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Once a physicist: Juliet Davenport

Why did you decide to study physics?

I just loved physics and I thought it sounded interesting. What I really enjoyed was the fact that you have to use your brain as a machine or computer to figure things out. Then, in my third year of studying physics at the University of Oxford, I was inspired by meteorology, and by learning why the meteorologist Michael Fish was so wrong in his predictions of the storms that struck the UK in October 1987. He got some of his data right, but although the measures on temperatures were correct, the information on the storms’ location most certainly wasn’t. This really brought home to me how an apparently small error in information could make such a big difference to people’s lives. This discovery, and the mounting evidence I was seeing that pointed to the effects of carbon-dioxide emissions on our climate, meant that I was hooked.

What drew you into renewable energy?

What really drove me to take action was my increasing frustration with the long-winded political process and the inertia I observed. I’d won an internship with the European Commission on Energy and was attending a debate in the House of Commons on the topic of future energy technologies. I’d been hoping for a robust discussion on things like combined heat and power technology, energy-efficiency measures and renewables. What I got was something very different. It quickly became apparent that the politicians present hadn’t bothered to read the chunky documentation that had been prepared for them by their officials. Instead, the debate rapidly descended into an argument about coal versus nuclear – and that was that. They filled the whole session with their point scoring and evidently weren’t remotely interested in the opportunities presented by other technologies. I found the experience hugely frustrating and frankly, depressing. It made me realize that politics wasn’t going to drive change and that the House of Commons was definitely not the place I was going to change our energy future. If I wanted to make it happen, I would have to find another route. That’s really how Good Energy was born back in 1999.

Tell us a bit about Good Energy.

Good Energy has always believed that the UK can be powered purely by renewables. To go 100% renewable is comparatively easy compared to something like travelling to the Moon. It’s about changing mind-set. Harnessing the power of the Sun, wind and rain, we buy, sell and generate sustainable, local electricity via the national grid to homes and businesses across the country. This is sourced from more than 1000 independent renewable generators across Britain, as well as generating electricity from our own wind and solar farms. We also administer feed-in tariff payments to more than 120?000 customers who generate their own power, for example via solar panels on their roofs. Earlier this year we also launched a new product: carbon-neutral green gas. This contains 6% biomethane (gas produced from organic matter – like manure and sewage – here in the UK), and to make it totally carbon neutral, emissions from our customers are neutralized through verified carbon-reduction schemes that support local communities in Malawi, Vietnam and Nepal.

What aspect of running Good Energy have you found most surprising or challenging?

One of the biggest surprises for me has been how the renewables sector has gone from being a fledgling outfit, producing just 4% of the UK’s electricity in 2004 (and in those early days, the entire British renewables industry met in a room above a pub in West London), to an international industry that generated more than 25% of the UK’s electricity needs in 2015. But entering a sector as a small “challenger” company, in a market dominated by, and skewed in favour of, a handful of bigger firms, has been a big challenge. Also, despite government research showing that support for renewables among UK adults remains higher than that of fracking or nuclear (for example, in July 2016 76% of people polled supported renewables while only 36% supported nuclear and 21% fracking), the development of any kind of infrastructure naturally brings challenges. This can take the form of conflicting opinions on economic cost or location, political opposition, government policies or planning decisions. One of our biggest challenges over the past year and going forward is that not all of the sites in our current pipeline will be approved or built. It’s a tough business to be in.

You were instrumental in founding the POWERful Women initiative, which seeks to advance the professional development of women in the energy sector. What inspired you to do that?

In 2015 the Women Into Science and Engineering campaign (WISE) reported that women make up just 14% of people in STEM occupations. That shocked me. I’m a passionate advocate for encouraging women in energy and view the transformation of the energy sector as an opportunity to include all members of society. Over the last 15 years, I’ve worked to make sure that the culture at Good Energy is one of opportunity for everyone, and having female role models throughout the company is an important part of this. Our male–female employee ratio is equal, and several women hold senior management positions. I hope that by sharing my experience it will inspire other women to follow their passion, take entrepreneurial initiative and do what they love.

Any advice for today’s physics students?

Enjoy it. And if you want to have a career in the renewables sector, get lots of work experience. Work for anyone – try different business models and sizes. Find out what you enjoy and what works for you, whether it’s a retail organization or a generator or a technology developer. Get lots of experience and discover what suits you best, then once you decide make sure every moment counts.