When Juliet Davenport had an idea to create a company that would give consumers the power to tackle the climate crisis by choosing renewable energy, 97% of UK energy was generated from fossil fuels. Now, renewables contribute to almost half of the UK’s electricity. Despite this, the UK government continues to subsidise fossil fuels, in 2019, to the tune of £10.5 billion a year.
But change is coming. In the UK, consumer advice group Which? found that more than half of the 355 tariffs on sale in June 2019 claimed renewable electricity credentials. This compares to only 9% three years previously. If this momentum continues and more customers switch, the government will have to respond.
Twenty years ago, when we entered this marketplace, we came in with an ambition to be 100% renewable energy. Part of the reason to set that out was to challenge the market as, at the time, only about 3-4% of the UK's electricity came from renewable energy. Our ambition was to be a business that has a purpose and delivers for society’s needs as well as for shareholders. That's been an underlining theme for the last 20 years. We wanted to deeply understand the energy market and the various barriers so we could help transform it. But the biggest challenge we've faced over the last 20 years has actually been getting the existing incumbents to let go.
It's been that way for a long time. I started my working life as an intern at the European Commission, working on European-wide policy. What struck me then was the huge impact of large business lobbying, essentially trying to maintain the status quo. But also how the politics then got stuck between different countries who were also trying to maintain their competitive status quo.
For governments, nobody is representing the future. If they go through a consultation to say we need more renewable energy in the system, there is nobody sitting there saying, “yes, we want that”. The only voices you've got in the room are those with a vested interest in the past. That is one of the biggest challenges we've faced and continue to face today. So much money, infrastructure, pensions and balance sheets are tied up in the existing incumbents. Undoing that is hard.
Every single part of the way we operate needs to shift.
There isn't any one solution to this. You have to work across the whole economic and infrastructural process to shift it forward. It is massively complex; therefore, for me, you can't expect any one person to deliver it. I sometimes see many people wanting to be heroes in this space and the only person to deliver. But that is a fundamental flaw. Every single part of the way we operate needs to shift.
If you look at the infrastructure, we built roads, electricity cables, oil terminals and gas pipelines for a high-carbon world. In a low-carbon world, a lot of that infrastructure is less important and some doesn't even exist. Who should be responsible for transforming that infrastructure? The people who own it, work on it, or rely on it? That has to be fundamentally addressed.
Then you've got marketplaces, from financial markets to energy and retail markets. All of those have legislation structures around them. But often, therein lies the problem. For example, financial markets are structured to protect investors, which everyone would deem a good thing. The trouble is that it drives investors to seek short-term returns when most of the stuff we're talking about is long-term, patient capital. The legislation that's there trying to protect investors undermines long-term futures.
Also, energy markets were built when coal was on the system – nearly gone now – and were used to balance supply and demand. In that world, the market worked around the marginal cost to dig up, prepare and utilise coal. Well, there is no marginal cost to producing renewable energy. So, the marketplace doesn't function properly in this new world.
And finally, you've got consumers, activists, voters and shareholders at the other end. This is the voice that is least heard and feels least empowered. That's a real shame when you consider that everything is built around them. But unless politicians hear from people that they want to change, nothing will happen, and policymakers will carry on listening to the existing incumbents in the chain.
Zero carbon should be throughout all legislation, present and past
If you're a retail supplier in the energy market, there are about a thousand different pieces of regulation. We believe every part of that regulation should be looked at with a zero-carbon lens. Zero carbon should be throughout all legislation, present and past. No piece of legislation should be passed without being asked whether it has a negative impact on the climate. Even if they have to decide between climate and something else, at least they're conscious of that decision and what it's doing.
What we see time and time again are the small changes in almost unseen pieces of regulation which take us backwards. If government truly wants to lead on this, they can drive and deliver on investment programmes, but actually, they need to stop getting in the way by creating legislation that impedes progress.
For example, our regulator implemented something the other day which disincentivised people to use less energy and generate their own power. It was to fix something else they broke earlier, but through their lens, they were only looking at saving customers money. Instead of fixing the original issue, they took us backwards and cost consumers long-term. That's classic. I've seen it where layers of legislation get layered on one another, where you create not only a problem for innovation but these absurd and unexpected impacts.
News and culture are so important in influencing our ability to affect this issue
What hugely influences us [as a population] is what we watch on television. You've got news and documentaries that occupy one space, and you've got drama, kids' TV and film in another. BAFTA did a survey last year that showed climate change is mentioned less than cats in TV dramas. Then you look at cartoons and programming for young people, and there are very few educational or entertainment shows surrounding climate change and the environment.
News and culture are so important in influencing our ability to affect this issue. We as a society need to stand up and say it's not OK that we don't discuss these things. It's not OK that our kids don't learn about this enough, whether through school or TV. And it's not OK that we, as adults, don't know that much either.
Stand up and start talking about it
There are things we can all do individually. We can reduce the number of flights we take. We can reduce the amount of time we spend in a car. If we need a car, we can switch to electric or use alternative transport. Can you use a bicycle or an electric bike? We can make those personal choices in our energy usage by switching to a green supplier or being more efficient. If you've got the space, consider generating your own power through solar panels. People who aren't on the gas grid can switch to electric.
The next bit is more complex, but it is within our power to ask our pension fund what they invest in. We can ask our bank who they lend to. We can ask our MPs what they are doing on climate change. These are the unseen but often more important pieces.
But beyond this, when people talk to me about what we can practically do, the first thing I say is to stand up and start talking about it. Whether that's just in your close circle of friends or at work, my view is the more we talk about these things and get up and make a change – it doesn't matter how small it is – it will always have a knock-on effect.
Start asking questions. Ask your business what they're doing on climate change. Ask your boss if they've done a carbon survey and what their climate action plan is. Write to the BBC and ask them to put on more environmental programmes for our kids or dramas involving climate change. Unless we're saying we're worried, nobody will know, so we should do and say as much as we can.
When it comes to the climate emergency, the relationship between government and us as voters seems a bit broken. It is voters' job not to let the government get away with [inaction]. There is no choice at the moment, and we lack options. But we've got to keep believing and pushing forward. I hope sanity will prevail at the government level. We see some fantastical leaders worldwide, and we need to keep encouraging our leaders to be fantastic by holding them to account.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 10th July 2020