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Global ‘Apollo’ push for renewables and storage troubled by ‘out of date’ thinking

Jeremy Leggett in a recent on-camera interview for UK solar website Solar Power Portal, also from PV Tech Storage's publisher, Solar Media.
Clean energy entrepreneur and activist Jeremy Leggett has said “out of date thinking” is behind a push to make clean energy competitive with fossil fuels within 10 years that was launched today by prominent UK academics.

The Global Apollo programme calls for efforts to be made on clean energy comparable in scale and scope to a unified international space programme and has been put together by a team which includes Sir David King, a former chief scientific advisor to the British government. The programme advocates for “a major scientific and technological programme of research, using the best minds in the world and the best science”.

The formation of the group follows a public call to arms made by King last year to significantly speed up the transition to low emissions energy sources worldwide. A 40-page document published today refers to the expected two-degree rise in global temperature by 2035 and says an absolute limit on carbon dioxide emissions will be crucial to prevent this from happening.

Global Apollo proposes the six “pillars” of clean energy to be renewables, energy storage and transmission, as well as nuclear energy, fossil fuels burned with effective CCS (carbon capture storage) and energy efficiency. The authors claim the latter three already see a “high level of research effort” but that the former three areas need further support to reach these levels.

“It’s going to happen anyway”

PV Tech Storage's sister site PV Tech spoke to Jeremy Leggett this morning about the report. Leggett said that he was “bemused” to hear that it championed measures including a contribution of 0.02% of the GDP of each country involved between 2016 and 2025 for research. He said that it in his opinion, regardless of the Global Apollo programme’s input, costs are falling for renewables quickly enough that competitiveness with fossil fuels within 10 years is “going to happen anyway”.

Leggett is founding director of UK PV developer SolarCentury as well as SolarAid, SolarCentury’s charitable foundation to replace polluting and expensive kerosene lamp lighting in Africa with solar lights, as well as being a prolific author on the various issues around energy and climate change.

“I’m a little bit bemused by it, honestly, because they’re talking about a massive global research programme to get electricity competitive with fossil fuels within 10 years,” Leggett said.

“In my world, I’d bet serious money that that’s going to happen anyway, without the research programme.”

Leggett explained however that he was not against the aims or questioning the motivation of the Global Apollo team, which also includes Cambridge University professor Lord Rees, economist Lord Layard and Lord Browne, a fossil fuel industry executive and formerly CEO of BP.

“It’s important not to make this black and white. There is no doubt that additional research by bright people, well funded, is going to accelerate what’s already happening,” Leggett said.

“I’m not saying that additional research is a bad idea. What I’m objecting to is the casting of it as an effort to save the world when actually, we have a market process in train that we just have to accelerate, it’s already happening.”

For example, he said, where Global Apollo called for contributions pegged to national GDP levels, market-based solutions could be found instead. Looking at Germany’s experience of the national energy transition, or Energiewende, Leggett said, switching to a larger proportion of renewable energy had resulted in savings on energy imports. In other words, rather than proposing a levy which could be construed as punitive, a combination of market-based solutions and regulatory reform could achieve many of the same goals.

“If you look at what the German renewables industry is building for GDP, that would have to be in the equation and the savings being made by German renewables against gas imports for example, that too is a really important part of the equation,” he said.

“If we accelerate something that’s happening already in the market and factor in the savings that we make as we transition to clean energy, you don’t need to start presenting these things as a penalty to GDP, [or as] a cost to GDP, there are net benefits to GDP [instead].”

The economics of solar-plus-storage are irresistible and Apollo may not be needed to see costs falling rapidly, Jeremy Leggett said. Image: Sonnenbatterie.
Good guys

Leggett said that while energy storage in particular is a new area for many people outside the energy industry to consider, the industry itself has made impressive strides in cost reduction. As regular visitors to PV Tech's sister site PV Tech Storage will note, several investment advisory services and analysts have highlighted the near future potential of solar plus storage. 

“If I just take one analyst’s report from the last year or so, the UBS one on solar and storage, they say in that, after looking in detail at the solar market and the storage market, people are going to have a solar roof, EV a bank of batteries in the home by 2020, five years from now. They payback will be six to eight years and the annual return on investment will be 7%, pre-tax.

“These things will be flying off the shelves. You’ve seen the indicative orders for the Tesla battery – US$800 million in orders? In the first week? We don’t know how many of them will turn into real orders but that means their factory which hasn’t been built yet will be sold out through 2016. And people are still talking about the need for research?”

“The market is happening, and it’s going to happen very fast and it won’t need this kind of Apollo project.”

In conclusion, Leggett said that he knew several of the Global Apollo contributors personally or knew of them by reputation and said they were all “good guys” and believed their motives were honest.

However, he said, “My honest opinion is that it’s all a bit out of date and they should have had some practitioners from the cleantech frontline involved in the authorship.”

This article has been amended from its original form to correct a quote. Jeremy Leggett referred to annual returns on investment of "7%, pre-tax", not "7% to 10%" as initially posted.

"One of the good guys"; Sir David King, one of the report's authors and former chief scientific advisor to the UK government. Image: World Economic Forum.


The market is happening, and it’s going to happen very fast and it won’t need this kind of Apollo project.

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