A climate scientist, economist and very successful entrepreneur walk into a bar with the goal of changing the world. It’s a formidable mix – analytical, straight talking, and, crucially, a genuinely optimistic outlook.
Her name was Juliet Davenport.
Davenport founded the UK’s first genuine 100% renewable electricity supplier, Good Energy, in 1999, having studied atmospheric physics and economics and a stint of working in government.
To set the stage: in the 90s we weren’t talking about how to fix ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ (which, to many in the UK sounded positively balmy) we still were debating why we needed to.
The energy sector was, and remains, a male dominated world. Fossil fuels were considered the only truly viable fuel source (you’re dreaming if you think otherwise, love) and renewable energy made up a paltry 2% of the UK’s energy mix.
On the face of it, the odds of success were stacked against the energy upstart. For those that don’t really know her it would have been easy to underestimate her ambition. Even Davenport admits that 10 years ago she would have been “disappointed” with the progress they had made.
But, after 22 years Good Energy is going strong and we’re telling a very different story. The world is waking up to the urgency of the climate ‘crisis’. Fossil fuels are recognised as the main culprits and are being phased out. Renewable energy makes up almost 40% of the UK’s fuel mix, with the very real possibility of this increasing to 80% within the next decade.
We have come so far. But, we have a lot further to go. The crucial question today is how do we bring about change at the pace we need?
And who better than to answer that question than a climate scientist, economist and very successful entrepreneur over a glass of wine?
Live Frankly: Let’s set the scene for this interview. Where are we at when it comes to the climate crisis?
Juliet Davenport: We’re at more of a tipping point now than I’ve ever seen. What I find really really exciting is that there is so much change at the moment.
I admire your optimism. A key question I’m grappling with is how do we balance celebrating progress with calling out companies who are greenwashing?
I think we do exactly that – celebrate progress and call out the companies who are greenwashing.
In energy, ‘culture washing’ and ‘arts washing’ are big issues. Sir Mark Rylance made an important stand when he resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company after 30 years over BP sponsorship. We need to make sure these companies don’t come across as nice and cuddly because they’re not – they’re really not.
Well, they might become so. I still hold out hope.
So, you haven’t written them off?
Not yet. I’m quite interested in that strategically, how do you make big businesses shift?
“There’s no one person who’s going to come riding in on their white horse to save the planet.”
Me too. But, I’m possibly more skeptical. In energy, as you’ll know, there’s a huge issue with companies saying they’re ‘working towards’ renewables but still investing in fossil fuels…
When most people think about their electricity bill they don’t realise they’re not just paying for the electricity they’re using. A lot of the money is actually helping to finance a particular lobby position.
And that was one of the reasons I created Good Energy. The idea was to have somebody at the table presenting a different potential future. Our position is the UK’s future could be 100% renewable.
Let’s take BP and Shell as examples. At the moment, the majority of their income still comes from oil and gas. So, even if you’re signed up to their renewable tariff you can’t guarantee the profits will be invested in creating more renewables. It’s more likely to go back into supporting the core part of their business to continue to protect what’s already there.
The reality with these organisations is unless there’s a huge external pressure, they don’t move forward naturally. Even if there’s a percentage of green customers, they still prioritise their profits over everything else.
What does huge external pressure look like?
With the banks starting to say they will no longer fund fossil fuels, we’ve seen a significant shift. Their lifeline is being cut.
I think another piece is people. These companies rely on really smart talent and it’s looking highly unlikely the next generation of super bright people will want to work for a company that might destroy the planet.
If you were to advise a young person whose goal was to help solve the climate crisis, where would you suggest they spend their energy?
I believe you should play to your strengths as an individual. There are so many places you can affect change. So, I think the first thing is to understand what you’re good at and what you’ll want to get up for each morning.
Years ago, I went to a conference that brought artists and scientists together. In one workshop the facilitator labelled each of the corners of the room as either politics, the arts, academia and business. He asked us to stand in the corner where we thought we would be most effective in fighting climate change.
What was really fascinating was how many people stood in somebody else’s corner; they didn’t stand in their own corner.
My personal view is I am absolutely in the corner where I think we should make change. Business has an important part to play. But, I believe it’s also the role of the arts, sciences, government and wider civil society. We need to work together.
“As citizens at every stage, in every part of our life, we can take a stand if we want to.”
Energy is notoriously a male-dominated space. What’s your perspective on this?
It’s a big problem. Even in 2020, only 13% of executive board seats in the energy sector are held by women.
I’m part of POWERful Women, which works to advance gender diversity in the energy sector.
It’s not just about diversity at board level, it’s also about senior executive level. In every industry, you can put lots of women on the board relatively quickly, and don’t get me wrong, that’s a really good place to start. But, we also need to be growing the female leaders in our organisations and bringing them through as hard as we can.
You’ve recently announced you’re stepping down as CEO of Good Energy. What’s your next focus?
I’m staying on the Good Energy board as a non-executive director, so that’s very much still a focus. I’m also staying on as the chair of one of our subsidiaries, the electric vehicle charging network Zap Map, which is very small, very entrepreneurial. It’s very exciting.
But, there’s huge momentum building at the moment and I’d like to branch out into other organisations to support them. There could be some work on consumer protection, too…
Government is typically far too slow to act. How do we speed that up?
We have to try harder. As a business, we spend our life trying to get regulation to be better. We try to make sure laws don’t go backwards, because fossil fuel companies are still lobbying for them to do so.
It can be a huge frustration. For example, about six years ago we influenced the regulator to put some legislation in place about how to protect consumers from greenwashing and, unfortunately, there was a policy change that undermined it. We’re living with the impact of that now – I’m sure there’s more renewable energy being sold in the UK than there is renewable energy being produced.
I don’t think it should be the job of consumers to become experts in every sector to navigate greenwashing, because that’s what it’s becoming.
What can individuals do?
As citizens at every stage, in every part of our life, we can take a stand if we want to.
The important thing is to start somewhere. Start with your own home and go on a journey. It could look something like saying to yourself: ‘Right, I won’t buy from a company that damages the earth’. Then: ‘I’ll try not to damage the earth myself’. Then: ‘I won’t vote for political parties that damage the planet’.
I have this ongoing debate with friends about heroes. Heroes are great and Greta Thunberg is probably my favourite hero. But, there’s no one person who’s going to come riding in on their white horse to save the planet. We’re all going to have to do this together. As long as we’re all moving forward, and moving forward in step, we will make a massive difference between us.