Interview with Howard Johns on the Energy Revolution

- taking the power back and the opportunity of the moment

"We have all the technology we need - it’s just a question of applying it"

Howard Johns is the founder of Southern Solar, and has worked with renewable energy his whole life. After a chance moment led him to study renewable energy, he became an environmental protester. He spent two years living at open cast coal mine protests then got fed up of saying no and started saying yes.

Howard did a Permaculture Design Course, then tried to set up a community energy company in Brighton, "people thought I was totally crazy". Southern Solar was his next venture, which has been installing solar systems for over 13 years. His first experience was installing solar PV, solar thermal, an energy efficient boiler and insulation in his father in laws home. His bills dropped to about a quarter of what they were. Then followed the realisation "this is ridiculous, this is so easy, every home in the country, every home in the world should do this. Why aren’t they?[...] We have all the technology we need - it’s just a question of applying it." He has since set up Ovesco, Britain's first community energy company.

In this interview Howard explains why the current polluting energy system is so dominant, what can be done to change it, and shares inspiring stories from his new book Energy Revolution - Your Guide to Repowering the Energy System.

 

Why is the current polluting energy system so dominant?

"If you want to know why your power’s so expensive, look at the system used to create it. 60% of the energy goes straight up the chimney, it’s wasted, and that’s the starting point for this energy system."

The current polluting energy system was built by government investment, over many years. In the UK during the 1920s, the process of building the grid-iron started, bringing it all under one big nationalisation program. Then of course privatisation happened in the 90s. Initially to bring competition into the market, but of course we now know that didn’t happen. So in Europe we have the Big Four, in the UK we have the Big Six.

When I talk to communities I often say, ‘if you want to know why your power’s so expensive, look at the system used to create it’- 60% of the energy goes straight up the chimney, it’s wasted, and that’s the starting point for this energy system. So yes you could make your house more efficient, use less energy, but essentially we’ve got a power station that was designed 150 years ago, using very old and wasteful technology.

For me the fundamental problem is with those power stations, and the only solution we have for this is renewable energy, and local generation, which effectively disarms those power stations. That’s why there’s such a struggle going on, because renewables are being successful.

In Germany their utilities companies can’t make money any more, because solar is putting out the most energy in the middle of the day. Traditionally utilities charge you the most for power at the middle of the day. A few months ago now EON announced that it’s splitting its business in half. It’s going to be putting all its renewables and all its energy efficiency services companies in one company, and all its nuclear fossil assets in another, and effectively, its going be selling that off, or writing it off perhaps.

"Where we’re going to is a bit more like the internet, the internet of things. It’s a networked energy system where you are both producer and consumer"

Renewables have reached a tipping point in some parts of the world where fossil fuels don’t add up any more. The fossil fuel generators need us all to be at the end of a pipe and when people start to defect or leave the grid, or require a lot less, their business models don’t add up. Simple as that.

So that’s the sort of nature of the struggle that’s going on. Where we’re going to is a bit more like the internet, the internet of things. It’s a networked energy system where you are both producer and consumer, a ‘prosumer’, and of course the big plant in the middle doesn’t necessarily work, it won’t work that way, and it’s not designed to run that way, and it can’t be effective running that way.

There’s a fundamental shift going on in our energy system and the utilities know it and they’re doing their damndest to stop it as best they can. Hence all the retroactive stuff going on in the UK at the moment; subsidies for fossil fuels dwarf the subsidies for renewables.

 

Energy Revolutions in Germany and Denmark

"The Germans have created the global solar industry and the Danes have really created the global wind industry, and it’s from small groups of people coming together."

In Germany there’s a whole load of different groups that have come together (to make the energy revolution happen). In my book I interview a guy called Hans-Josef Fell. He was a green parliamentarian, who worked with a social democrat called Herman Scheer and between them they forged the renewable energy laws that have now become famous and been copied all over the world. They did that in opposition to the government. It was essentially the backbench MPs who wrote the law and then pushed it through. They did that because there was massive support from people across the country, partly in response to the Chernobyl accident.

The classic story is of EWS (Elektrizitätswerk Schönau), which is a co-op in Germany. Post Chernobyl it tried to do something about energy saving, and today, it’s a co-op that now supplies 150,000 people across Germany with 100% renewable energy. This stuff happens because a small group of people decide to make it happen in their town.

In Denmark they have a very strong history of cooperatives and a strong environmental leaning. People started building wind turbines quite a long time ago in Denmark, and they got bigger and more complex and they joined together as communities to build them. So the Germans have created the global solar industry and the Danes have really created the global wind industry, and it’s from small groups of people coming together.

 

"It’s quite common for [communities] to start on the journey and then 10 years later to have got there"

There are great pioneer stories. Another one that’s written up in the book is the island of Samsø.

In 1997 a chap called Søren Hermansen had this challenge to see if he could take this island Samsø, with about 5,500 people on it, and turn it into a carbon neutral point. By 2007 they were net positive i.e. they made more energy than they needed. A lot of the generation on that island is owned by the people there. With many communities that I’ve spoken to, or read about, or featured in my book, it’s quite common for them to start on the journey and then 10 years later to have got there. Sadly not in the UK, where people often take 10 years before they even get anywhere. In many other countries it’s happening fast. There are some really quite ground breaking stuff happening in America. It’s quite a different energy market but similar themes playing out.

 

Can something similar happen in the UK in the near future?

"If you just leave it in the hands of the so-called experts then they’ll just do what they’re doing already."

The system here is so dominated by the Big Six that I think the only way to make effective change is to set up these companies in our own local town to actually empower local communities to run their own energy company again.

As in many areas of our life we give away the power quite literally to others. If you can start to control the power system in your area, or where you buy the power from, you can dictate what sources you buy from i.e. solar or wind. If you just leave it in the hands of the so-called experts then they’ll just do what they’re doing already. There has been an increase in locally owned energy co-ops, which to me is the first step i.e. building a generation co-op where you put PV on your local school.

What will need to happen next is to set up actual utilities companies that are cooperatively owned and then we’ll be able to have our own feed in tariff. At the moment it’s very hard for communities to sell power directly to the people. For example, as a co-op we have 200 members in Ovesco who have all invested in it.

Ideally we’d like to sell power directly to those people but the legislation for business for doing that is a very complex registration process with the regulator that is very expensive to do, which of course as a small co-op we can’t. So I think that the future development is that we’ll start to see a whole new load of local utilities. Which is how it was.

In the 1930s you would have had Lewis power and heat company that supplied gas and electricity locally, there was one in most towns. I think that is what we need to go back to.

 

'Wake up to the opportunity of the moment' - hopes for the future, democratisation of energy, and just one simple thing

"What we’re going through is a democratisation of the energy system."

I guess that despite the challenges in the UK at the moment, I am exceptionally hopeful about renewables and particularly community renewables. It’s happening, the incumbents can fight it but they can’t stop it. What we’re going through is a democratisation of the energy system.

I’ll put solar on my roof, you’ll put solar on yours, and we’ll own a bit of the generation system. They can’t adapt their business model to make it work like that, so we are in the process of inventing a new business model. It’s an exciting moment. Renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels even without subsidy. So in the sun-belt around the middle of the earth solar is the cheapest form of energy and there’s no reason why you’d do anything else.

"It’s totally transformative on peoples lives, just one simple thing."

If you look at the solar light in Africa at the moment, it’s going absolutely mad. SunnyMoney have now delivered over one million solar lights to people in Africa. There are lots of companies out there doing that. The impact that a $10 solar light can have on an African family is absolutely fundamental.

Originally they would be using kerosene, which is dangerous and dirty. Household air pollution is caused by kerosene by lights, and cooking on wood fires. It causes huge health problems. It also takes about 20% of the average families income to run the kerosene light. So you imagine a $10 light and those two problems are lifted or halved. It’s totally transformative on peoples lives, just one simple thing.

The reason I wrote the book was to hopefully help people to wake up to the opportunity of the moment. I put this book together to try and give people guidance on how to take that.

 

Howard will present in the Community Energy Session at the International Permaculture Conference - see details of his presentation.

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