A CONVERSATION WITH SIMON NICHOLLS
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye, Photos by Peter Oliver
A conversation with Simon Nicholls, Founder & MD of Devon Power
Tell me about your background and career so far?
I grew up in Totnes and am pleased to be back in Devon now doing what I love. Following a splendid education in the finer points of Buddhism and inner reflection in Totnes I read philosophy at Kings College London, then law and latterly a masters in Applied Environmental Economics.
Following the opening of some well-known bars in London (China White, 10 Room and Mars Bar) I had a two-year spell trading equities from Bermuda, California and Asia. I then spent a decade or so as a corporate and project finance lawyer for a few of the large global law firms, doing interesting and insightful M&A work in London and Project Finance in The Middle East and Africa. Deals that I was involved with include a $2B rolling finance for Xstrata and numerous Independent Power Projects (IPPs) in complex jurisdictions such as Iran, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Ghana. Fun!
What have some of your challenges been to date?
Energy projects are always complex regardless of scale and fuel. We now deal in flow rates and sunshine instead of oil and gas, but the finance and technology challenges simply change with the feedstock. Perennial problems revolve around helping our customers understand the value and flexibility of clean energy and the efficiencies gained from renewable technologies in a world that is very used to oil and gas, and also large scale utility companies with limited choice.
What have some of your most notable successes been to date?
Being part of a team responsible for 7% of all IPPs in sub-Saharan Africa. Through an African power development company which I co-founded I assembled a team of seasoned energy professionals and together we have delivered a very significant proportion of all IPPs in Africa. Projects totalling circa £1.3B and delivering power to millions of Africans who were previously under-served by the energy market. A very satisfying achievement and one set to continue having recently secured the second ever private licence to generate, transmit and distribute power in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the UK we have deployed solar across multiple sites and are still very actively looking for industrial rooftops specifically for landlords with tenanted buildings where we can provide material revenue to a landlord on a fully-funded basis. We are currently working with various property owners around the South West installing solar for them. Solar is now such a mature technology that we have found finance for landowners well below 5% which means the system is free and pays for itself from savings and income in less than 7 years. Solar is truly a subsidy-free success story and I have loved it from day one. It makes perfect sense to generate your own power in situ and without ongoing costs. No wonder it is now widely predicted to be providing over half of all global electric by 2060.
What is the vision for your organisation?
The Devon Power Group is comprised of seven core businesses which deliver a diverse range of products and services all centred around the theme of efficient energy.
I established the first business five years ago when we moved back to Devon. Since then we have acquired or founded an additional six businesses providing a diverse range of services from marine geotechnical surveying for offshore wind arrays, power and telecoms cables, to putting bespoke remote Remote Access Power Systems on the Brietling Orbiter.
We also have more energy-efficiency-focused businesses in the UK including demand side response facilities, utilising the latest battery tech and gas turbines as well as a solar asset management company and the oldest energy efficiency business in the UK which has always had its home in Devon – Beco Energy.
Describe your business’ cultural values?
We are a power developer at heart, so our values are innovation, tenacity, and resourcefulness. We specialise in long-term projects and need to be able to soak up all the bumps in the road which are a given with any project.
What does the future hold for you?
Currently we are rolling out a nationwide energy efficiency programme which is keeping us busy. Through our funding arm, Taurus Energy, we have embarked on a programme with numerous care homes and other long-operation businesses to assist them in reducing their energy spend. In addition to care homes we have also recently assisted over 60 pubs and hotels in reducing energy spend. On average we save each establishment between £8-20k per annum by installing our kit. That’s a combined saving of up to £1.2m or 8 million KWh of electricity which equates to around 1.1m tonnes of CO2 abated every year. That feels like progress, but it is only the beginning. We have targeted 55,000 business in the South West that need our services, so we predict a busy time ahead.
What sorts of targets or KPI’s do you work towards on a daily/weekly/monthly/annual basis?
When I started the business, I had the usual goal of certain numbers by certain dates and other similar milestones. My targets now are to keep the team happy and motivated and to enjoy unearthing and bringing to market the next interesting piece of the energy jigsaw. Currently we are looking at blockchain and assessing how the energy we generate from our portfolio of rooftop solar assets (we have over 50 and counting which we install for free and then sell the power) can be ledgered on blockchain then sold as bona fide renewable energy to discerning end users. A nice Totnesian model with a twist!
What one piece of advice has stood you in good stead during your career to date?
Never give up.
If you have a good idea (and by good of course this means properly researched, market tested and with a realistic financial model) then have faith and you will prevail.
What advice would you give yourself if you could time-travel back 10 years?
Surround yourself with enthusiastic people. Always have an eye on the future. Don’t be afraid to be a pioneer.