20 years with Solarcentury: Q&A with founder, Jeremy Leggett

Jeremy Leggett

This year marks Solarcentury’s 20th anniversary. To celebrate the milestone, we chat to founder Jeremy Leggett.

Solarcentury turns 20 this month. As the company founder, how does that make you feel? 

Proud, grateful, and lucky. It is an absolute rarity for a solar company to still be alive, let alone relatively healthy, after 20 years in the brutal market that “the solarcoaster” has been – in large part due to consistent undermining by the rearguard sabotage of energy-incumbency actors. The fact that we are still alive is down to the hard work, grit, and patience of literally hundreds of talented and committed people over the years. But I do not delude myself. We have been helped out by some outrageous luck along the way.

What stands out about the people?

That’s a bit of an unfair question, unless you allow me 10,000 words. Let me stick to the leaders. I have been particularly lucky with the leaders, over the years. You can view the company’s history as four phases. The first, from 1998 to 2007, involved a struggle through the “valley of death” from cash-burning to profitability and our first own solar roofing products. We faced a tough economic environment, in the recession following the dot.com crash of 2000. I led that phase, with difficulty and a lot of help from my CFO, Neil Perry, who is still with the company. Neil was effectively a mission-critical co-leader in that phase.

The second phase, 2007–2012, was a second cycle of investment and ascent to profitability, led by Derry Newman, former Managing Director of Sony in the UK. He too faced awful economic conditions, after the credit crunch of 2007 and financial crash of 2008.

The third, 2012–2014, was a phase of spectacular growth largely due to UK solar parks, led by Frans van den Heuvel. The fourth phase, 2015 to today, has involved transitioning the company to an international project developer and solar energy-services platform. Frans has led that.

Great leaders like Neil, Derry and Frans tend to hire great people – and they in turn tend to hire great people. I think that has been the key feature of the people story.

What about the luck?

Apart from the availability of people like that, at the time we needed them, there has been the raising of capital. The company has had four rounds of venture-capital investment, all raised in my time as CEO, totalling £28 million. The first, £8 million in 2000, we raised soon after the dot.com crash. The fourth, £13.5 million, we raised just weeks before the credit markets froze in 2007. Many good companies ran out of money after the credit crunch and went under. We had a cash cushion, and didn’t.

How has the company changed over the years?

It has become increasingly professional, and commercial, as you might expect. For years now, watching the senior team at work has reminded me of a unit of battle-hardened elite soldiers at work in wartime. Their individual and collective calm and resilience under murderous pressure is awe-inspiring to me. Two big things have not changed though. The first is the tendency of team members, at all levels, to combine professionalism one minute with a sense of fun the next. It’s a cliché, but “work hard play hard” has always been a feature of this company.

The second thing that hasn’t changed is that the company’s social purpose has continued to be a strong motivator for many staff. We give 5 per cent of our net profit every year to a charity we created in 2006, SolarAid, and the team raises further funding in a variety of ways, perhaps especially including sponsored cycle and running races. A lot of team members buy into that.

What inspired you to set the company up?

Fear of climate change. I first felt that fear strongly enough to change vocations in 1989, when I quit an academic career to become an environmental campaigner. After more than eight years with Greenpeace, mostly working on climate, I started out as a solar entrepreneur. I view that vocation as just another form of climate campaigning: an extended non-violent direct action in a dysfunctional marketplace that – left to its own devices – will cook the planet.

What were the main challenges along the way?

A constant challenge has been the long fighting rearguard action by the energy incumbency – the big energy companies and their proxies in governments. Latterly, this is showing signs of change – profoundly so in the utility industry, and increasingly in oil and gas too. But those who have wilfully dragged their feet bear a huge responsibility. Some of them may yet have to pay for that in the courts of the world. I would need many pages to elaborate, and have done so elsewhere in the various books I have written along the way, especially The Carbon War (spanning 1989 to 2000), Half Gone (spanning 1997 – 2005), The Energy of Nations (spanning 2003 – 2013) and The Winning of The Carbon War (spanning 2013 to 2017).

Tell us about the internationalisation of the company. How did that come about?

That began early in the company’s history, with the creation of offices in France and Spain in the first phase, and Italy in the second. But that helps make my point about the incumbency. After some initial success, all those offices later had to be closed. The reason in each case was government reversals, of different kinds, on feed-in tariff regimes. A feed-in tariff is a form of subsidy that is designed to step down the level of support regularly, predictably, as prices fall – so allowing businesses to plan ahead. Governments almost everywhere have yielded, at various times, to incumbency lobbying to slash-cut them, creating income cliffs that many solar companies have fallen off. The UK did that in 2011, during the coalition government, and then again when the Tories took over alone.

Solarcentury’s internationalisation has been an inevitable component of our search for growth, but also a dire necessity in the face of a UK government that favours subsidies for shale gas and nuclear, and is willing actively to sabotage some renewables to make space for their favourites. Solarcentury has been lucky enough to have the capital for expansion in other countries. Other solar companies haven’t. They had to stay in their domestic market only – and went under as a consequence.

What are your top three memories?

Just three? In 20 years! Please have a look at the slide show I prepared of the history of the company, or at one person’s view of it anyway. Many top memories spill from the pages of that, I hope.

What’s next – both for Solarcentury in business terms and for you personally?

We have major opportunities ahead, but also challenges. In the short term the imperative is to deliver on the pipeline of projects we have built, and to expand on it. I try to help the exec every way I can both as a part time consultant to them, and of course as a board director. In the short-term, I don’t see that changing. In the longer-term, I plan to do more writing, as a kind of “wise maven” for the entire constituency of people who care about climate change, clean energy, the responsible use of tech more generally, and ergo – the future of civilisation. For that is ultimately the business that Solarcentury is in: the multi-fronted quest to safeguard the future of civilisation.

Read more about Solarcentury’s 20th anniversary here.