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Howard Johns, Southern Solar: solar power is here to stay

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After completing an energy technology degree in the early-90s, Howard Johns became an environmental activist, arranging protests against new roads and open cast mining.

But in the early 2000s he began to get increasingly fed up with saying no to things, and decided to step back from frontline activism. He wanted instead to do something that people could engage with – something that they could say yes to. And so, 11 years ago, he set up Southern Solar.

Initially operating as a lone ranger, he quickly recruited two university friends, and his renewable energy installation firm quickly began to flourish, going from installing solar on a few houses a month from one office, to a few houses a week in six locations.

It has around 40 employees, boasts a Which? recommendation to its name and has a reputation as one of the most successful and knowledgeable solar companies in the UK.   

Click here to read The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2013

Johns spoke to Blue & Green Tomorrow about the feed-in tariff, fracking, and why investing in solar is a long-term, sustainable opportunity that benefits everyone.

What sets Southern Solar aside from its competitors?

That’s quite a hard question to answer, but I think it’s our skills and our track record. The fact we’ve been doing it 11 years, and have done a few groundbreaking projects over the years, that’s one of the key things.

We’re very cost competitive – we’re not the cheapest, and we don’t try to be the cheapest.  We focus on good quality. We’re recommended by Good Energy, the Soil Association and so on, and we have a bit more than your average solar company that are just trying to make a fast buck. We’re also part-owned by an ethical investment bank called Triodos, which bought a share of the company just over three years ago.

We came from an environmental background. I wanted to give people a practical way to address the issues in their own home or business.

Do you think the motivation of the people installing solar panels on their roofs is primarily environmental, financial or both?

Ten years ago, our clients were generally environmentally-motivated. And now, I think it’s a mixed thing. Generally, finance is a key driver these days.

Obviously the feed-in tariff [the subsidy scheme for solar] is part of that, but for our commercial customers – we do a lot of large installations on factories, farms and so on – it’s all about cutting costs and reducing exposure to energy price hikes. It’s all about getting a good return on investment.

With running a factory, you know how much energy you’re going to buy over the coming year. If we can come in and say that we’ll do 50% or 80% of it with solar, that’s very attractive. I think it’s absolutely brilliant, because it means the solar industry has gone from a niche environmentally-focused thing, to something that has mass engagement.

The feed-in tariff debacle appears to have settled somewhat now, but what effect do you think it had on the solar market and, specifically, Southern Solar?

It’s had a disastrous effect on the market, to be perfectly honest. Many good companies have suffered. Most have had to downsize their operations dramatically to find a way through, because the market shrunk dramatically.

It’s been unpleasant for most people in the industry, let’s put it that way. But there is still a damn good case for solar. The return on investment is as good as it’s ever been – that’s a fundamental point.

I helped run the feed-in tariff campaign and was the spokesperson for the industry, and whatever the rights or wrongs of it, it was important we stood up and registered our displeasure at the whole situation.

To be quite honest, it’s one of those situations where I was very sad to be proved right, that this would be disastrous for the industry. I think it has been, and whilst it’s brilliant to be a buyer of solar, I think it’s quite a hard space for a company operating in this sector.

Solar is not going to go away at this point. I’m very pleased that we’re in a much more stable period with the feed-in tariff. It means there is some normality back to the UK solar market, and it will start to bubble up again as it has been doing.

If you look at the stats of deployment from the start of the feed-in tariff, there wasn’t some crazy super-spike upwards right from day one; it was a gradual growth. It was actually when the government made the announcement that they were going to change the feed-in tariff when there was the big spike.

I hope we’re now on a nice steady growth path again, and the UK market has eventually settled down for the next few years – it certainly seems that way with ministers on board and supporting our success and working hard to promote the industry.  There is now a stable framework in place until 2015 which is great.

What could or should the government be doing to push renewables?

The rhetoric of this government has been particularly damaging. We’ve lived through the feed-in tariff and the government has destabilised the solar industry with that. The wind industry has had the same treatment – nothing to do with policy in that case, just the right words at the right time from a minister who’s no longer in post anymore [John Hayes].

It’s very divisive, and the narrative really is fracking and new nuclear. And to my mind, how close to political suicide can you get in terms of energy policy?

If you think about fracking, for example, where is the fracking going to take place? A lot of it is going to take place in the Home Counties – the very wealthy, traditionally Tory seats. These people are landowners, and people who have power and influence, and they’re going to be basically having the threat of fracking coming to their beautiful green and pleasant land.

In the few communities I’ve been in touch with around fracking, they are vehemently opposed and are planning their direct action already. Middle England is essentially rising up against this thing. I think it’s a serious threat to energy policy if fracking is the key policy – as I don’t believe it is the magic bullet it is being made out to be.

And then you’ve got Centrica’s CEO saying fracking is never going to happen like it did in the US in the UK. That’s the head of British Gas – one of the big six – and he’s saying it’s not going to happen.

Why is the government not listening? It’s totally mad. And all the while, it has been slowly undermining renewables.

What would you say to readers who are perhaps thinking about installing solar?

It’s a massively good option at the moment. The rate of returns are really high.

If there’s one thing that’s certain with energy, it’s that your bill is going to go up. And there’s one thing that we know we can do about it, and that’s called generating your own electricity. Solar does that, and it’s the simplest and easiest way to do it. People generally love it when they’ve got it.

The sooner you get on with it, the sooner you insulate yourselves from the inevitable price rises that will be arriving in the coming years. There’s no time like the present.

Further reading:

Why investing directly in renewables projects is a worthwhile venture

Bright future predicted for solar as government learns its lesson

Fewer solar installations since August subsidy cut

The feed-in tariff scheme unravelled

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy 2013

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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