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And the household energy efficiency award goes to...

Updated Saturday 1st May 2010

John Willis and Elliot Simm both won Ashden Awards for their work to improve the energy efficiency of homes using renewable energy sources and a whole-house approach

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Interviewer

Well we’re here at the Ashden Awards in late June in 2010, and we’re talking to John and to Elliot who appear as finalists at the Ashden Awards.  Guys, if I could just get you to start off by introducing yourself and saying who you are and who you work for?

John Willis

After you…

Elliot Simm

My name’s Elliot Simm I’m from Northwards Housing which is part of Manchester Council, I’m a Home Improvement Service Manager for the Wilton Panel, and we undertake all the refurbishment work to about 12,500 properties.

John Willis

And I’m John Willis of Willis Renewable Energy Systems.  I’m the Managing Director of a small family business that’s actually, it’s about 123 years old this year, and we’re involved heavily in the renewable energy sector.

Interviewer

Fantastic, can you say a little bit about what you’re doing here at the Awards?

Elliot Simm

Basically we put in a submission for the award back in October last year, we’ve done a lot of PV installations, solar installations and insulation systems to our 12,500 properties.  So basically we’ve reduced our emissions by 12.2%, so obviously we’ve got to the final on the basis of that work that we’ve undertaken.

John Willis

And we, in the course of our work, have invented a completely new and unique way of converting solar energy into hot water, and basically it offers a number of really big advantages over the way things have been done before.  So we were invited to enter for the Ashden Awards on the basis of the invention of that product.

Interviewer

Congratulations to you both for making it this far.  What first got you started thinking about ecological issues, issues of sustainability and so forth?

John Willis

Well from my part really it’s been in the blood ever since I’ve been growing up, my father was a natural inventor.  We were installing solar panels in the 1960s actually, and historically the company - I mean renewable energy isn’t actually something that’s new.  Back in the 1800’s we had a hydraulic round pump which used the force of flowing water to generate the force to drive a pump.  So basically I’ve been involved in the field all my life actually.

Elliot Simm

It’s not something I’ve always been involved in and interested in.  I’ve got two small girls now so that’s promoting my interest, and I found out that through the work that we were doing we could actually make a difference.  So retro-fitting properties, doing the refurbishment process was an easy option, it didn’t cost actually too much to do when we were doing the other works.

Interviewer

And so being a parent has ...

Elliot Simm

Oh definitely yeah, definitely.  Three and six years old they are so I want them to have a nice green future.

Interviewer

They sound like they might keep you in a lot of trouble.

Elliot Simm

Well yeah, they’re definitely a handful.

Interviewer

Well that’s actually a nice segue into the next question which is, as you look to the next generation, as you look forward to the next one, five, ten years or so, what do each of you see as the major issues defining the next decade?

Elliot Simm

I mean the way I see it, it only has to be small changes each person makes.  I think a lot of people have the perception that you’ve got to change your lifestyle completely, but by making small changes you could easily cut emissions by 20%, and then once you’ve cut those 20% you can move on to bigger savings in the future.  Things like just walking instead of getting in the car, riding a bike more, switching appliances off, just small items like that do make a big difference without changing people’s lifestyles too much.  And I think that’s the message we’ve got to get across.  I think that’s what scares a lot people into doing things like this, they think of the cost and they don’t think of the bigger picture.

John Willis

Well for my part, I think we need to see fundamental change in the way that we do things, the way that we think and the way that we operate.  I mean now we’ve got grant schemes to help encourage people actually to take up renewables.  I think that really legislation needs to be changed in the building codes of practice so that basically all of these things are actually a requirement of the loan code so that they’re built in as a natural, and I think that will be the biggest future change.  Basically I think that rather than be something that will be on a wish list for people to do that it will be something that will be a natural part of every household to have a renewable energy sources already incorporated into their homes.

Elliot Simm

I do think the energy suppliers have a big part to play as well, because obviously they’re supplying it.  As fossil fuels run out they’re going to have to maintain their profits in different ways, so I think they’ve got to put a lot of back into it, which we’re finding from some energy suppliers that are assisting us at present.  They’ll put the capital forward, we pay them back over a period and then the system becomes ours after 12 years, or something like that.

John Willis

There’s no doubt about it, as the cost of fossil fuel rises over the next ten years, we just have to look at the rise in oil prices over the last number of years to realise that really we have to start getting on board with alternative technology.  And certainly that’s, in the next ten years I think that will be, what I would say is the biggest change is the rising cost of fuel will mean that it’s no longer, will I, won’t I, it will be an essential part of every household to have your solar collector, your ground source heat pump, your high standards of ventilation within the home will all be accepted practice.

Interviewer

So tell me, you both work in the built environment sector, what do you see is the major challenges defining specifically the built environment?  Is there one issue that stands out for the both of you that you think is critical to developing this sector?

Elliot Simm

I think from our point of view the big item is retro-fitting older style properties, antique properties, and the funding of that.  From a local authority point of view funding is the major issue.  I mean we’ve got an energy efficiency task group within our organisation who come up with a wish list of schemes, but to undertake them obviously needs the backing financially.  Obviously with cuts government are making around the world that’s becoming harder, which is why I said previously that that’s why I think the energy companies have a bigger role to play in that by putting money up front for us to do the work, getting the money back through savings on build and then giving the systems to us in 10, 12 years so we can make a profit from them.

John Willis

I would agree with that for the most part, but in addition to that I think the other big thing that we’ll actually see is not only funding from energy companies and from government but also the cost of installation will need to come down as well.  That’s one of the things I think that we are most proud of with our invention is that it makes a really effective contribution towards reducing installation costs, reducing installation costs by about 30% in our case of a typical solar thermal installation.  But what I see looking around is that as technology develops so the installation cost - I mean if you look at laptop computers for example, I mean in the early days laptops were expensive almost luxury items that people wanted and now they’re almost essential.  Every household maybe has two or three laptops and the cost has come down to five or six hundred pounds for a laptop, where is used to be several thousand pounds.  And I think in the renewables world you’ve got to find the same thing with that technology as well.

Interviewer

So you see a very clear relationship between the technological sector and the renewables sector?

John Willis

Yeah I think so.  I mean basically if you look at anything in life, you know, you’ve got the novelty of the new and that carries a premium price, but then as more people get involved so there’s more competition and more innovation and so the price comes down.

Interviewer

Would you agree with that?

Elliot Simm

Yeah, I mean you go to these exhibitions and there’s hundreds of products on display, but again from a local authority point of view you gotta look at the long term plan, the payback period.  So yeah, if something is expensive to buy you’ll probably go for the cheaper option even though it’s not as efficient.  It’s only when people start buying that product and it gets advertised and the price comes down, whether they could get money from government to drive their prices down.  But it is moving on, there’s new products all the time, it’s just a matter of keeping your eye on the ball, isn’t it, to make sure you’re getting the right ones.

John Willis

The other fundamental change that I think I see, and it’s inevitable, and that is going to be, I mean it’s like the carrot and stick at the moment, you know, we’ve got the carrot trying to encourage people to get involved in renewables.  I think that over the next ten years you’ll see a move towards the stick.  So in other words those people that haven’t taken it up will be taxed for not having the renewables in place, and I think that’s a fundamental change that I think we will see over the next ten years.  That will be the one that I would actually say would be the big one actually.

Interviewer

That’s fantastic thank you.  I’ve just got two more questions for you.  Elliot you just mentioned going around to exhibitions and so forth.  Thinking about this exhibition and this event today, what are your expectations for the Ashden Awards.

Elliot Simm

Well we’re hoping obviously to advertise the products that we’ve done, the schemes that we’ve undertaken, and ultimately if that gets more funding opportunities for us that’s great.  But we also want to advertise the fact that it is easy to do this as part of an ongoing programme to other similar organisations, whether it be in the private sector or the public sector.  So we want to advertise what we’ve done, like I say more funding opportunities may come available, but the biggest thing is advertising it to other people so they can benefit and they can do the same for their staff as well.

John Willis

So for our part really we see winning an Ashden Award as raising our profile on a truly sort of international stage.  We view the Ashden Awards a little bit like the renewables version of the Oscars, but it really does have that sort of international kudos.  And by winning an Ashden Award it sort of gives us an opportunity to expose us to the world in a way which we just otherwise couldn’t do, so there it is, that’s it.

Elliot Simm

I think one of the things from our point of view as well is the more residents that are kept out of fuel poverty and we reduce their bills, the more they’ve got to spend in the local economy, and again regeneration-wise that’s great.  So that’s a biggie for a local authority such as Northwards Housing.

Interviewer

Just one more question for you, and John if you’d start us off, when you look forward to the next ten years are you an optimist or a pessimist?

John Willis

I’m an eternal optimist.  Basically I’m definitely a glass half full man, and I see actually a good future for the industry and for the planet really.

Elliot Simm

I’m going to sit on the fence on that one.  I’m an optimist as far as Britain, USA’s concerned, countries like that, but having just done the Open University course and read a bit more what’s going on in China and the likes of those countries I think they’re going to maybe get worse before they get better, so I don’t think they’re on a sustainable course.  So yeah, optimistic about our side, I’m not sure about the other one, so somewhere in between, but hopefully we can get there and change their views on that.

11’35”

 

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