The sale was completed on 1st November, and the following is a composite Q&A of media questions that I hope will explain what the sale means and what I will do next in my campaigning on the climate crisis and for social reform. Most of the questions were for an article in The Scotsman.
Q. What was the reason for the sale?
A: To realise its full potential to fight the climate meltdown, Solarcentury needed a bigger balance sheet than existing investors could provide. The Norwegian state provides that, and – vitally – does so with a congruent core mission on climate. At Solarcentury we have had a mission to make as big difference as we can in fighting climate change throughout our 22 years of independent existence. Statkraft is a company driven by this same motivation.
Q: What message do you have for the team at Solarcentury?
A: Simply an enormous and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has worked for the company, present and past. That is more than a thousand people, so my thanks amount to a veritable mountain of sentiment. I know that for most of these good folk it is a wonderful new beginning, safe in the knowledge that the DNA and culture we have created together lives on a company that is set to be a giant in the solar industry going forward. I once had a Norwegian boss, when I was with Greenpeace, Kalle Hesstvedt. And knowing Stakraft and their leaders as I do, I am confident my colleagues at Solarcentury will work just as well with them as I did with Kalle. Meaning some serious contributions in the fight against climate chaos!
Q: What brought around the decision for you to invest the cash from the sale of your shares into Scotland and in something completely new?
A: I have been a campaigner for action on climate change and social reform for 30 years, and only went into business as a campaign vehicle. I believe that Scotland has a great chance to be an enduring leader in fighting climate chaos while fashioning a better economy, including building back better after the Covid crisis. Plus I have loved the Highlands since I was a small youth-hostelling boy.
Q: How do you foresee the money from the sale of your shares being invested?
A: I will be investing further in the Bunloit Wildland project, further in Makar the amazing Inverness-based timber-building manufacturer, and in a fund that will be set up by compadres of mine to try and create other Bunloit-type projects, both in the Highlands and elsewhere.
Q: Why has this area of work become so important to you?
A: Two reasons. First, we now know we can’t win on climate without removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on an enormous scale. Bunloit-type projects hold the potential to do that, by measurably increasing the extent to which the gas is sequestered in woodlands, peatlands, pastures, soils and also to some extent in wooden buildings powered by renewable energy on a micro scale. Second, we are only going to maintain social coherence if we can provide good jobs for people, plus affordable housing and functional self-helping communities on all scales, at the same time we fight the climate- and biodiversity crises.
Q: Please give a picture of the type of project that you would like to support on the ground?
A: Picture a tract of mixed woodland, peatland, and pasture on which people live and work. Measures are taken to boost the ability of the land to sequester carbon and increase biodiversity, for example via regeneration of native trees, restoration of peat, and regenerative treatment of the soil. So in the case of the Bunloit estate, we essentially create a world-class outdoor laboratory for the science of natural-capital accountancy, measuring our impact as we go. I’m thrilled to say we already have a UK government grant to begin doing that. Governments understand this kind of thinking and are generally encouraging it. Meanwhile, the people who come to live on the land work there, and they come to own the land they live on. This is about land reform as well as climate change and biodiversity.
Q: What will be the social benefits of such a project?
A: First, our progress with nature-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises will hopefully inspire others to copy this kind of project, including those who use estates in much less nature-friendly ways. Second, people will have jobs other than in tourism (vital as that is). They will increasingly be able to work exactly where they live, and in ways that improve the health of both ecosystems and economies.
Q: How will such projects help counter climate change?
A: A Bunloit example, beyond the increasing carbon-sink capacity of land treated well. We will have wonderful Douglas Fir trees ready for harvesting. They will be used by Makar in net-zero carbon homes in Scotland, some of them perhaps on the estate itself. A cubic metre of wood in such homes locks up around a tonne of carbon dioxide. Use of micro-renewables will help. The two small solar arrays on Bunloit have saved 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the 8 months I have lived here. The felled Douglas Firs will be replaced with native species, and as in Scandinavia, we will plant and/or regenerate more trees than we fell.
One idea we have for nature-based solutions on Bunloit is a small school for master furniture building, on the edge of the estate above Drumnadrochit, with an intake of about 20 students a year. Most of the places would be reserved for locals. They would be using Bunloit wood. Local nature-based solutions writ large, so I hope.
Q: How are these ideas of yours going down in the local community?
A: It’s actually a bit to early to say. I have set myself a 12 months period of intensive consultation before making any big decisions, and I have four months of that to go, including a mass outreach phase. One advantage of the project is that I can adapt to feedback if there are elements that are unpopular. And of course I may hear better ideas. We have plenty of options.
Q: There seems to be a real momentum in Scotland at the moment regarding changing land use, rewilding and building a new relationship between people and the land. Do you feel that is the case?
A: Yes, and that is one of the main reasons I decided to move here.
Q: Are landowners with shared values/vision good at coming together to discuss ideas, the bigger picture?
A: This part of the story is still being written. I am cautiously encouraged by the reception that one of my advisor organisations, Trees for Life, are getting to their East West Wild idea – the notion of estates collaboration on a rewilding corridor funded by nature-based solutions business models the breadth of Scotland. Bunloit would be on the east end of that, and many estates to the west seem to have open minds about the idea.
Q: Can you give me an idea of who the ‘compadres’ are that you want to bring on board?
A: Please let me park that question for a few weeks until we are ready for a coherent announcement. Suffice it to say that we will be aiming to bring a fund measured in tens of millions to work for nature-based solutions in Scotland using a Bunloit-type model.
Q: How are you finding living in Scotland so far and how do you feel about the future?
A: I am loving it, notwithstanding Covid and the lockdown. The local population has been welcoming, without exception so far, whilst in many cases not hesitating to educate me in a direct manner about things of which I know little as yet. That is what I need, if this project is to have integrity, and succeed.