Dan Davies: a farewell
This July, Dan Davies leaves Solarcentury after a career here spanning four decades. He shares his journey.
A bit more than 21 years ago – a few weeks after becoming a dad for the first time – I joined Solarcentury.
I’d been working for Jeremy Leggett as a consultant the year before, developing a number of solar business ideas (…more on that later). This visionary solar concept work I was doing with maverick Jeremy contrasted with the more grounded jobs I had working for one of the UK’s largest engineering consultancy firms. So, when Jeremy suggested I join him I jumped ship and joined his PA and an intern in an incubator hub in a church hall in the suburbs of London – and that’s when the fun began.
21 years later, with many twists, turns, ups and downs on the so called Solar Rollercoaster I am about to leave the company which I have helped create and which has been a huge part of my working life. I feel privileged to have worked with an array of wonderful people and am proud to have played my role in building Solarcentury and driving the solar industry forwards from a fringe energy option to the globally dominant position it is in today.
In the beginning, shelf building
I don’t recall my first job title but my work included sales, engineering, project management, procurement and putting up shelves in our new office/industrial shed behind the Richmond to Victoria railway line.
Our target market was the residential retrofit sector as part of the “UK 100 Solar Roof” programme for which we had lobbied hard. Our first sale was an off-grid hybrid system (PV-diesel-battery) for a home in the Scottish borders. The price was £35K for 2kWp – £17.50 per watt peak!
There is some symmetry in the fact that my or our first ever sale, and then my final projects at Solarcentury were all off-grid hybrid systems; but more significant is the 20x price reduction we have seen which would not have been believed back in 1999. And it is this that has taken solar from niche to mainstream in such a short timeframe.
One of the early business models which Jeremy and I pitched to the board of China Light and Power in a Hong Kong skyscraper in 1998 directly addressed the need for scaled up manufacturing to realise cost reductions. The proposed 100MW plant was probably 10 years ahead of its time but in the last 10 years, bold investments in solar – mainly in China – have been the driver of low-cost solar. I sometimes wonder what the journey would have been like if China Light and Power had said yes to solar rather than pressing ahead with a few more nukes.
Before Elon Musk
Jeremy continued to gather inspirational people to help guide Solarcentury, one of these – Roger Booth (formerly the Head of Renewables at Shell) set us a target of getting 30% market share of the UK’s first Major Demonstration Programme for residential solar. Working with a number of architects and developers and an expanding team of engineers and project managers we secured this 30% with BP Solar as the main competition. This was a pattern that continued through the various funding rounds that followed – peaking with 60% share of the Low Carbon Building Programme in 2008.
A key focus for us in the early years of the solar industry in the UK was building-integrated solar – BIPV. The principle being that solar integrated into buildings provided power at the point of use, took advantage of the buildings structure and electrical connection and the use of PV as a building material could make the economics work by accounting for the offset costs of the alternative building materials.
The architects of the Big Brother house kind of got this point when they called to ask if they could use our “blue panels” to clad the outside wall of the house. We developed the design and gave them a proposal – one key question remained “where do you want to connect the power output?”. Surprisingly their answer was “you mean they generate electricity?”.
A more informed client was the Co-operative Bank who – in keeping with their ethical stance – wanted to over clad their aging HQ in Manchester, with gleaming solar panels. Designs were developed, prototypes tested, and tortuous contractual structures agreed. We knew about solar but were too small and untested to lead this major construction project, so instead we made up part of the consulting design team AND were the specialist sub-contractor to a major EPC to ensure delivery was a success.
For some time – this was the largest solar cladding project in the world and featured heavily in the marketing material for Sharp Solar – one of the leading manufacturers of solar in the early noughties.
As turnover increased two things were clear – we needed more money and we needed to innovate. The key area for innovation was in the creation of BIPV products and solutions as we started down the track of becoming a solar roof tile manufacturer long before Elon Musk had that brainwave!
Innovation; from sketches to investments
The residential sector was the most buoyant and with housing developers being required to integrate renewables we developed a UK specific solar roof tile which generated electricity and one which supplied hot water. The CompleteSolarRoof – or C21e and C21t (21st Century solar electric and thermal roof tiles) – was sketched out on my kitchen table with our hit team of product developers and engineers and went on to win multiple awards.
The innovation continued and the New Product Development team expanded as we moved into creating solutions for commercial property, industrial buildings as well as energy displays and a variety of finance offerings.
And as this innovation continued solar prices kept falling. BIPV demonstration projects gave way to larger projects supported by Feed-in-Tariffs and renewable certificates of various sorts. This had the twin impact of reducing the aesthetic/architectural aspect of the market and projects started getting bigger. Low cost was the order of the day and we embarked on major rooftop programmes and the first ground-mounted solar farms. Clients changed from green homeowners and CSR focused businesses to individuals wanting to “put their pension” on the roof and Finance Directors and Investors looking at making a return on an investment in solar power plants.
Innovation started to mean financial project structuring and efficient installation processes. We re-orientated ourselves to serve the solar farm/investor market. With BIPV becoming less relevant to our business, I needed a change. And as one door closed, so another opened.
With solar prices falling and energy storage technologies maturing, opportunities for solar to start to displace diesel power on weak or isolated grids became more prominent. We started receiving enquiries from Africa which I leapt on. With a scouting trip to Kenya it became clear that there was a nascent market for solar to support businesses who suffered from low quality and high cost power – with back up generators supporting an intermittent grid supply.
With some arm twisting I got approval to set up Solarcentury East Africa and moved with my wife and two teenage daughters to Nairobi. Sharing offices with the SolarAid team in Kenya and building up a team focused on serving the commercial and industrial sector initially in Kenya and then in more countries across Africa has been a great adventure. I first worked in Kenya aged 18 as a volunteer teacher; returning there to develop solar projects and then encountering a former student working for Unilever Tea was a real thrill. Travelling widely across the region to meet clients and deliver projects in often remote locations was a privilege and opened the door to a side of Africa which is often overlooked – dedicated people working hard to build businesses and create jobs, do research and improve lives with limited back up.
The projects the Africa team has delivered – in some of the hardest places to work anywhere in the world – have represented many firsts for Solarcentury. The first multi MWh battery projects, first trackers and first hybrid mini grids. All of this puts us in a strong position to expand our role in the African market.
As Solarcentury continues to adapt and drive the market forwards we now see ourselves focused on project development, a complete integrated model with a shift away from offering just turnkey solutions. This has necessitated a restructuring of the Africa team to focus on development of projects. Having managed this restructuring I decided that this was where I needed to get off. I leave a focused team able to build on what we have done in Africa and to replicate what we are successfully doing in Europe.
To thine own self be true
My career at Solarcentury has spanned 4 decades. The times which I have enjoyed the most have been in the start-up, growth, blank sheet of paper phases – in the UK and then in Africa. This is the main reason why I feel now is the time to leave – the business has changed, the dynamic is different – and whilst I feel immensely proud of what the team and I have done and where the business sits today, I’m personally at my happiest at an earlier stage of an organisation’s development.
My daughters have grown up with Solarcentury. Their lives are changing as they study away from home and think about life beyond university. And so it’s time for a change for me too. I hope that after 21 years in Solarcentury I can find something else which gives me as much satisfaction and fun.
I have learnt many things working with the 1,000 or so people who have at one time been colleagues in Solarcentury:
Accentuate the positive. We have been buffeted by negatives, naysayers and critics, the occasional businesses that want to cut corners, dirty lobbying from the fossil fuel industry, and inept or cynical bureaucrats. But among them are housebuilders wanting to alleviate fuel poverty, clients who want to go the extra mile, civil servants who create opportunity by breathing life into political idealism and good people working in bad industries who yearn to change. Work with THOSE people, accentuate the positive.
Trust your colleagues. With so much change since we started we have had to be adaptable and flexible; teams have changed, processes grown, software developed and decision structures formulated. We have had success where people have been entrusted with a job to do, supported in doing that and more often than not going the extra mile to make a success of doing something brave and new.
Say “yes”. The power of “yes” opens many doors and yet it’s often easier to say “no”. Without “yes” I would not have chased the Co-Op Tower or the Eden Project or Africa or taken the risk of joining Jeremy’s crazy start up…and these have all had positive outcomes.
I wish all of the colleagues I leave behind every success and I hope you continue to enjoy doing the important work we are all engaged with. We shall meet again.