Jeremy Leggett is the founder of Solar Century, an international solar solutions company, and chairman of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a financial-sector think-tank warning of carbon-fuel asset-stranding risk to the capital markets.
Here, he tells Alicia Buller why he hopes the ‘great renewable energy transition will help bring truth to the fore’.
Jeremy, how do you feel about the developments at the One Planet Summit in Paris? Was it enough?
It wasn’t enough to hit the ultimate Paris Agreement targets, but enough to keep those targets in play. I very much enjoyed the flurry of financial-sector announcements at the summit. If the energy incumbency and its increasingly risk-burdened investors couldn’t see the writing on the wall after all those then they are in very big trouble.
My top moment was when the World Bank President announced an end to upstream oil and gas investment from 2019, the assembled dignitaries clapped loudly and protractedly, and many of them actually cheered.
I wished every oil company board could have seen that. It was a crystal-clear death knell for their current business models, and indeed for their corporations, if they don’t embrace systemic U-turns rather fast.
The Tories have sold the Green Investment Bank and withdrawn support for clean energy – what is driving these decisions in your opinion and what are the consequences?
The Tory Party has been taken over by a group of rightist ideologues, and supplicants of theirs. They have a deeply flawed belief system, in my view, which favours an array of perverse and cruel things. As part of this belief system, they seem compelled to promote nuclear and shale, two manifestly uneconomic technologies – even without accounting the environmental wreckage and risk inherent in their use. In doing so, they actively suppress most renewables in the UK, destroying many thousands of actual jobs, and suppressing the potential for many new jobs.
In an age of weaponised disinformation, many in the Tory Party have elected to take the maxim of ends justifying means to new lows, including in their treatment of energy. As a businessperson I know that that I could – rightly – be sent to jail for telling a single lie to my stakeholders. The first VW executive just been jailed – rightly – for telling one big lie as part of an institutionalised fraud.
Yet politicians, particularly rightist populist politicians, tell lies on an almost daily basis, backed and echoed by like-minded media organs such as the Daily Mail, and there is no meaningful recourse for civil society, as things stand. That pains me and I want to see it changed. My hope is that the unfolding of the great global energy transition, with its many intrinsic social benefits, will help in that wider process of societal recasting, bringing community, equality, and truth to the fore.
What do you believe the UK needs to do to urgently prepare for climate change?
First and foremost, step up all efforts to abate the problem, so promoting the chances of the ratchet mechanism in the Paris Agreement working. Second, work harder to build and protect healthy economies in developing countries, so addressing the rising migration problem at source. Third, make a national plan for adaptation, so that we can be more proactive than reactive. Fourth, ask all the nation’s religions to pray that amplifying biogeochemical and geophysical feedbacks in the climate system aren’t as bad as it increasingly seems they might be.
How could the UK better utilise solar energy?
By recognising what leading cities and companies in the country have recognised: that renewable energy can 100 per cent power modern economies, that they can do so much quicker than most people realise (or are told), and that organisational plans need to be changed accordingly. This is why UK cities have joined the thousands of metropolises globally to adopt the 100 per cent renewables target, and are in some cases setting up their own energy companies to speed the process. This is why companies have joined the global RE100 group, and become part of a movement that has already deployed enough renewables to power a nation with the demand of Poland. That is why a company like IKEA would add solar roofs to its inventory of products for sale, and tell the world that it intends to become the number one global retailer of residential solar roofs.
Partnered with IKEA as we are, the solar company I founded, Solarcentury, is right on the front lines of this revolution. We are increasingly able to show consumers what it looks and feels like. On September 1 2017, British Gas felt compelled to announce a 12.5 per cent increase in its electricity bills. On September 2nd, IKEA and Solarcentury announced a new solar and battery package that could reduce electricity bills by up to 70 per cent. In this we were able to demonstrate graphically the essential truth of the future: that cutting emissions will save money compared to dogged defence of the fossil-fuel status quo.
In the next five years, what breakthrough solar technologies could come online?
That question is in danger of echoing incumbency disinformation. Their line has long been, and continues to be, that solar needs a “breakthrough” before being worthy of investment. A breakthrough, it seems to me, is a technology that doubles in deployed capacity every two years, eight times since 2000, with nothing obvious to stop it doubling six more times, within 12 years at the historic rate. If solar does that it will be providing all the energy the world consumes today, by 2030. Not electricity. Energy.
That assumes off-the-shelf technology. There might indeed be more breakthroughs that speed the whole solar revolution. Then, of course, there are the synergies with wind, and all the rest of the smart tech family, which add huge value to the potency of solar.
Again, I speak of technologies in play today. There will be further innovation, and potential breakthroughs to speed the revolution even further.