TV Dragon turns energy to climate fight
Former star of Dragons' Den Eleanor McEvoy is urging entrepreneurs to take the environment seriously
They say that in business, timing is everything. If so, then former Dragons' Den investor Eleanor McEvoy's first foray into the solar energy business through Next Gen Power coincides nicely with a surge of interest in all things green.
Green Party gains in the recent European and local elections, as well as a growing realisation that our planet is in real danger, mean that businesses and homes are increasingly looking at cleaner ways to live and work, and reduce their carbon footprints.
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It is also a time for new beginnings for McEvoy, who was headhunted to lead Next Gen Power, an all-island provider of solar power solutions including panels, batteries and optional infra-red heating systems, earlier this year as chief executive. Prior to that, she worked at Budget Energy, a Northern Irish pre-paid electricity firm which she ran and built up into a multi-million-pound company.
When McEvoy exited Budget, it was also part of a divorce, as her now ex-husband was her business partner.
"At that stage, I had already begun taking an interest in what was happening with climate change. I also had knowledge of the solar business through one of our suppliers. For me though, solar on its own wasn't really a runner so we started looking at the battery market too. We went everywhere looking for an affordable battery, Hong Kong, you name it, and we eventually found one. Next Gen Power has the best panels, the best battery and the best possible price. There's no point in doing any of this unless your pricing is affordable," she says.
According to McEvoy, the most popular family battery system would cost about €10,500 plus VAT, but there is a Government grant of up to €3,800. Each system is individually designed on the customer's electricity usage, and the most popular system includes 13 panels, with 5.6kW battery storage, she says.
"The reason I think battery is particularly applicable for domestic is that the average household leaves in the morning and is gone all day, and unless you have lots of products on, you are not using electricity. But with the battery, it is storing up energy all day," McEvoy adds. "How the system works is that if you have a requirement in your house at the time, it uses it, but if you don't, it goes straight to a battery which stores what you don't use, making you more efficient. And the last place it goes to use energy is to whoever your energy supplier is.
"All of this happens seamlessly. Not only that, you have an app on your phone that will show you how much electricity you've produced and what your battery has stored etc, and then that can be subtracted from your electricity bill.
"To date, while we promote the product as saving up to 70pc on annual electricity bills of an average of €1,200, what we're actually seeing is up to 90pc."
The system also provides hot water from April to October. The smart immersion heater, which is connected to the existing water tank, takes surplus solar and automatically switches to the heater. Then, once water is heated, surplus is fed into your battery storage, which is stored for later that day. "The company has already installed 2,500 solar systems in homes around Ireland, and about 250 battery systems, but we are building out slowly at first, targeting 40 to 70 domestic battery systems, and three or four commercials per month. We are taking it slowly; the company is still very new and I only came in as chief executive in April," she says.
According to McEvoy, when it comes to climate change, time is not on our side and we should be working together to speed up ways to limit the damage to the environment, while helping businesses and homes fund the changes that are needed. There are also strict EU climate change targets that Ireland will struggle to meet unless it gets legislation and firms on board, she adds. The company is working with Flexi-Fi, an Australian finance house, to put affordable funding packages in place for customers, but there are also opportunities to build relationships with banks and credit unions.
She says: "Entrepreneurs and businesses need to take the lead and governments will follow. While the Government is providing the €3,800 grant, we need the banks, credit unions, etc to come up with financing options to fill that gap. In other words, we need to find a way whereby homeowners can take out loans at affordable rates and pay them back over a period of three years, five years, or whatever timeframe it is. We can organise the whole package. Right now, we are getting customers, but it is a large amount of money for many. I would love to be able to say to a customer, I have arranged the grant and the rest of it is being made up through a loan. I think it would be an ideal proposition for credit unions, for example."
There are other ways to incentivise individuals and businesses to look at the solar option, but there are barriers that could be easily removed, like the need for planning permission for solar panels, McEvoy notes.
"For a start, a lot of people don't know about this grant; it's managed by SEAI. And there are commercial grants available too, of up to 30pc.
"But there's a big issue here. We are one of the only countries in Europe where you need planning permission to put solar panels on your roof. It's a serious problem. So, for example, a commercial business wants to work with us, so we tell them they need planning permission, but they won't apply for planning permission until they get the grant. It takes about three months to get the grant. So you have a 12-week window to get planning permission and get the system installed before the time runs out. It's ridiculous. I don't know who dreamt it up. The interesting thing about problems like that is they are easy to fix.
"The other thing is that the technology has evolved so much since solar panels first arrived on the market in the 1970s and they are 60pc cheaper. There are also myths around them. People think they need to drill holes in their roofs; they don't. It's not an invasive system at all. There are metal threads running across the roof and the panels are clipped in."
A serial entrepreneur, McEvoy has been working all her adult life since doing her Leaving Cert. She did a FAS telesales course after leaving school and has worked in a range of roles since then, from a gig organiser to a secretarial role. Prior to founding Budget Energy in 2011, McEvoy had built up and sold two businesses. She sold Pembroke Distributors, a vending and food distribution firm, in 2001, while Phonecard Warehouse was sold in 2006 when it had a net turnover of €50m.
She was an EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist for two years and was also a Dragons' Den investor for two years, after being invited on board the successful TV show by businessmen Sean O'Sullivan and Bobby Kerr.
Her role in Dragons' Den introduced her to numerous companies around the country, and she says that building out Next Gen Power will also provide some much-needed jobs, as the operation expands. "It makes no sense for us to take on roofers and electricians. What we want to do is build up relationships with existing local tradesmen and let them do the work for us. They will be working in communities they know and customers they know but for us. It's important too that young people are trained up into these roles because these are the kinds of skills that will be needed in the future as climate change awareness grows," she says.
Although McEvoy has made a career out of building up and selling firms, this time she seems to have her heart set on making a difference through Next Gen, where she is also a 45pc shareholder. She concludes: "If I had my way, from tomorrow, the only travel that would be allowed to use traditional fuel would be the airlines - until we know it is safe. If you look at the Nordic countries, they are way ahead of the pack. In Norway, there is a plan to have all short-haul flights on electric planes by 2040.
"Human beings are not good at change, but this is not a change that is up for negotiation. I have always admired people in business who have made a change and helped people. This is the one for me."
What's your best bit of business advice?
The difference between success and failure is the ability to make the right decisions with focus during the back-to-the-wall moments which often come along. Grit and determination have to be part of your make-up. Be authentic and don't take yourself too seriously. Learn from your mistakes then leave them behind.
What's your own business mantra?
Never stop learning; the world keeps changing.
Chief executive, Next Gen Power
Mixed between Belfast and Dublin
Salesian Convent, Limerick, and life!
CEO of Budget Energy
Wonderful mum and five brothers
Time with family and friends, and travelling, reading and learning
Kenya - nature in all its glory
Think and Grow Rich, first purchased at age 17
Sunday Indo Business