The TH Interview: Jeremy Leggett of Solarcentury

Jeremy Leggett has been described by Time Magazine as "one of the key players in putting the climate issue on the world agenda." He is the CEO of Solarcentury, the UK's leading supplier of solar photovoltaic systems and equipment. Prior to setting up Solarcentury he was an award-winning scientist, oil-industry consultant, and Greenpeace campaigner. His first book, "The Carbon War", has been described by the Sunday Times as "the best book yet on the politics of global warming." His second book "Half Gone" is now available via Amazon, previewing the looming global energy crises, while signposting a safe exit opportunity. He is a director of the world's first private equity renewable energy fund, Bank Sarasin's New Energies Invest AG and serves on the UK Government's Renewables Advisory Board. He has been a prominent critic of central government's energy policies; you can read Jeremy's blog in the news section of Solarcentury's website. In this brief interview he shares his thoughts on energy descent, the future of solar, the importance of efficiency, and the UK government's support, or lack of support, for micro-generation.

TreeHugger: You have written about the looming energy crisis in your book "Half Gone". To what extent do you believe this crisis can be averted by forward thinking policies today?

Jeremy Leggett: I think on balance that diminishing oil supply will happen so fast after the peak that no combination of energy technologies will be able to close the gap with demand. If the peak is later rather than earlier, say 2010 instead of tomorrow, then we may have a chance if we launch sustained Manhattan and Apollo project equivalents on renewables and efficiency.TH: Many local authorities in the UK are beginning to mandate that new buildings derive a percentage of their energy from on-site solar or other renewables. What are the chances of central government adopting such forward-thinking measures across the country?

JL: Central government behaves in a way that encourages the conspiracy theorists who say that minimal support for microrenewables is a precondition for a nuclear renaissance. I no longer trust government in its rhetoric. I look to local government for leadership.

TH: There is much talk of the shortage of silicon being a threat to the growth of the solar industry. Is this a real threat, and what's the potential for new technology such as thin-film and/or solar concentrators to overcome this?

JL: It would be a sad thing if we allowed a shortage of ways to melt sand to stay as an obstacle to growth of crystalline solar markets for long. I expect the problem to go away in 2008. Thin film can have an increasingly important role to play in easing the pressure of soaring solar demand.

TH: In his book "Collapse," Jared Diamond talks about the photosynthetic capacity of the earth's surface as ultimately limiting the contributions of solar. The message is that conservation is just as critical as developing alternative energy resources. How does Solarcentury address energy conservation, and what kind of relationship do you believe solar should have with other alternative energy resources?

JL: We are holistic thinkers at Solarcentury. Efficiency is more important than solar, if you have to compare the two. Certainly, solar is vastly more effective as the handmaiden of efficiency. We need all the other renewables to take off, too. Solar is an important member of the family, but not a magic bullet.

TH: No industry is without its environmental impact. What are the biggest impacts of solar power, and what moves has Solarcentury made to counteract these?

JL: Energy payback is the biggest issue. It is improving as manufacturing methods become more efficient, and this trend will continue. We try to use solar as efficiently as we can, talk to our clients about efficiency as much as we can, and work on displays that have the effect of increasing energy efficiency.

TH: Aside from installing solar panels or wind turbines in their homes, what are the most important things that Treehugger readers can do to support renewable energy?

JL: Cut demand so that the mountain we have to climb is less imposing.

TH: Do you think we're close to a tipping point as far as political will and public awareness are concerned?

JL: Generally, in the world, yes. In the UK, no. We need a Churchill and we have a Blair.

TH: Where will the solar industry be in 10 years time?

JL: Everywhere. People will be amazed at how fast it will grow. Not least today's energy pundits.

[Interview conducted by: Sami Grover]

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