I must admit I was a bit nervous at the prospect of interviewing Deborah Meaden. Having been an avid fan of Dragons Den I wondered how the interview would go and whether she would display the same characteristics as someone being grilled in the Den, but I needn't have worried. As Deborah breezed on to the Ploughcroft stand at the recent National Homebuilding and Renovating Show at the NEC, it was obvious that the stern, focused, business woman also had a very friendly approach, happily chatting to the visitors on the stand and laughing with the Ploughcroft employees.
Chris Hopkins, founder of Ploughcroft, who recently won the interest of the Dragons with his low carbon technologies and renewable energy company, walked out of the Den with an investment from both Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis. Today Chris was providing a solar installation demonstration and proudly announced that they are one of a few companies to supply the new 333 watt SunPower panels.
After the demonstration I caught up with both Deborah and Chris to find out more about the company and their plans for spreading the message about renewable energy.
With so many Solar companies in the marketplace I was keen to find out what it was about Chris's company that caught the imagination of Deborah. "It was obvious to me that Chris was in it for the long term play, so many companies have set up to make a fast buck but I was looking for someone who had a passion for their business and for renewerable energy, until I met Chris I had even considered setting up my own company and bringing people together, but Ploughcroft meant we had all the people and company already set up"
"It is also rare to find an investment that is both the right thing to do financially as well as for the environment and Ploughcroft offered both".
Deborah installed her own Solar panels, just before meeting Chris so knew a little about the technology, she was also fortunate enough to have guarantee the 43p fixed feed-in-tariff which she secured for 25 years. Now that the government have dropped this to 21p, I was interested to find out if it was still a good deal for anyone considering solar.
Chris and Deborah both agree that the deal is still good, "When I paid for my Solar the installation cost about £17,000, but the same system would cost far less today so even though the fixed feed in tariff has been reduced to 21p it still offers the same rate of return as two years ago."
Deborah explains that the government wouldn't and shouldn't support the fixed tariff long term, the idea behind it was to kick start the industry and once that's done people will realise that it is the right thing to do not just for the financial reasons but for the good of the environment. The only criticism she has is how the government handled the cut in the tariff. "It wasn't communicated well and people suddenly lost confidence."
Although the government are offering 21p, it is forecast to stay until June. The proposal is to reduce to 16p, however Chris is campaigning for it to remain 21p for another year, but both agree that some point in the near further the government will discontinue their support of the fixed tariff, so the next few months still offer a very good reason to install solar.
The general perception is that unless you are going to stay in your home long term then it isn't worth considering, I wondered what Deborah's opinion was on this. "No one really knows how it will effect the secondary market, but if two properties were for sale on the same street and one had renewerable energies then this house would certainly have the edge over the other property" I tend to agree with Deborah, we bought our house three years ago and the fact that it had solar thermal was a real selling point for me. We turn off our heating in March and all our hot water is provided by the solar panels until September, I only wished that we had a larger roof space to accomodate Solar PV as well.
During the demonstration I asked Chris if their was a minimum number of panels to make it worthwhile installing. "I think a minimum of three of the 180 watt panels or perhaps two of the new Sunpower panels is the smallest installation I would recommend, on their website they have calculations from 15 to 30 square meters.
We are lucky that our roof is South facing, but what if the roof faces another direction? "South facing, with a 30-35 degree pitch, with no shadow from other building and trees is obviously the best, however East and West is still 86% efficient and north still offers a 60% efficiency", says Chris. Deborah also points out that you don't need heat for Solar PV, even on a freezing cold day you can generate electricity, just as long as it is reasonably bright.
Since investing in Ploughcroft, Deborah has installed further panels on her outbuildings and even has them fitted on the building housing her pigs, " I regularly go down and check to see how much electricity I have generated, it is actually quite addictive checking to see how much money I have earned, it's the easiest money I have ever made."
Our building developer, had the foresight to install Solar Thermal but I wondered if Deborah thought that it should be mandatory for all new buildings to install solar. "Solar may not be the answer, but I think that all renewerable energies should be considered whether it is ground source, wind turbines, air source heat pumps or the new Micro-CHP systems (Combined Heat and Power), a new technology that Chris is very excited about."
Since winning the investment from Deborah and Theo, Ploughcroft have expanded their business to include other forms of renewerable energy as well as expand to create 8 training sites, meaning that they can now offer installations all around the UK.
With the Dragons contacts and Chris's passion and knowledge he has developed NVQ courses, offers training, is a construction ambassador and is working with schools to educate children about the benefits of careers in this fast growing industry. "When I became a roofer, roofers were classed as the ‘dummies' of the building trade, but this is changing, we are having to be more knowledgeable and are gaining the respect of the industry".
So with so many Solar companies appearing in this market, why should anyone consider Ploughcroft? Having met Chris and his team, I understand Deborah and Theo's reason for investing in this company. They clearly have a passion not only the business and the environment but also for doing a job well. His team are first and foremost very good roofers but with a thorough understanding of this new and growing technology. They take pride in their installations and I know that if I had a slightly bigger roof I would certainly call Chris and his team, but with their other areas of expertise I shall be watching them carefully to see if they have other ideas for replacing my oil tank!