Jeremy Leggett: How I survived the Valley of Death

As a consultant to the mining and oil industries, Jeremy Leggett couldn't live with the knowledge that these sectors were damaging the environment. So he set up solar panel installer Solar Century. Ten years on, sales have hit £50m amid soaring popularity in renewable energy.

Jeremy Leggett had his Damascene moment after ten years teaching geology at the Royal School of Mines and working as a consultant to miners and oil companies. As evidence of climate change grew during the 1980s, he worried he "was doing the wrong thing". So in 1989 he "switched sides" and joined Greenpeace as an adviser in the government and corporate lobby team. "It was a huge pay cut but I couldn't carry on working for oil and gas companies." Seven years later Leggett decided he could go one step better. So he quit and set up his own renewable energy business. "I felt I could make more of a difference on my own." He settled on solar because "costs had the potential to come down". He spent time making contacts in the industry and developing a business model. Eventually he struck gold when a corporate lobbyist and former adversary backed him with £1m of start-up capital.

By 1999 he was ready to set up Solar Century. "We decided to focus on marketing and installing solar panels at first, as we didn't have the money to develop our own products." In the first year, the company bid for "all sorts of projects" as "the market was tiny and we had to try our hand at everything". They built up experience installing a few panels for "early adopters", but by 2000, Leggett realised they needed more money. "Luckily it was the age of bubbles and enthusiasm" Solar Century was able to raise £8m from venture capitalists, despite having "practically no sales". A few months later, "the dotcom bubble burst and took investor enthusiasm with it". Luckily Leggett's backers were patient. The money was used for marketing and installation equipment with some set aside for product research and development.

The big break came soon after when Solar Century won a contract to install solar panels for Sainsbury's. However, the firm finished the year with a £2m loss. Over the next three years sales grew as "corporate customers became interested in prestige projects that they could stick on their annual reports". But the market remained "tiny" and Solar Century carried on running losses. "We were in the valley of death something had to change if we were to survive."

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A key lifeline was the Japanese and German solar markets, which "were going gangbusters". European sales meant manufacturers were achieving economies of scale and Solar Century's suppliers began slashing prices. "All of a sudden solar became a lot more competitive." Yet Leggett still encountered scepticism: "the most frustrating myth about solar energy is that it doesn't work when it is cloudy".

By 2004 the firm's first product was ready. "We designed a solar roof panel suitable for Britain." When the prototype sold well, Leggett began assembling it in Britain. "Being a manufacturer meant we could make more specialised products and improve our margins." More investors were tempted. Over the next three years a combination of utilities and venture capitalists pumped almost £20m into the firm. That financed more products, marketing and expansion into the buoyant European market. Sales hit £50m in 2010, the year the firm made its maiden profit. Leggett is confident about the future. "Solar costs are coming down all the time, the market is going to be massive."

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.