Simon Nicholls – Devon Power!
Simon Nicholls is on a mission to offset one million tonnes of CO2 by 2025. From corporate lawyer to Clean Energy-Warrior. Today Simon is delivering multi-megawatts of clean, green electricity to thousands of businesses, but this wasn’t always the case. Global travel. The non-stop world of finance and law. High-stakes business deals. Innovative environmental technology projects. No, it’s not the plot of the next Dan Brown novel but, rather, Simon’s journey to founding and running the exciting and expanding Devon Power Group, a renewable energy fund based here in Exeter.
A proud Totnesian, Simon studied Philosophy at Kings College, London before going on to trade shares all over the world. Just him and a laptop, he based himself in Bermuda, California, Asia and Australia for about two years total. Simon reminisced,
“This season in my life was fulfilling in many ways but felt strangely empty. The novelty of global travel and focussing on money quickly wears off and you realise that, if you don’t have something more substantial to treasure in life, you’re not actually happy. I remember speaking with a friend from Totnes on a beach in California and having a moment of awakening where I realised that I needed to do something more with my life. I always wanted to do something which had meaning – not just to my immediate circle, but to all.”
NEVER LOOK BACK
On a cold and grey day like the one that we were meeting on, I wondered if the often rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight occasionally led to Simon fantasising about the warm, welcoming sands of some faraway land? He replied, with conviction,
“Absolutely not! You can’t ever look back. It stops you from moving forwards if you ask me. It was an important part of my journey into what I do now, but I never wish that I was back there, doing what I did back then.”
“We all have a duty to try to alter the current course of human occupation of Planet Earth. The Industrial Revolution saw us fall deeply in love with fossil fuels; no wonder as a barrel of oil can do the work of eight men working twelve-hour-days for a week. Not bad for $60. It is no surprise that this love affair turned to addiction as we became used to achieving great tasks in a short space of time; how else could Concorde get us from London to New York in 3.5 hours. The key to beating this addiction is to be able act in a meaningful way without compromising business.”
Simon is putting skills learned in the corporate world into practice, offsetting CO2 and he is well on his way to hitting his targets.
He started this new season of his career by attending Law School, qualifying in London with a city firm, becoming a practicing lawyer and working insane hours. The whole corporate nine yards. He then moved out to the Middle East where he worked predominantly on infrastructure projects, particularly in the oil, gas and water de-salination industries. The majority of these were IPP’s (Independent Power Producers projects), essentially big assets which produce electricity and sometimes also clean water by way of desalination. At a basic level, these projects install energy-generating assets and then sell the energy which they produce.
He then carried on the same type of work but in West Africa, namely Sierra Leone where Simon established a company called Enterprise Power. This company developed a large power station project, planted a ten-thousand-hectare sugar cane plantation with a thirty-two megawatt biogas boiler on-site to burn the waste from the sugarcane and continues to trade to this day.
The stakeholders of this company have developed 7% of all IPP projects in sub-Saharan Africa and are currently developing a 120 MW power station and an offshore LNG Terminal in Benin. An FSRU (Floating Storage Regasification Unit), this project gathers gas offshore, plugs into a pipeline which connects to shore and then powers a power station on mainland.
“It is a very tough project indeed but, if we’re successful, it will change the way in which power is provided in the whole of western Africa. This, in turn, will have a huge impact on the geopolitical landscape of that part of the world. At the moment, there is a gas pipeline that starts in Nigeria and runs through Benin, Togo and Ghana with plans to expand up to the Ivory Coast. However, very often the gas doesn’t make it out of Nigeria, meaning that the other countries are under-served from a power and fuel point of view. If this project is successful, that will no longer be the case!”
A HOMECOMING OPPORTUNITY
It was about three years ago that Simon stepped away from daily involvement in some of these huge projects dotted around the globe. Primarily, the opportunity seemed to lie in solar panel projects so, sitting in an airport lobby in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Simon started to research the feed-in tariffs for electricity in the UK and ran a financial model there and then.
He was struck by the opportunity to operate solely in the UK again, avoiding some of the challenges that he had faced operating globally (such as ‘sovereign risk’ – the risk of a foreign country’s government moving the goalposts with project finance debt repayments and, therefore, reducing or negating the value of existing contracts).
This all added up into a compelling case to make the UK his permanent base. So, three years ago, he returned to his home county of Devon. Here, he started a family and established Devon Power Group, which has since expanded quickly into a seven-company portfolio of businesses with a common theme of energy – be it production, distribution, carbon offset or related ancillary energy services.
Initially, this was done in Simon’s spare time whilst he completed a previous project. At one point, he was travelling between Lebanon, London, Africa and Washington weekly – over forty hours of air travel per week. With so much time spent travelling, he decided to try and do something productive and achieved a Masters in Sustainable Development from London School of Economics, pretty much all done whilst at 30,000 feet. Simon joked,
“The irony of that isn’t lost on me. I have worked hard to offset my carbon footprint ever since as I know that period of my life was terrible in that regard.”
During this crazy period of his career, Simon travelled down to Devon in his spare time to meet with Business Park owners and pitch them the idea of installing solar panels on their roof free of charge and then selling them cheap electricity; the IPP model on a micro scale. Touring blustery business parks in an old MGB, Simon eventually managed to persuade some Devonians to give him a chance.
Their first project was in Newton Abbot, servicing fifteen businesses with a quarter of a megawatt of power. The business park owners loved the numbers so much that they actually went into business 50/50 with Simon. They used Beco Energy for the installation and Simon then used them for thirty-five installations since. Beco used to be owned by a different parent company, which ran into some financial problems so, in a roller-coaster eight day period whilst Simon was on holiday in France, Devon Power purchased Beco Energy, saving them from going under and, essentially, bringing their skills and contracts in-house.
SAVING THE WORLD TOGETHER
One of the other subsidiaries of the Devon Power Group is Taurus Energy, a business focused on reducing carbon emissions and offering carbon offset solutions to businesses around the UK. They are on a mission to offset one million tonnes of CO2 by 2025 – even in Simon’s own words,
“a wildly ambitious target”.
That said, they’ve made a cracking start, already helping around 250 businesses to offset their CO2 usage.
Most impressively, they have just had sign-off on a national contract with JD Wetherspoon, achieving a total carbon offset of almost 15,000 tonnes of CO2 across their nine hundred pubs and fifty-two hotels each year. Yes, the carbon saving is impressive, but it also equates to a financial saving of circa £3m per annum too. Not a bad bit of business to save such a sum and become more environmentally sustainable too.
Similar sized opportunities are at trial stage with Enterprise Inns and Best Western Hotels (amongst others) and it is in this aggregated model of installation that Taurus Energy stand the best chance of reaching their self-set 2025 target. In his own words, Simon confidently stated,
“We install our solution for free. They save energy. They save money. We take a margin. We all save the world together. It’s really that simple.”
Simon further explained,
“We leaned particularly heavily into Taurus Energy as an opportunity during a huge depression of the solar power market. We had to pivot into something more ‘evergreen’ and less reliant on government policy. That was a beneficial and profitable decision and, since then, the solar market has become more buoyant again meaning that, as a whole group, we now have a lot on our plates (in the very best way)!”
On the solar power front, Simon continued,
“We are aiming to install around 50 megawatts of rooftop solar panels in the next five years. The way that government subsidies used to work was that companies were incentivised to install systems of a particular size. In return for doing so, they would receive the optimal financial returns for energy which they produced. However, since the subsidies disappeared in 2018, the game has changed and efficiencies are now based on scale, not thresholds. As a result, the bigger the roof space that a company has, the more energy they can generate and more savings they can secure. So, large warehouse-based companies are seeing solar as the prime opportunity for the most economical and impactful way of looking after the environment.”
On business in general, Simon comments that
“Every business has a duty to be more sustainable. We are on a mission to disrupt the conventions of energy supply and management by installing energy efficiency equipment at no cost to businesses. All we ask is that we share in the savings we create. In this way we create a sustainable business which generates long term stable income by reducing carbon emissions; a win-win, and also success for the planet. The ultimate Triple Bottom Line. Why wouldn’t you?”.
Simon has established himself and the Devon Power Group in an industry which is at the forefront of the conversation about the future of sustainability, how humans interact with the world around them and the daily workings of our very society. With one eye on his exciting existing projects and the other on key growth markets such as the burgeoning Electric Vehicle market (“pregnant with opportunity and technological advances” as Simon commented), I couldn’t help but feel that he has a busy but hugely positive future laid out before him. With his magnetic positivity and relentless energy for the things he is passionate about, Devon Power Group is surely in good hands with Simon at the tiller.
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos provided by Grow and Devon Power