Interview: Ben Harrison, Managing Partner of mypower
- Credit: Andrew Higgins© Thousand Word Media Ltd
Ben Harrison was born into a farming family. Now the solar energy pioneer is cultivating a very different business with a bright future
When Ben Harrison talks about the future being bright, he means it. He's the Managing Partner of mypower, an award-winning solar energy company based deep in the Gloucestershire countryside.
The drive to mypower's offices, past the rolling fields of Toddington, is stunning.
Ben arrived at the firm in 2010 and, since then, has been quietly installing solar PV systems on the roofs and in the fields of big corporates, SMEs and farmers.
But by 2016, the company was well and truly in the spotlight. Fitting 150 bespoke solar panels to the roof of Gloucester Cathedral - home of Harry Potter and the regal resting place of Edward II and William the Conqueror's eldest - catapulted mypower to fame.
The twists and turns of a 1,000-year-old nave roof, 30m off the ground, meant it wasn't a gig for the faint-hearted. But that didn't phase Ben.
"I'm a perfectionist," he laughs. "I really wanted to go for it, because I knew it was going to be a real challenge, really exciting.
"I remember saying to the project manager, 'are you sure you really want to do this?
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"'There's a lot of shading, a lot of shadowing, it's a 1,000-year-old building...'
"And he said, 'we've spent three years getting planning permission. We're doing this'."
It's typical of Ben's pragmatic approach to the solar industry and panel installation.
He prides himself on advising customers honestly. If he knows a scheme won't deliver decent returns, he'll say. And he's extremely vocal about the cowboys out there - and there are many - charging customers exhorbitant sums to clean and repair under-perfoming panels.
For Ben, Gloucestershire is home turf. Twice, he jokes, he moved out of the county - 200yds into Warwickshire and later 200yds into Worcestershire. But they were short-lived forays.
The son of Snowshill farmers, Ben insists the solar business isn't a huge leap from his agricultural background - despite the continual planning controversy surrounding huge solar farms springing up in the green belt. It's just farming the land in a different way. He studied rural estate management at the then Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester before doing his articles at Bruton Knowles in Gloucester. From there, he moved into compensation claims and then finding and managing mast sites for mobile phone companies.
And then, in 2011, came the lightbulb moment. Literally.
"Some farmers started to ask me what I knew about solar and renewable energy," he says. "And of course at the time, I didn't know very much. But they kept getting calls from shiny-suited salesmen who they didn't trust, so I went to a lot of shows, did a lot of research."
At a cricket match one night, he bumped into Simon Taylor, Managing Director of recycling equipment company QCR - with whom mypower now shares a building. Simon wanted to put solar panels on the roof, but had been unimpressed with the products in the marketplace. So he set up mypower and persuaded Ben to run it for him.
Mypower started domestically and then, thanks to Ben's contacts in the then prosperous farming industry, moved quickly into much larger schemes.
"Farmers were the pioneers of the solar industry," says Ben. "One reason is, they look long-term, they look generations rather than years.
"Those with land have quite a lot of assets and are able to invest in solar, and they were trying to derisk their agricultural business through diversification.
"And subsidies were high. In those days, you were almost farming solar for the subsidies."
Those glory days are no more - the Government closed its Feed-in Tarrif subsidy scheme to new entrants in March.
But Ben insists it's not the bad news many think.
"Over the past two years, we've seen electricity prices for SMEs increase by over 35%," he adds.
"That effectively removes £35,000 from the bottom line for a business previously spending £100,000 on electricity.
"This, combined with the signifcant reducation in the cost of having a solar PV system installed to generate electricity to use on-site, means solar energy no longer needs subsidy."
The figures are undeniably impressive.
Commercial-scale solar power can, Ben says, compete in the free market because it offers electricity 70% cheaper than power supplied from the grid.
And it adds a 25-year certainty to energy prices, because the lion's share of a firm's electricity has a fixed price. It also reduces C02 emissions.
It's about businesses taking control of their electricity supply.
One of mypower's first big commercical jobs was an installation at Stow-on-the-Wold Rugby Club. Countryfile star and Cotswold Farm Park owner Adam Henson - whose son played rugby with Ben's boys - cut the ribbon.
From then, word-of-mouth has meant mypower has built a business based on quality and reputation.
"It's the ethos of our whole business," he says. "Do what is right, come what may. And that's always stuck in my mind."
The run-up to the scrappage of the subsidy scheme - a year-on-year reduction of the financial incentive - has been a rocky road. But Ben has held firm, knowing the industry will settle.
"Knowing there was a whole bunch of pile it high, sell it cheap people out there, companies just out for a quick buck, just spurred us on," he says. "People said we were mad - being in something that's subsidy-led and subject to Government policy is always going to be volatile. But we've kept a small team of eight and our overheads are very low, so we can be reactive and still, quality is of utmost importance."
There is, insists Ben, still a huge market for solar installations. The price of panels has halved since 2012 while electricity prices have soared by a third - and yet payback time has remained fairly static. Within seven years, customers will start to make their money back.
"You can now buy your electricity from solar at 5p per unit, compared with 15p from the grid. It's the future, it has to be."