Jeremy Leggett began his career working for oil giants. As a geologist, he received funding from Shell and British Petroleum (BP), two of the world’s largest oil companies. Each of the companies has recently expressed strong interest in renewable energy, but both have returned to further investment in fossil fuels as prices dropped.
To date, the oil industry remains one of the more profitable businesses in the world. But in the late 1980’s, Leggett left the world of big oil and big money and became a top campaigner for Greenpeace International.
In 1998, Leggett founded Solarcentury, an award-winning company that is the largest independent solar energy company in the United Kingdom. These days, when he can pull himself away from his executive’s chair at Solarcentury, Leggett spends his time pushing for investments in, and transitions to, renewable energy sources.
Leggett has published two books on the issue of carbon and fossil fuels and he discussed the matter in an interview with The Tico Times during a visit to INCAE business school in Alajuela last Friday.
TT: Are some of these energy companies beginning to think that it would be better to invest in renewable sources?
J.L.: To a degree, yes. But the more worrying thing is that the companies which have been progressive and have been investing in renewable energy, more notably BP and Shell, are pulling back out of renewable investments and retrenching in their core business. This is a relatively new development.
Why are they pulling out of renewable energy?
There’s lots of money to be made in oil and, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t care much about climate change, that argument is attractive. … ‘Let’s focus on what we are good at,’ – you often hear that. To which my response is, ‘Yeah, but where is your conscience? If what you are good at is mortgaging the future, you shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.’
In your presentation, you placed a lot of emphasis on solar energy, but there are many types of renewable energy – hydro, wind, geothermal, etc. How do other types measure up to solar power?
They are all fantastic, and we need them all. Countries need a mix of all these technologies for their energy security. Solar is not a magic bullet and I only emphasize it because it’s the one I know most – it’s my day job.
What kind of return can someone expect by switching to renewable energy?
In cloudy Britain, the typical return on an investment made in a solar electric system is 7 to 8 percent per year. Now, if you have money invested in something aside from a savings account, it’s very difficult, postfinancial crash, to get anything like that rate of return. The challenge for us is to invite people not to think about this as money spent on which you need to get a payback, but on money invested in which you need to get a return on investment.
How long do you think it will be before the world reaches carbon neutrality?
Good question. There was a conference of renewable energy companies in Barcelona, Spain, a couple of months ago and we all sat down and thought about that. The general consensus was that we could be a 100 percent renewable–powered world within a period of 20-40 years, if everything went our way and there were no barriers.
What are the barriers?
Well the backlash is from the threatened industries – industries that thrive on disruptive technologies, namely fossil fuel and nuclear industries. They will fight hard to protect the past, even though the past is killing us, slowly killing us.
Scientists have said there is only so much carbon left to burn. Although there seem to be enough fossil fuel resources for the immediate future, won’t companies have to switch eventually?
That’s right, and that’s another argument. Of course, there is easily enough carbon left, particularly in coal, to cook the planet several times over in a way that would inflict horrific damage. That’s the difficulty with these companies now.
How much longer will these companies be able to operate relying primarily on fossil fuel?
Long enough. Last night I went into this presentation with this in mind. In order of magnitude figures, in order to tip us into a really dangerous state with climate change – in other words, to take us above two degrees Celsius increase in the average global temperature – you’d need a couple of hundred billion tons of carbon and fossil fuel. There are 3,000 billion tons of coal resources alone. There is plenty left for these companies. But we have to leave most of it in the ground. That’s the challenge.
Since there is enough fossil fuel for companies to continue investing in it as a source of energy for a long time, it seems like switching to renewable energy would demand a behavioral change. How do we begin to make this change?
That’s right. It will require a huge behavioral change, and that’s not easy. There is no simple answer as to how. It requires leadership at every single level. We need effective leadership in government, which was so lacking in the George Bush and Tony Blair years. Now we have a fighting chance with the change of regime in the United States. We need strong, enlightened leadership from companies which see the truth of the situation and the truth of the argument that says, ‘You know what? You won’t be doing any business in a few decades if the world keeps going this way, so why not be part of the change?’ There are companies like that which are seeing those arguments, including Wal-Mart.
Then we need effective leadership from individuals in communities, and there are countless examples of that as well.
It’s all about looking for tipping points. Things don’t change in a linear fashion; they change in big jumps, and we are looking for convulsions, or tipping points, that get us to the place we need to be, where these new ideas are spreading at the speed of epidemics in society.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for the energy industry as it moves forward in future decades?
Well, you can’t really think of the industry as a whole because the battle lines have been drawn. You’ve got companies saying that you can’t have renewables and nuclear both. That’s a straight choice for policy makers. Who do you believe?
Do you think policy makers are starting to buy renewable energy arguments?
Yes, I do. I think we have things rolling mostly on our side. For the first time, last year there was more money invested in renewables than there was in all of fossil fuel and nuclear. Is that encouraging, or what?