Since its foundation in a converted church in Richmond, London, in 1998 by former oil executive Jeremy Leggett, its environmental mission has taken in the ups and downs of movie stardom, High Court subsidy battles, strategic pivots and international expansion.

According to chief financial officer Tony Crawte, it was Leggett’s experiences of the impact of oil on the environment that led to the formation of Solarcentury.

“He wanted to empower people to generate their own sustainable power,” Crawte says. “There are still people here from day one who shared that vision. They refer to themselves as the ‘shedders’ because, after the church, they moved to a draughty shed with a corrugated roof. But even as we have grown into a global organization, that goal has remained.”

From those beginnings as a designer, manufacturer, and installer of residential and commercial rooftop panels, Solarcentury now boasts a 6GW pipeline of solar energy in Europe and South America, with 180 employees across 12 countries. It made a £20m profit last year and has two sizeable projects in Spain. Most recently, it was acquired by Statkraft, Europe’s largest producer of renewable energy.

Humble beginnings

Solarcentury’s first residential installation was on a Northumberland farm in 1999, with the first commercial project at a Sainsbury’s petrol station in Greenwich, London. It swept up market share, helped by an £8m equity investment by Unotec in 2000; £1m from SSE in 2005; and a £13.5m funding round led by cleantech investor Zouk Ventures in 2007.

It also moved into new areas such as powering sports stadiums, schools and bus shelters and innovations such as the integrated C21e roof tile and solar thermal tiles.

“The tiles gave out the message that solar doesn’t have to look ugly on top of your building,” explains Crawte. “It all happened at just the right time as people began to switch on to renewables. We also opened offices in France, Spain and Italy in 2007 to sell our products.”

This popular appeal was accelerated by the UK government introducing a feed-in-tariff (FiT) scheme for solar in 2010.

Demand rose initially but a government decision in 2011 to cut the FiT threatened the sector. Solarcentury challenged the cuts in the High Court in 2012 and were victorious.

This helped the business maintain its rooftop business, and its high point was installing 4,400 photovoltaic panels on a solar bridge as part of the revamp of Blackfriars railway station in London in 2014. The bridge was later featured in the Tom Cruise movie Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

However, uncertainty over the FiT scheme, as well as the financial crisis, meant that Solarcentury needed to pivot its model. So it moved into ground-mounted solar projects with its first solar farm – a 1MW project in Specchia, Italy, that opened in 2010 – and several UK solar parks ranging from 5MW to 20MW. Other international projects included a 10MW unsubsidised commercial solar farm in Panama in 2015 and a 40MW project in Chile.

Operationally, there was a lot to juggle.

“Our main focus was the UK as we raced to make the FiT ending date,” says chief operating officer Steve Taylor. “The UK was delivering 95% of profits but it distracted us from our international push. That was an issue as we had to be successful abroad as we could not ride the British ‘solar coaster’ of subsidies and then no subsidies forever.”

Going global

Solarcentury determined that it needed to make another pivot and develop a global integrated model.

That meant not just carrying out engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) but developing, owning and operating global solar farms and managing key financial and commercial stages to power purchase agreements with utilities.

The whole challenge for us over the years has been to prove that, as a UK firm going overseas, we can do what we say we are going to do. Well, we’ve shown we are a serious player.

Tony Crawte
CFO, Solarcentury

“We were successful at EPC, but we wanted to access those other profit centres,” says Taylor. “There were challenges. We developed a 227MW project in Mexico to either sell on to other developers or ideally build ourselves. However, our cash position meant we couldn’t move ahead with construction. We decided to focus on a more lucrative opportunity to carry out integrated projects in Spain.”

These projects include the 300MW subsidy-free Talayuela solar park covering 820 hectares. Solarcentury has sold 80% of the Talayuela project to German renewables group Encavis, but will build the plant and assume the commercial and technical management. It is being built on a PPA basis.

“When we bought the rights to the projects four years ago, frankly, we doubted ourselves. We were proud of building a 50MW project, never mind one that size,” says Taylor. “We got our calculators out and thought: ‘How are we going to finance the build?’”

Access to funding

The answer came in December 2019 when it secured a €27.7m trade loan from NatWest guaranteed by the UK’s export credit agency UK Export Finance.

“We were keen to support Solarcentury in their pivot from being a UK-focused EPC group to a global developer,” says Drew Hayes, relationship director at NatWest. “We also have sustainability core to our strategy. What could be better than helping Solarcentury fight climate change?”

Marc Underwood, working capital sales manager at NatWest, adds: “Solarcentury is a business that is expanding internationally at pace, which consequently creates greater demand on their working capital. Here at NatWest we have the desire to support UK businesses like Solarcentury to trade and succeed overseas by providing tailored working capital and risk mitigation solutions.”

Crawte says the facility enabled it to lock in the production schedules for the two sites.

“The whole challenge for us over the years has been to prove that, as a UK firm going overseas, we can do what we say we are going to do,” he says. “Well, we’ve shown we are a serious player with a healthy pipeline and now have banking partners who get what we do and believe we can do it.”

Taylor believes securing the future of the projects attracted the transformative interest of Statkraft. “Before, our ability to develop all the projects we wanted to was limited by our balance sheet,” he explains. “With Statkraft behind us, we will be able to go quicker than ever before.”

Now, with the addition of the sale of the residential business to Sweden’s SVEA Solar, the focus of Solarcentury will be on its 1GW utility pipeline in Spain, its first UK project in four years – a 62MW farm in Wales – and utility-scale development across Europe and Latin America.

Solarcentury also went to Eritrea recently to install solar-hybrid mini-grids. “We were building these systems in truly remote locations with highly unreliable power from diesel gensets,” explains Taylor. “Reliable power enables trade, economic growth, and improved health.”

Crawte says he and the rest of the group have found fulfilment in all its projects.

“You don’t have to be an eco-warrior to want the world to be a better place for your grandchildren,” he says. “It is a very rewarding job. We just need the rest of the world to catch up.”

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