In light of his newest book ‘The Energy of Nations’, Solarplaza catches up with Jeremy Leggett, the leading British solar entrepreneur and environmental well-doer who’s been a regular guest speaker at our PV events.
A brief introduction of Jeremy Leggett
“Jeremy Leggett, a geologist by training, began his career as a consultant for the oil industry, while teaching at the Royal School of Mines . His research on earth history was funded by oil companies BP and Shell, among others. He later became an environmental campaigner for Greenpeace, before evolving into a social entrepreneur and author.
He has written several books including Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis (Portobello, 2005: also published in the US as The Empty Tank) and The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era (Penguin, 1999). These books examined the issues of oil depletion and global warming.
He spent the 1980s in the service of Big Oil, as a geologist and faculty member of the Royal School of Mines in London, and the 1990s as top campaigner for Greenpeace International. Jeremy Leggett later became the founder and is currently non-executive chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s largest independent solar electric company.
He also serves as a founding director of the world's first private equity fund for renewable energy. From 2002 to 2006, Leggett was a member of the UK Government Renewables advisory board. He was a campaigner on climate change for Greenpeace International from 1989 to 1996. He was the recipient of the President's Award of the Geological Society, and in 1987 the Geological Society's Lyell Fund.”
Let’s learn a little more about you. What were your dreams when you were a kid? What kind of job did you have in mind for yourself as a grown-up?
I always wanted to be a geologist. I collected fossils, rocks, and studied that subject hard, right through school to university. Ten years into my first career, as a university lecturer and researcher in earth science, if someone had predicted what I would be doing today, I'd have laughed at them. My conversion came suddenly. Though I consulted a lot for the oil and gas industry, taking money from BP and Shell to work on shale among other things, my research was on the geological history of the oceans. That led to a quite sudden but abiding fear about climate change from the late 1980s on. I acted on it first by becoming an environmental campaigner for six years, then a solar entrepreneur for 13 years and counting.
"MY CONVERSION CAME SUDDENLY. I ACTED ON IT FIRST BY BECOMING AN ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNER FOR SIX YEARS, THEN A SOLAR ENTREPRENEUR FOR 13 YEARS AND COUNTING."
Who inspired you in the past and who is still inspiring you?
The list includes Ron Oxburgh , a mentor on the faculty of earth sciences at Oxford University when I did my PhD, much later chairman of Shell. Sir Crispin Tickell , former Ambassador to the UN, a mentor on climate change policymaking, and general wisdom. Kelly Rigg and Elaine Lawrence , who were among my bosses when I worked at Greenpeace, and showed me the qualities needed for leadership and management under pressure (not that I do that as well as they do). Herman Scheer , of course.
You founded and built Solarcentury up into an international leading solar energy company. Can you explain why it became successful? Apart from a splendid idea and solid strategy, was there also any lucky development that helped you and your team?
People. I've done a lot of things badly, but I've either been consistently good – or more likely lucky – at making senior hires. Anyone who knows the present and past leadership teams at Solarcentury will know what I mean. My five longest-serving team members at Solarcentury (and two of their spouses) have worked with me for a total of 81 person years. All eight of their children were born while their parents worked for Solarcentury.
Our luckiest break was to raise £13.5 million in August 2007, the same month the credit markets froze. We didn't "need" it, but we did the deal, and would almost certainly be bankrupt now, like so many other solar companies, if we hadn't.
What was your most curious business experience at Solarcentury?
Giving a board of venture capitalists, collective owners of the company I founded, my frank opinion about a chief operating officer they all wanted to hire for me.
"BRAIN SCIENTISTS TELL US WE HAVE A VERY WORRYING COLLECTIVE TENDENCY FOR BLINDNESS TO THE KIND OF RISKS THAT CAN CRASH ECONOMIES AND IMPERIL CIVILISATIONS"
Why is your book called The Energy of Nations? What are the main takeaways from this book?
Brain scientists tell us we have a very worrying collective tendency for blindness to the kind of risks that can crash economies and imperil civilisations. The shocking recent history of the financial industries suggests they are right. We need to worry about the energy industries as well. In the book, I describe four systemic risks being run by the energy incumbency. The first and biggest is climate change. We have way more conventional fossil fuel than we can afford to burn without wrecking the climate, yet the incumbency wants us to pile so-called “unconventional deposits” on the fire as well. Second, we risk creating a carbon bubble in the capital markets. Right now we are allowing Big Energy to account fossil fuels as being at zero risk of stranding in a world wherein many policymakers view them as unburnable. Third, we risk surprising ourselves with the so-called “shale boom” in gas and oil production. That too may prove to be a bubble, maybe even a Ponzi scheme . Fourth, we court disaster with our assumptions about oil depletion. Most of us believe the incumbency narrative that there will be adequate supplies of affordable oil for decades to come. I am in a minority who don't.
Given all this risk blindness, I conclude that system collapse is probably inevitable. Better news is that there will be a road to renaissance, in the rebuilding, if we make the right decisions come the crisis. I do believe that is possible, and I explain why. Solar is a big piece of that.
In your book and in earlier presentations, you warned us about risks and the 'triple crunch'. Can you briefly explain this theory and, as a conclusion, do you see yourself as a pessimist or optimist?
The triple crunch involves the nexus of climate, finance, and oil-depletion risks, as just described.
I am a cautious optimist. I think an optimistic outcome is clearly feasible, but far from guaranteed, given the enculturated and institutionalised blindness of the incumbency, and the malign depths they are prepared to sink to, collectively, to protect their failed belief systems.
Is money the biggest threshold to massive solar PV application? Or is the lack of information the bottleneck, with many people and businesses simply not knowing in their situation solar is also economically more attractive?
I think the bigger problem is the disinformation campaigns, smokescreens and other barriers that the incumbency erect for the solar industry.
Nowadays, visionaries and gurus all speak about lateral empowerment, bottom-up initiatives and 'small is beautiful'. Is there still a role to play for governments?
Of course. But it does increasingly look like governments tend not to have effective leaders, just when we need them most.
How disruptive is the development of the PV industry? In the coming years, how will the audience and people in the street experience the impacts of expanding PV application?
I think McKinsey said it well in their report Solar: Darkest Before the Dawn. Solar energy deployment is going to change the face of the energy industry by 2020 – and, with it, society. I explore that further in my book.
"IT DOES INCREASINGLY LOOK LIKE GOVERNMENTS TEND NOT TO HAVE EFFECTIVE LEADERS, JUST WHEN WE NEED THEM MOST"
Nowadays, In Germany and Italy, on sunny days, the millions of solar PV systems already produce half of the electricity demand. Within five years this could double; so, theoretically, coal and gas power plants could be turned off. The business impact for the existing energy utilities will be huge. Resistance and a strong lobby can be expected against PV. What would be your advice to these ‘conservative’ utilities?
Change fast or die. We, the people, are coming for you. We are going to remove your technical licence, your social licence, and your financial licence.
In your opinion, should governments still financially incentivise PV application? On the one hand, it could help market development, but on the other hand play into the hands of the big fossil corporates and other opponents... Is it necessary?
Are their vast and much larger subsidies necessary?
"WHEN THE LIGHTS START GOING OFF AS A RESULT OF THE FAILED BUSINESS MODELS OF BIG ENERGY, A LOT OF BUILDINGS ARE GOING TO BE LIT UP WITH OFF-GRID SOLAR OF DIFFERENT KINDS"
What market segment do you believe will drive the global PV market in the coming decade – big ground-mounted power plants, commercial roof applications, or the residential markets?
All will see explosive growth, though this will vary country by country. And don't forget off-grid, and not just in the developing world. When the lights start going off as a result of the failed business models of Big Energy, a lot of buildings are going to be lit up with off-grid solar of different kinds.
Picture yourself in 2020. How different will the PV industry look? What will be the topics we will be discussing in the PV industry? What will have surprised us, looking back in 2020 to the years behind, back to 2013?
The great oil crisis of mid-decade will have come as a huge surprise to most people, and will have rewritten the global energy map. I hope the solar industry will be less globalised, more localised, with vertically integrated national or regional supply chains. That's a great way to build common security.
Some visionaries are scared for the future, in particular with regard to the impact of global warming. What is your vision?
There is plenty to be scared about, especially for people like me who have time to follow the patterns of play in some detail. But there are many grains of hope that may yet sprout and grow into a forest.
If you were to start a new company, what would it be doing and where?
It would be an international co-op, owned by its staff and customers, capitalised by crowdfunding and other forms of people power finance – just as we are trying to do with SunnyMoney, the solar lighting retail brand created by SolarAid, the charity set up by Solarcentury, funded by 5% of its profits each year.
What will you be doing five years from now?
Writing. There will be a lot of drama to describe and analyse in the interim. And I love writing more than I love boardrooms these days.