Howard Johns: Burned by the solar eclipse

Cuts to renewable energy subsidies signal a seismic shift to fracking, Howard Johns tells Tom Bawden

Tom Bawden@BawdenTom
Thursday 17 November 2011 01:00

Howard Johns, the quietly outspoken head of the Solar Trade Association, is understandably "having a nightmare". Not only has the Government just announced the third substantial cut in solar power subsidies in four months. But it seems increasingly zealous about shale gas, which is "fracked" out of the rocks with blasts of sand, chemicals and water and has been linked to earthquakes and water pollution.

As a former lynchpin of Britain's environmental protest movement, who has thrown his body down on construction sites from the A30 in Devon to the open-cast Selar mine in South Wales, Mr Johns is deeply concerned about the prospect of widespread fracking in this country.

As head of the Solar Trade Association – and founder of Southern Solar – the photovoltaic businessman is concerned about the damage that shale gas could inflict on his industry because it is far cheaper than renewable energy and much greener than coal and oil.

Sitting in a café on the corner of London's Borough Market, 38-year-old Mr Johns is a study in quiet determination.

In a sharp-but-casual grey suit, the softly spoken Mr Johns rips into the Government. "This is a complete and utter sham, all this stuff about green growth and how this was going to be the greenest government ever," says the son of a Royal Navy Commodore, who spent most of his boyhood in Portsmouth.

"No one will invest in green growth in this country when the Government keeps moving the goalposts. You need stability to grow as an industry, so you can make plans and stick to them."

He is particularly angry because he is sitting on what he regards as explosive new evidence that so-called feed-in-tariffs (FITs, or sums paid for excess electricity generated by households from renewable sources), far from draining the purse, are highly profitable.

He wouldn't give the numbers ahead of their release by the Element Energy consultancy later this month. However, The Independent has seen an extract which shows that the tariffs have generated more than £280m in various taxes since they were introduced in April last year, and cost just £220m.

According to Mr Johns, this new evidence contradicts the Government's stated reason for cutting its FIT subsidy on solar power by more than half this month. The Government has assumed that the tariffs would ultimately be loss-making with the costs passed on to consumers in the form of higher bills. Announcing the tariff cut this month, it said that if it didn't lower FITs they would be adding £26 to the average electricity bill by 2020.

Whether FITs are ultimately profitable or not, the energy Britain could generate from the sun has recently been overshadowed by the promise of shale gas. The discovery in September that shale gas reserves in the Blackpool area are far greater than previously estimated, has made fossil fuel an increasingly viable and attractive alternative to renewable energy.

Politicians have made a series of comments in recent weeks which suggest to Mr Johns that they are preparing the ground to drive through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on an industrial scale.

Last week, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne called for regulator Ofgem to look into whether "further action is needed to ensure that medium- to long-term gas supplies for consumers remain secure".

Mr Johns comments: "This looks like a cover for pushing through shale gas. The fracking lobby were all over the Tory party conference. Britain is far too small and densely populated for fracking. And there are still a lot of questions about its effects to be answered."

Mr Johns argues that the tariff cut will force an exodus of household and larger-scale investors in the industry that in turn threatens about 10,000 jobs – about 40 per cent of the total – as well as lost tax revenues for the Government.

Looking back on his education, he admits to "being pretty disinterested at school... My standard report card said 'could do well if I applied myself'."

After failing to get the grades for architectural engineering, Mr Johns' sister asked him what really interested him. The answer – nature and renewable energy – prompted an exhaustive search through university prospectuses until the two of them found a single course in renewable energy at the University of Glamorgan. It was 1991.

After graduating, Mr Johns became an active protester at the centre of a nationwide campaigning network. A few years of protesting later, he trained as a plumber and electrician before setting up Southern Solar, an installer headquartered in Lewes, Sussex, with two friends in 2002.

"Protesting is very important, but it is essentially saying 'no' all the time. I wanted to do something positive, so I started saying 'yes'," he said.

The Government's proposal to reduce the solar tariff from 43.3p per kWh of electricity generated to just 21p will reduce the annual return from investing in solar panels from around 7 per cent to 4 per cent. This will increase the time it takes to pay off the £10,000 to £12,000 upfront investment from 10 to 18 years.

In his latest quest, Mr Johns wants to persuade the Government to rethink its FIT cut, reducing it by just a quarter – to 32p – instead.

A slew of legal cases may aid his case. These argue that the proposals are illegal because the new tariffs are set to be introduced on 12 December, even though the consultation process doesn't end until 23 December.

If successful, the lawsuits, brought by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, would likely postpone the introduction of the lower FIT rate. This would buy Mr Johns valuable time to finalise his research and use it to pressure the Government to rethink its FIT strategy.

The CV: Howard Johns

*The son of a Royal Navy engineer who rose to the rank of Commodore, Howard spent much of his childhood in Portsmouth, where his father ran Portsmouth dockyard.

*He completed a degree in energy and environmental technology at the University of Glamorgan. After graduating, he spent a few years protesting on environmental issues before moving to Italy to learn how to install solar panels. He returned to the UK, trained as a plumber and an electrician, and set up Southern Solar with two friends in 2002.

*In addition to running Southern Solar, he was appointed chairman of the Solar Trade Association in 2007. He is also one of the founders of OVESCO in the so-called transition town of Lewes in East Sussex. The organisation is dedicated to making the area "carbon-neutral".

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