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The social side to solar: In Conversation with Trust Renewables

Andy Barrow, Managing Director of Trust Renewables, explains why renewable energy can generate empowerment as well as power, and what the future prospects are like for green businesses.

Trust Renewables is a renewable energy project developer and installer based in Rochdale. The business was set up in December 2019 as a social enterprise, with over 50 per cent of profits put back into local causes each year.

Jack Smith, a specialist advisor in GC Business Growth Hub’s Green Technologies and Services team, has been working with Andy since the start of 2020 to develop his business plan and connect Trust Renewables to market opportunities in the solar, electric vehicle charging and building retrofit sectors.

With a £25,000 Start Up Loan secured, Trust Renewables recently took on its first digital marketing apprentice to help grow its presence in the city region.

Oli Wilson (left) and Andy Barrow (right) of Trust Renewables

Tell us a bit about the background to Trust Renewables

We were set up after about six months of discussions between friends who all work in the energy and electric, social enterprise and training sectors. I had been working in solar farm development in Australia, but as much as I loved living over in Sydney, I found it a bit boring compared to Manchester!

We work across all the verticals of domestic, commercial, industrial and utility scale solar installations. We decided to focus the business on Greater Manchester specifically, not just because that’s where we’re from and where we have valuable local knowledge, but also because there are so many projects and policy drivers here. When you look at Greater Manchester’s Five Year Environment Plan, it shows that we need to retrofit 61,000 homes per year with solar and energy efficiency measures to hit our decarbonisation targets.

Why did you set up as a social enterprise?

Reducing carbon is an important thing to do, but the other side of things is employment. We’re based in Rochdale, one of the poorest boroughs in the city region where there’s a lot of people unemployed. Yet there’s a massive skills shortage in the green economy. So we want to bring apprentices and new starters into the sector, either through ourselves or with others. I used to work in the music industry, for example, and there’s people struggling for work there who have electrical and installation backgrounds that we can tap into.

As Tony Wilson said, ‘you either make money or you make history’. We’re not driven by shareholder profits, it’s not just about the money, it’s about the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social. 

We’ve already got our first digital marketing apprentice onboard, who is now enrolled on a digital marketing degree at UCLan. We’ve also got our first installer apprentice lined up and want to get apprentices for other pathways like scaffolding and roofing in future.

How has COVID-19 impacted you?

We had quite a rocky start really because we set up in December 2019 and were ready to be accredited for installations by May 2020, but that was delayed until November due to lockdown. So we’re just starting to build up our pipeline now. 

However, some of the time we’ve been able to spend learning new things during lockdown has been quite important. I’ve become qualified in domestic energy assessment and retrofit assessment, so we can now do domestic EPCs and we’re prepared for all the changes that coming onto the retrofit market.

If we’re going to be training people and taking on apprentices, we need to show willing ourselves to keep upskilling. The more skills we have in-house, the more apprentices we can take on through different pathways. So lockdown has been quite useful in that respect.

What support has the Hub provided?

I came across the Hub through people in my network and it’s been a good resource. I’ve been liaising with Jack for about a year now and he’s helped us to develop the business plan and provided us with some useful market research and new connections. I’m also looking forward to meeting other local businesses on the Hub’s Low Carbon Network when we’re able to.

What do you think the prospects are like for the solar industry at the moment?

We're keen to work with businesses and do domestic projects that come our way, as well as utility-scale work. I realise that can appear like we're trying to be ‘all things to all men’. But in the time it’s taken us to set this business up, there’s been the Green Homes Grant come in that’s not really working out, and there’s been COVID-19 and Brexit – people not knowing whether they’ve got their jobs or not and businesses that needed a lot of electricity no longer needing it because their offices have closed.

It’s a balancing act. You can’t expect all markets to be in a perfect place all the time. So we've got to be flexible and use our strength in numbers with the specialities of our directors and contacts.

There are key drivers and incentives that aren’t necessarily in the marketplace yet but are on the horizon, like negative interest rates combined with rising electricity prices. If interest rates are decreasing and energy bills increasing, investing in solar is a win-win. There are also things like green mortgages, and potentially salary sacrifice schemes for people to put solar on their homes, which has worked really well with electric vehicles.

In your opinion, what will be key to driving awareness and uptake of green solutions like renewable energy over the next few years? 

If you look at a company like Crystal Doors and Richard Hagan in Rochdale, who’s a big inspiration to me, he’s trying to position his business not only to be carbon neutral themselves but also with their suppliers and their customers. If other businesses take the same action, it will drive big change and companies will find that a lot of doors close to them, no pun intended, if they choose not to behave in a sustainable way.

I think where it’s going is ambassadors like Richard, who are really pushing from all sides at what can be done by the business community. There’s the Greta Thunberg and the David Attenborough’s of the world. On the other side you’ve got the Daily Express launching their own green economy campaign. Right now, you can turn on the news most days and there’s something environmental in it. This isn’t a niche anymore.

There’s a growing message for businesses and people who earn enough to start taking some responsibility. For businesses, solar is not a cost anymore anyway – it’s just a case of getting a loan and balancing repayments with the electricity savings on your bill. It’s cost neutral until the loan is paid off, and then you’ve got cheaper electricity for the next 20 odd years. Why not do it?

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