Challenger to Watch 2017: Lightsource

Changing the criteria for renewables.


Solar is at its tipping point. For the first time in history, the sun provided more electricity than coal power for one full day in the UK last year. The cost of solar panels has dropped 80% compared to just five years ago. A revolution is quietly bubbling away in the energy world and the stage is set for a challenger brand or business to take the bull by the horns and drive a substantial shift towards clean and renewable energy.

Lightsource could be that challenger. As Europe’s leading solar energy company, their success to date has been attributed to their CEO's business-first approach, an attitude quite different from others in the renewables sector. “I chose solar because it’s predictable – I knew I could raise money because investors love long-dated, predictable revenue streams” founder and CEO Nick Boyle told EL2016.

With a background of twenty years in retail financial services, Nick saw the opportunity where others didn't, not from a position of social responsibility, although a motivating factor, but from long-term economic incentives. “While everyone else was walking round Cornwall knocking on farmers doors, we were walking round the City of London knocking on the financial institutions raising money”, Nick said.

Europe's largest floating solar panel farm, Walton-on-Thames.

Europe's largest floating solar panel farm, Walton-on-Thames.

Fossil fuel is killing the planet but we are business first, green second, if you get it in the wrong order you’re going nowhere.
— Nick Boyle, founder & CEO

The energy industry hasn’t changed for 100 years. Up until now businesses buy energy off a centralised grid system, as and when they need it. What solar technology offers is ‘distributed generation’, a system away from the grid, where solar energy is both produced and consumed on the same site. It’s a disruptive business model, which is getting large corporate companies off the national grid, whilst offering huge savings in return - if they are willing to think and act long-term. Unlike fossil fuel energy providers, Lightsource’s use of solar means they can offer both energy security and steady, long-term savings in an otherwise volatile energy sector, still primarily based on fossil fuel.

Founded in 2010, Lightsource manage solar farms worth $2bn, providing enough energy to power more than 350,000 households in the UK per year. They launched the largest floating solar farm in Europe in 2016, the size of eight football pitches, and providing enough energy to power 1,800 homes. And they have shrewdly added a further environmental string to their bow - bees: they’re using land-based solar farms as bee sanctuaries; the Wilburton Solar Farm in Cambridgeshire alone houses 350,000 bees at a time when bee populations are in danger of further significant decline.

As the possibility of a real tip to solar beckons, and the economic argument becomes only more robust, the question Lightsource face in 2017 is: what is the balance they need to strike between rigorous financial logic on the one hand, and an accompanying emotional engagement of ideology, drama and ideas on the other? They’ll need a combination of both to secure for themselves a much bigger share of the future.