John Maslen, Low Carbon solutions Manager, Locogen
We're delighted to welcome John Maslen to Locogen. Here we catch up with John to talk renewables in the third / public sector. And rewilding...
How did you get into renewables?
My interest in environmental and social issues has stuck with me since university days in the 1980s, when I was introduced to ‘global warming’. Twelve years ago I was chair of a local transition group looking to develop community energy projects and reading ‘Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air’ by David MacKay. This seminal book on the opportunities to decarbonise the UK’s energy system really changed the direction of my working life. At that time the opportunity arose to change my career direction. After 15 years running a GIS company, I teamed up with a colleague to start a renewables company. That was the start of my renewables journey and, a dozen years later, I’m still on it. However, it appears some things haven’t changed – the government remains ‘on the fence’ when it comes to our optimal mix of energy sources.
What excites you about the renewables industry?
There’s no doubt the energy sector is enticing – it is dynamic, unpredictable and has a direct impact on peoples’ lives and the wider economy. Most people have an opinion on it, which they’re rarely afraid to share! Politically it is a ‘hot potato’. The consequences of the lights going out is, I was once told, a common trigger for government collapse so, as a mission critical system, it doesn’t get much more important and politically charged.
Like many, I would like to play a small part in changing the world for the better over my albeit limited working life and I can’t think of a more impactful way to do this than through shifting our energy system towards sustainable sources. It’s a massive challenge with inertia embedded at all levels but I’m comfortable trying to be a minor agent of change. One thing is for certain – there’s rarely a dull moment in the UK green energy sector.
Tell us a little about your job – what do you see yourself doing at Locogen?
I have moved from a role of being the only ‘energy expert’ managing the ParkPower Programme at Greenspace Scotland to working within a highly qualified technical team – I am going to enjoy working with my colleagues!
My role will inevitably cut across many of the existing teams within Locogen to look at how we can grow the number of projects and range of services we deliver to UK public sector organisations and community groups. The company has done some innovative and award-winning projects in these areas but its technical roots can mean it doesn’t get the wider recognition it deserves.
It will also be important to monitor the government policy and funding environment in Holyrood and Westminster to ensure we stay abreast of any changes and identify opportunities that arise. Developing a network of relationships with key contacts across the UK public and third sectors and managing key accounts will be a critical element of my role.
How does your role benefit clients?
I would like to think I can bring some new insight into understanding the challenges faced by public and third sector organisations and help them develop viable, resilient solutions. Unlike many of my new colleagues, I am not an engineer, which, I would argue, makes me approach things a little differently. I don’t offer the in-depth knowledge of specific technical solutions. Instead, I try to know enough to help design new solutions while also focusing on the bigger picture about what drives organisations, how they make decisions and the range of benefits they are seeking. By nature I am a relatively practical ‘people person’ who likes to come up with creative solutions to tricky problems in collaboration with others. In some cases these problems will have more to do with organisational structures and relationships between people, rather than the technology itself.
How do you see your career evolving?
I haven’t really followed a typical career pathway. As long as I feel like I’m making a difference in the right areas and developing my knowledge then I’m ‘evolving’. Joining Locogen suits me well as I can use my past experience running a similar business in the sector, to nurture its continued development. I consider Locogen to be a great example of a Scottish company with the vision to take advantage of the growing renewables sector. Through sensible risk taking it has successfully navigated the industry’s choppy seas and the shifting sands of government policies over the last decade to still be around and thriving. This is a major achievement, a testament to the approach and hard work of the management team. I would like to contribute to its further sustainable growth at a time when the market is, again, looking like it will expand rapidly.
What do you see happening in the public / third sector?
With a limited number of exceptions like Nottingham City Council and Warrington Council, many public bodies have not made best use of the green energy incentive schemes over the last decade to build up renewable asset portfolios. In some cases, like the Edinburgh Solar Co-op, community bodies have stepped in to take-up opportunities for green energy projects based on public assets.
This is starting to change, albeit relatively slowly. There is now a clear and urgent need for public organisations to achieve their Net Zero targets, often formalised through Climate Emergency declarations. In terms of energy, their resulting action plans tend to focus on the twin areas of heat and transport, less so electricity, which is assumed to be decarbonising itself ‘naturally’. However, as we move more towards a dependency on electricity for heating our buildings and powering our vehicles, I see this changing. Many public assets will need to considered for on-site opportunities for renewable power generation. So, the potential for public sector bodies to become key players in the low carbon energy market is huge and, in many ways, our governments are actively encouraging them to dive into this space. Unfortunately, most are ill-equipped to tackle it and will need a lot of additional capacity to decarbonise their own assets, let alone persuade all their customers to do the same. There are some beacons of hope – Scottish Water have demonstrated they can be a forerunner in low carbon heat and are leading the charge with schemes around wastewater treatment works and even high flow sewer systems.
The reality going forward for community energy groups is less certain. Although in Scotland the CARES programme remains supportive and there are active community networks, the demise of incentives for heat and power at smaller scales severely restricts project development potential across the UK. There are only a limited number of scenarios that are currently going to stack up. Low carbon heat schemes in off-gas-grid areas could be a focus, together with new solar PV on community and public building assets, especially in areas where councils would prefer this to be done by a community group. More enterprising communities could look to develop their own smart local energy systems if they have the resources and funds, especially if they lie off the mains gas grid.
The challenges to address the decarbonisation of heating our buildings are immense and, frankly, daunting. However, we can’t kick a can of this significance down the road. Like The Netherlands, we have an energy system dominated by the centralised provision of natural gas with billions invested in its highly effective distribution. The big question is whether the UK Government can contemplate this network becoming a ‘stranded asset’ by investing in an alternative. Some forward-thinking councils like Leeds and Bristol are starting to look at large scale heat networks that could transform the heat architecture of our cities. Even villages like Stithians in Cornwall and Swaffam Prior in Cambridgeshire are looking at mini-communal systems based on low temperature heat networks. What we need is a clear direction of travel from Government with the policies to match.
Why did you choose Locogen?
I approached Locogen largely because I’ve always liked their name and overall branding! Actually, that’s totally true but not the real reason. I like the fact they have a ‘professional yet not corporate’ culture with an MD who claims I’ll not see him in a suit! More generally I want to focus my efforts on helping organisations to achieve their Net Zero goals and, through renewable energy adoption, this is probably the single best way to do this. I have known the company and some of its management team for many years and always had a great deal of respect for their technical knowledge and systematic approach. As a Locogen client in the last year I have also experienced this directly and been really impressed. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to work for a smaller organisation with local owners. I have come to realise over the years that I much prefer to work in organisations where you can talk to the company management team over coffee in the morning. Key decisions can be made quickly if necessary. There is a great deal I like about smaller organisations perhaps because I see myself more as a generalist than a specialist.
How do we know you’re not a machine?
My family do give me a hard time about working too much. I admit to having some ‘perfectionist’ tendencies (although not too severe!) so I definitely need some pressure to switch out of work mode on occasions. I used to climb mountains but these days my Gore-Tex jacket only seems to get outings to the flatter terrain of local beaches with the dog. One day I will climb Suilven and recite the Norman MacCaig poem! Given a free few hours, I’ll head off on my bike or take the kayak out…unless, of course, the grass needs cutting. Fortunately, we’re on a mission to ‘re-wild’ our garden… long live rewilding!
Please contact us if you’d like to discuss your own third or public sector renewables project with John.