Geoff Watson PhD was a widely respected pioneer of renewable energy who died in March 2011. We named the Endurance 55KW wind turbine at Croft West ‘Geoff’, because he was an inspiration to both Martin Large and James Mansfield when we met him in the last year of his life..and an inspiration to many others. He pioneered renewable energy, helped found the British Wind Association, founded a co-operative, and wrote a book, hopefully to be published soon, on small wind turbines..And much more… Reading his life story and giving thanks for his life, you realise that Ecodynamic wouldn’t perhaps have happened without the pioneering work of inspired, socially committed, environmental conscious engineers like Geoff.
When Geoff turned up on his small motor bike at The Exchange in Stroud to help a group of us develop a community renewable energy co-op, now called Gloucestershire Community Energy, I was impressed. Here was a Geordie engineer who had worked his way up to a PhD from a Wallsend, Newcastle shipyard and who worked in the great tradition of engineering pioneers like the Stevenson’s.
Geoff was born in Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne in October 1949 marrying Wendy at the age of 21. He followed his father, grandfather and aunt into engineering, and went to work at Swan Hunter Shipyards. With block release he studied for an engineering degree and rose to development manager. Geoff and Wendy became inspired by the alternative movement and moved out of the city to begin a new venture in the country.
With a group of friends, Geoff and Wendy started an Educational Charity spreading information on alternative technology, wholefoods and organic agriculture. He became a founder member of the British Wind Energy Association. At that time Wind Energy was regarded as completely ‘off the wall’ and no one took it seriously. But Geoff was a visionary who understood both the potential and the need – and he foresaw a day would come when the oil could run out.
The charity evolved into a worker’s co-operative called the Northumbria Energy Workshop. This co-op marked the beginning of the wind power movement in the North East, and also the beginning of a life dedicated to promoting wind power as a source of energy. Geoff studied for a PhD in the subject, and became a well known advocate and respected professional in this field.
When the Cooperative was set up there were only half a dozen members, but by the time Geoff and Wendy left Northumberland there were about thirty members, wind power was established as a new and exciting field and graduates were coming to work with the co-op.
In 1987, Geoff decided to take on consultancy work. He and Wendy left the cooperative, took their family to the Isle of Man, and started Manx Wind Energy Services. Geoff travelled as far afield as Africa, China, South America and the Falklands to develop and install wind and solar power systems, and train the users to operate and maintain them. In Trinidad, he set up an energy system for a school, and made a board with lights that lit up to show how the system worked – so the children could learn about it. In Zimbabwe, he installed power systems for a remote clinic, so that they could refrigerate medicines and provide light to help the staff in the evenings.
He also developed a system using spare power from diesel-powered grinding mills. Women from the villages around would come to these mills to grind their corn into meal. Geoff found a way of using surplus power from the mills to charge batteries. So now when the women come to the grinding mill to grind their corn, they can get the batteries recharged at the same time. The batteries mean they are able to light their homes after sunset, and that means they and their children can study in the evenings, educate themselves, and improve their lives.
Geoff loved to work in collaboration with others. So his involvement in cooperatives was partly down to principle, and partly down to preference. He would say that he just wanted someone to share the blame. But he was never a bystander. He always made a great contribution to any group – he was always fully involved.
Geoff had many interests and belonged to many clubs in his lifetime. Recently these interests have included the Stroud Canal and the Industrial history and architecture of the area. He was a member of the Stroud Canal Trust and loved taking his turn driving the trip boat. He loved to talk to enthusiasts to share in their knowledge. Despite his life-long quest to find alternatives to oil as an energy source, as an engineer Geoff had a passionate interest in machines. Over the years these included motorbikes, boats, his VW campervan and an off-road four-wheel drive. He even toyed with the idea of buying a canal boat that he and Wendy could live on, though Wendy managed to talk him out of that.
The last in the line was his 1953 Jowett Javelin car, which he bought just before his final illness. He’d been looking forward to tinkering with the car, taking it to shows, and chatting to other enthusiasts. In the event, he was only able to take it for one outing, but he was still thrilled just to have it.
Geoff loved boats and being by the sea. He reckoned he had sea water in his blood. When they lived on the Isle of Man they had a house by the beach and the room with the best view of the sea was his office, where he kept a telescope to watch the ships coming and going.
He was always full of ideas, plans and projects. And he was very good at persuading others to adopt them. Being a modest man, he never wanted to be the centre of attention, but was skilled at influencing the direction of a discussion. Any idea that he wanted to put forward was carefully thought through in advance, with all the advantages and disadvantages. But most importantly, he had immaculate timing – he knew how to pick the best moment to nudge things along in the right direction.
Geoff continued his work in the third world until his first serious illness twelve years ago. After his recovery, he and Wendy wanted a more settled life, so they moved to Stroud to work for Nexgen, a small renewable energy company. During this time Geoff developed masts to test potential sites for wind turbines, and Nexgen still sends these all over the world. After leaving there he continued to work as a consultant and to pass on his knowledge of small wind systems through the Wind Energy Association.
Then in November 2010 Geoff fell ill again, and was told he did not have long to live. He’d just been invited to write a book on wind power by Earthscan. With hard work and determination throughout his illness he managed to get the book to the point where it could be passed to a friend to complete.
He was quite accepting of the approach of death. He said he had no regrets – he’d led a meaningful life and enjoyed it. And he knew he’d done the right things. He knew he’d remained true to his beliefs, stuck to his guns.
Geoff was a people person. He cared about people, valued them, and appreciated them. And he loved his family. He was someone who could be depended on. He was clever, wise, and unflappable. He wanted to make the world a better place, and he succeeded.