A new generation of lean, young, ambitious cleantech firms is leading the way for the UK to gain a greater access to the £3 trillion global low carbon sector, according to a new study led by Shell and the Carbon Trust.

The study finds that SMEs now account for more than 90% of the UK’s low carbon sector, now worth more than £120bn, and that the number of British SMEs targeting international markets for low carbon products has doubled during the past two years, from 37% in 2011 to 76% in 2012.

Start-ups are twice as likely to secure export deals in the low carbon sector than in other industries.

The launch of the report, Low carbon entrepreneurs: the new engines of growth, coincides with the UK Final of the Shell Springboard Awards, a programme run by Shell that to date has awarded £2.58m to British enterprises developing new pioneering low carbon technologies. The finalists are: KiWi Power, Vantage Power, Ventive Ltd, Antaco UK and AlbaTERN, Firefly Solar Generators Ltd.

The analysis of almost 2,000 low carbon SMEs has also identified that the UK's leading hubs for low carbon innovation exist in the cities of London, Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds and Southampton. Relative to population size, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire also had high proportions of cleantech SMEs, with access to talent and regional funding emerging as key reasons that drive business location.

Business secretary Vince Cable said: "We are taking action to increase the UK share of the £3 trillion global low-carbon market, so it is encouraging that SMEs are already exploiting the huge growth potential.

"We will continue to ensure that existing and budding entrepreneurs are aware of the opportunities and support available to them so that they can grow, create jobs and continue to make a valuable contribution to the economy."

However, the sector is not without its challenges. Chief among these are access to funding, technology demonstration opportunities and securing the right skills.

Tom Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust, added: "The low carbon economy is already a real engine of growth for the UK economy. It is worth more than £120bn in annual sales and employs almost 1 million people.

"This new research indicates that the sector is looking to expand further and is targeting vital exports as it does so. The research also shows that younger entrepreneurs are ready to join and establish a new generation of low carbon businesses in the future."

Almost two in five SMEs have already entered foreign markets with new low carbon technologies. Moreover, three-quarters of small enterprises plan to expand into new markets in the next 24 months.

The USA (15%) and Germany (12%) are the most popular export markets among a diverse range of countries that also includes China, India, Australia, the Middle East, Canada and South America.

The findings are welcome news for the UK economy, with two-thirds of small low carbon enterprises planning to create new jobs over the next 12 months. More than half have created new jobs in the last year and 12% hired more than four new team members.

The report also looks ahead to the next generation of low carbon innovators. Almost one third of entrepreneurs under the age of 30 say they would like to start a new low carbon business or get involved in the low carbon economy but don’t know how to go about it.

Commenting on the report findings, Edward Daniels, Shell UK chairman, said: "Small enterprises are critical to driving the innovation required to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time: meeting rising demand for energy while reducing CO2. As this new research for Shell Springboard shows, small enterprises are also making a big contribution to the UK economy by opening up new markets, creating jobs, and generating growth."

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor