People and innovation key to Solarcentury’s longevity

Solarcentury owes its longevity in the UK market to constant product innovation and keeping hold of its core people, the company’s head of external affairs Seb Berry has said.

This morning Solar Power Portal announced that Solarcentury, which has developed more than 500MW of solar – roughly 5% of the UK’s entire capacity – as its top solar EPC in the UK market.

It underpins Solarcentury’s experience of the UK market which spans almost two decades after Jeremy Leggett founded the firm in 1998. Leggett is still a familiar face at Solarcentury in his position as founding director and Berry said that his passion for UK solar is “the DNA of the company”.

Leggett still ends each quarterly company review with an impassioned speech discussing the issue of climate change, and Berry believes his presence has been a major factor in the company being able to hold onto some of the people it has hired.

"That attracts some very impressive and motivated people in the industry, and that's been a key part of our success story. A number of the really core people who are now in senior positions within the company date back to that [early] period,” Berry said.

And it’s that long-standing experience and expertise which Berry also believes has stood the company in good stead when it comes to navigating the political risk which has become inherent with the UK market. Solarcentury has had to contend with a number of abrupt subsidy cuts, most notably the 2011 feed-in tariff overhaul which the company successfully challenged.

Solarcentury was less successful earlier this year in its challenge of the premature RO closure, however Berry said that the company had learned very early on the need to be agile in the UK market to respond quickly to political events.

“I think we've been pretty good at, and you might see this as a surprising position, at being pretty cautious about political risk in the home market. It may be that some of our competitors have not been quite as cautious, perhaps believing political rhetoric to an extent that was not justified in terms of what's actually been delivered since May 2015.

"Without the ability to drive and develop a market without any support mechanism, that kind of sensitivity to political risk has been key,” he said.

Nevertheless, Solarcentury made hay while the sun shone and in the three years of “relative policy stability” Berry says the solar industry enjoyed until March 2015, the company continued to grow and installed a number of landmark projects. London South Bank’s Tate Modern now boasts an 82kW rooftop system, while the 1.1MW system Solarcentury installed atop Blackfriars Bridge stole headlines when it was completed.

Berry’s favourite project however remains the 390kW system it installed on the Cooperation Insurance group’s CIS tower about a decade ago. The panels pack a modest 80W each – the most powerful available at the time – but the system was a signal of intent for what was a burgeoning cottage industry at the time.

“I still love that for all sorts of reasons. It's ten years old now, but it's still a very iconic installation and again done at a time when we were trying to create a market,” Berry said.

Looking forward, Solarcentury expects to maintain EPC activity for the coming year and has a 1.2 ROC pipeline to pursue. Its commercial rooftop business is also expected to continue strong growth and its recent partnership with IKEA, which sees the company replace the troubled Chinese supplier Hanergy, will add “another strand” to the company’s “commitment to UK rooftops”.

This extends as far as developing its own, aesthetically pleasing modules like Sunstation which Berry said have been targeted at the UK’s desire for “good looking solar”. Solarcentury is acutely aware of how tough the UK market will be in the coming months under the new FiT regime but, through a commitment to innovation and new product development, has backed UK solar to rebound in a big way.

And, in the meantime, Solarcentury has a burgeoning international portfolio where it continues to do work. Berry expects the “fruits of that overseas investment” to become visible this year and has not ruled out that process accelerating, perhaps into additional territories.

The experience and, perhaps more importantly, people it has acquired over 15 years of pushing solar in the UK has left Solarcentury in an ideal position to exploit its position. “It's testimony to the quality and the expertise we've been able to deploy in the UK - we're now able to export that all over the world,” Berry said.