Sunny outlook for solar energy boss

Activ8 Solar founder Ciaran Marron believes everyone can win with PV panel boost

Ciaran Marron, CEO of Activ8. Photo: David Conachy
Ciaran Marron, CEO of Activ8. Photo: David Conachy

It wasn’t quite a shot in the arm for the solar power industry, but recent moves by the Government to encourage homeowners to look at the sun as an alternative to traditional electricity generation have been welcomed by providers. At least Ciaran Marron, chief executive of Monaghan-based Activ8 Solar Energies, believes it’s a step in the right direction.

Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten has just announced new grants towards for the installation of photovoltaic (PV) panels and storage batteries meaning that householders can get €700 per 1kWp panel, up to a total of €3,800 while batteries will be subsidised to the tune of €1,000 per unit.

The idea is that this will help cut our greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonise our electricity supply at the same time.

Not to be confused with solar thermal panel technology which helps generate hot water, the excess electricity generated by the PV panels can feed into the national grid.

“Solar PV allows both domestic and commercial users to save money on their energy bills. Although it is the same technology, systems for domestic customers will differ to that of commercial users given the vast difference in energy requirements,” Marron told the Sunday Independent.

He added that customer bills will drop as a result of the grants but the Government should expand the scheme to include the business community.

“On the domestic side, the Solar PV grant announced recently also included a €1,000 grant for battery storage technology. Although domestic customers can save up to 60pc on their bills without battery storage, incorporating such will allow customers to use more of the energy they produce.

“Commercial customers will generally have much bigger systems and battery storage isn’t as important considering that in most cases, energy production is at its highest when the demand for it is there to match during daylight hours. Whether domestic or commercial, I think everyone is going to see many more rooftops covered in solar PV panels. It is a move in the right direction but there is scope for the commercial sector too – I think we will see PV panels on the roofs of businesses too in the future.”

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However, he conceded that the recently announced incentives will be too late for our targets to cut carbon emissions by 2020.

“Here in Ireland we were hesitant and the fear of getting it wrong crippled us into inaction. Although we may have been slow adaptors, it afforded the powers to be the opportunity to learn from other EU countries’ mistakes and use their schemes as a case study.

“One other reason is that it’s not the case that all renewables have been ignored. We see it across the Irish landscape, with large focus on wind energy production. Luckily, the Government and others now know that solar PV excellently complements our existing wind infrastructure. So I think there has been a multitude of reasons for our slow approach towards solar, but as of right now, it’s an exciting industry to in. Although we are well behind the rest of Europe,” he said.

Indeed we are.

Ireland is completely off course to achieve its 2020 and 2030 climate change targets, according to the recently published Climate Change Advisory Council’s Annual Review 2018.

Following last year’s annual review, Ireland is now in an even worse position. Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased again in 2016, with the projections of emissions to 2035 showing that we are well behind when it comes to addressing the challenge of climate change.

It should be no surprise then that Ireland is ranked as the second-worst performing EU member state in tackling climate change, according to Climate Action Network (CAN) which is the biggest NGO coalition in Europe working on energy issues and climate.

While the 2018 Off Target report concluded that all EU member states are falling short of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change efforts to limit global temperature gains to 1.5 degrees, most of CAN’s criticism was reserved for this country and those in eastern and central Europe and it warned that we face “annual non-compliance costs of around €500m”.

It also highlighted that emissions from the agriculture and transport sectors are increasing significantly.

The farming and business sectors, for example, is a huge growth opportunity for the company said Marron and should be targeted as part of the Government’s renewable energy programme.

“The UK has previously incentivised rooftop solar with a feed-in tariff. I believe a very similar model for Irish commercial and agricultural customers would be a perfect fit. This approach incentivises self-consumption and the position we find ourselves in regarding our lower carbon targets points towards a self-consumption model.

“Getting the balance between creating a meaningful commercial incentive that encourages self-consumption is something that would go a long way in helping businesses adopt and buy into renewable energy,” he added.

“It’s the same as any industry, lessons were learned in the UK and we were lucky to be a part of that. We set up a business in Newry in 2012 and we learned a lot through that and the high standards of installation and service that we have now brought to solar PV installation in Ireland,” he said.

The structure of Activ8 changed earlier this year when SSE Airtricity came in as an investor.

SSE acquired 40pc of Activ8 earlier this year and has an option to take an additional stake over the next couple of years.

This investment (the amount has not been disclosed) brings big growth opportunities for the firm which is expecting to generate profits of about €450,000 on turnover of about €4.8m for 2017, according to Marron.

And while the majority of the company’s business remains solar thermal installations and stands at 70pc currently, Marron expects thermal and solar PV to hit parity at some stage in the next 12 months.

“Being the market leader in solar technology for the past eight years and now partnering with Ireland’s largest provider of wind energy, Activ8 and SSE Airtricity will bring unique offerings to our domestic and commercial customer base including SSE Airtricity’s 750,000 energy supply customers across the island of Ireland.

“It has allowed us to grow faster than we thought possible and while SSE Airtricity are able to lean on us for our knowledge of the Irish solar industry it has also given us the opportunity to learn from them and tackle the challenges we face together,” he said.

“We believe following our partnership with SSE Airtricity and the recent grant announcement for solar PV, Activ8 will increase our turnover by 50pc year on year for the next three years. We’re still in the early stages of our partnership with SSE Airtricity, so as time passes, our goals will change and together we’ll be pushing the ceiling of the Irish solar industry higher and higher,” Marron added.

The company employs 45 staff and another 20 indirectly including agents, engineers and electricians – it has installed over 7,000 solar energy systems across the island of Ireland.

Its biggest project, to date, in partnership with SSE, was the installation of a 1,448-panel rooftop cover for the 2,300 sq m SSE Arena in Belfast which generates 420kWp of solar energy.

The company started out in 2006, at the peak of the boom, as Ciaran Marron Electrical, specialising in total electrical and mechanical solutions which then became Activ8 Energies Ltd.

It had grown to employ eight skilled professionals by 2008 but at that stage was being hit by the recession and left unpaid by some contractors.

Marron said it was either follow their fate or diversify – the company chose the latter route.

It focused its capabilities on the solar thermal retrofit market and targeting and servicing the increasing number of homeowners keen to take control of their increasing energy bills and, by 2009, Activ8 had completed all legacy contracts and focused solely on this market.

Following an analysis of the solar thermal markets in the UK and Austria, we developed a new business plan, added Marron.

“Through experience of training in Austria for solar thermal installations on new builds and having seen the success of retrofitting solar thermal all across Europe, we decided to focus on this as a business. With that, the attitudes of people had started to change also and with the recession at hand, people wanted to focus on reducing costs and improving their current home rather than looking to build or move.

“Within 12 months of this decision, we became the largest solar installer in Ireland and we continue to be. Hand in hand with that came the opportunity to enter the solar PV market in Northern Ireland with the subsidies that were introduced,” he said.

The business plan certainly seems to have worked.

“In fact, one of our main challenges now is finding skilled workers,” he said.

Brexit is the next big challenge, as is the case for all Irish businesses.

However, Marron said that despite its location on the Border, because the company’s main market is the Republic of Ireland it is somewhat buffered.

“Obviously the big thing about Brexit is the uncertainty and we do import some of our products from the UK. But we haven’t had to worry about Brexit as much as some other Irish companies given that our target market is in the Republic of Ireland. Our partnerships with suppliers reach all around the world and we’re in the lucky position of being able to work with suppliers outside of the UK who we already have a relationship with,” he said.

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