The entrepreneur who went in search of a wind farm in Italy, then chose to follow the sun instead
The Big Interview
Co Down man Nick Boyle brings limitless energy of his own to the renewbles business. He commutes five days a week to work in London — and has done for 17 years.
Nick was travelling through Italy in an aptly-coloured yellow Fiat 500 when he saw his first solar farm. He may have been on a wind energy fact-finding mission at the time, but he was more than happy to change direction.
His determination to make solar work led him to set up Lightsource Renewable Energy, Europe’s biggest developer of industrial-scale solar projects.
It’s already built Crookedstone Road Solar Farm for Belfast International Airport, on a 25-year agreement which will provide 30% of the airport’s electricity.
And the chief executive says it’s in negotiations to build solar parks for four of Northern Ireland’s biggest employers. He’s tight-lipped as to who they are but says two deals are almost over the line.
Lightsource now employs 300 people and is based in Holborn, London, with offices in Belfast and Dublin — five years after it was set up with just six employees.
It now has 1.3 gigawatts of solar energy in its portfolio — and it reached 65 deals during 2015.
“That was 65 transactions where we found the land, put it through planning, designed it, built it, connected it to the grid and accredited it,” said Nick.
“There’s not another company which did 65 in the year. We’ve had that scale and ability to move from cottage industry to large industry.”
For 17 years, he’s commuted from his home in Saintfield to London for work from Mondays to Fridays. His wife and daughters are keen horsewomen — and Nick himself has become involved on the sidelines of their eventing as a live commentator at Eventing Ireland’s cross country events, winning praise for his “very eloquent, amusing” commentary.
Unsurprisingly, he’s also happy to talk at speed about Lightsource and the potential of solar. He’s proud of the international mix of its staff — they are drawn from 29 nationalities, including French managing director Kareen Boutonnat.
And its reach is becoming more global, with offices in India and the US and the potential for an office in Mexico.
Nick stresses that the company is in the agreements for the long-term. “From our perspective, we don’t want to build one, flip it and then go and sit on the beach.”
The company’s aim is to have another 15 solar farms in the province by the end of March next year, with the possibility of a further six.
It’s also moving into solar household projects in a £25m investment targeting 6,000 homes — and Nick reveals that it hopes to collaborate with one of the ‘big six’ UK electricity providers by pioneering battery solar storage.
He says the company is four times bigger than any other UK solar farm business, and raised £1.1bn in project finance last year.
That included £247m from the biggest-ever sterling-denominated green bond, through M&G Investments.
Nick was born in Lisburn and went to Rathmore Grammar School in Finaghy, before going on to study quantity surveying at University of Ulster.
He changed direction after university and starting working in financial services, before building up London financial services firm Thinc with three partners.
It was sold to Axa for a reported £100m in 2006. A few years later, Nick started exploring what to do next, leading to his famed discovery of solar while driving around Italy.
Now the manufacture of cheap solar panels in China has made the projects cheaper. It’s been behind £2bn of solar farms this year in the UK.
Nor is the five-acre farm at Crookedstone the biggest that they have planned for the province.
“One of them will be three or four times the size of Crookedstone. It’s like everything else — the larger the financial model, then economies of scale mean the cheaper it can be,” said Nick.
Wind attracts much controversy but Nick says solar is easier to live with.
“There is a really interesting photograph caption on our website, which says “a view of our solar farm from the next field”.
“It’s actually a picture of a hedge. If you use solar panels which are placed around 2.5 or 2.8 metres off the ground, it’s not beyond the wit of man to appropriately place these things where they’re not an eye sore and not interfering with views,” he said.
Some parks by other operators are placed in appropriately. “They can be seen for miles around and give solar developers a bad name.
“But with solar, the advantage is that all you need is somewhere that points up. Wind by definition needs to be somewhere that’s windy — and that by definition tends to mean somewhere exposed, where you can see for miles,” added Nick.
“Solar doesn’t have that issue. In most places, you can simply point up so that you have access to sun.
“I’m not going to throw stones at our friends in wind, but it would be fair to say that solar can be much more easily screened than wind because all it needs is access to the sun.”
His background in retail financial services is relevant to growing a solar business, he says.
“Retail financial services can be summed up as collecting or raising a small amount of money from a large amount of individuals. “For retail investors, it’s about predictability and safety. Will the counter-party pay and can I get my money back at the point at which I need it?
“For us, the government would say, we guarantee to pay you this amount for next 20 years and we index-link the amount we pay you.
“We can guarantee that at this point tomorrow the sun will be up but can’t bet the wind will be up. There’s a much higher level of predictability with the sun.
“Solar is by its very definition is a boring but long-dated return.”
He says the company’s growth has been down to doing everything in house.
“The only thing we don’t do is build, as that’s just a race to the bottom. We do our own legal, technical, design, asset management and cut our own grass and clean our own panels.”
He doesn’t see Brexit as changing the industry dramatically as commitments to deliver renewable targets will remain.
“In terms of Brexit, there are pluses and minuses, though I personally think it’s the worst own goal you could ever have scored.
“Already the indications are that electricity prices are going to rise. Inflation will rise and interest rates will be low.”
He will benefit from higher electricity costs but there’s a downside.
“If we are out in the market, building new plants — given we buy Chinese kit and European kit in dollars and euro, if the pound is relatively low in value, 10 or 13% extra has to be paid for that kit.
“That can be offset to some degree by rising prices.”
His other Northern Ireland sites will be situated in rural areas, including outside Lisburn and one towards Aghalee, Co Down.
“There is a greater saturation of wind towards the west of Northern Ireland, so concentrating on the east for us works symbiotically,” he said.
Nick describes himself as “determined, single-minded and focused”.
He went into retail financial services with three partners but became a leader of a business when the time was right. “There’s a point where you’re ready to be a chief executive and a point at which you’re not.”
Lightsource is a long-term project, and Nick cites a management buy-out last year, in which he bought out his then-biggest shareholder, as evidence of his staying power. “We’ve taken the bull by the horns so that we are masters of our own destiny.
“I love it and the potential of the solar industry is absolutely enormous.”