoolPhase is a gel that solidifies at night (using cool air from outdoors and liquefies during the day, releasing "coolth" (the opposite of warmth!) to help cool down warm indoor air.

Used together with natural ventilation systems, it offers an excellent alternative to conventional AC systems (which cool the air but provide no ventilation) at a lower cost and with very low energy consumption and reduced emissions of CO2. Just as importantly from an education point of view, it provides the best possible learning environment with knock-on benefits in terms of concentration and attainment levels.

Those were two of this year's outright winners. Amongst the runners up, were a little company called Breathing Buildings (which works on a similar kind of process, including PCM ceiling tiles) and KiWi Power which uses its own proprietary software to optimise the smart meters and help clients in all sectors reduce energy consumption at times of peak demand.

Today's innovation pipeline is full to the brim of technologies and processes like these - which could already be making a massive difference in terms of reducing both energy bills and emissions of greenhouse gases - if only we were served by a generation of politicians as smart as the technologies themselves!