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The Times: Harnessing the sun

Jeremy Leggett started a company that specialises in tapping solar energy after his conscience got the better of him

October 11, 2007
Emily Ford

As a green entrepreneur, Jeremy Leggett has spent the past ten years fighting an enduring myth: solar panels don’t work in Britain. Granted, they work better in Spain. But at solarcentury’s office in London on a distinctly cloudy October day, the roof is gathering enough energy to power all the firm’s computers. “We could have zero-carbon buildings,” he says.

Most of us would be content with one successful career; Leggett has three. After studying earth sciences at the University of Oxford, he became a researcher in the history of the oceans. Ironically, his research was largely funded by oil companies, BP and Shell included. But, in the mid1980s, reading the first papers on global warming, he became concerned.

“It sounds corny, but I quit on the grounds of conscience,” he says. “At that stage no one knew much about global warming. I wanted to help to blow the whistle.” He joined Greenpeace in 1989 and spent the next six years lobbying governments and corporations, becoming the scientific director of its climate change campaign. “They were then one of the most radical environment groups. It was a bit of a culture shock,” he says. In 1996 he decided to start up his own company. “I became convinced that the leadership in surviving climate change would come from enlightened businesses.” Working on campaigns for alternative energy he spotted a niche: solar. From a small contractor installing panels in 2000, solarcentury now makes all its own products and is the biggest company of its kind in the UK – a mixed blessing, according to Leggett. “I don’t say that with any pleasure. You need strong competition to make a market.”

As a scientist he was hugely knowledgeable, as a businessman he was virtually clueless. “I knew nothing about finance. I read a few books on starting up a business. You have to collaborate with people; you need a brilliant finance director, sales people.” Leggett says business and campaigning have more in common than people think. “You are pushing a set of ideas or products.” He plans to focus on solar in the future. “It’s such a neat technology. It just sits there, no moving parts, creating electricity right where you need it, with zero carbon emissions. There’s something vaguely magical about it.” Attracting investors was not easy and the company was in its fourth year before it broke even. “It was hard work,” he says.

Three years on, solarcentury is valued at £60 million, has funding from Silicon Valley and is a major tech company in its own right. Yet getting Brits to believe in solar energy is still a challenge. “We still haven’t cracked it.” Government support has been disappointing. The UK lags behind Spain and France on solar power, but also behind its cloudy Teutonic cousin, Germany, where take-up has been fast.

For aspiring environmental entrepreneurs, £1 trillion will be invested in energy markets this year, £100 billion in clean technology alone, he says. These are some of the world’s fastest-growing markets – and the most necessary. “Climate change is the most important issue facing the future of civilisation. Belatedly, we’ve started doing meaningful things about it.”

Back on the roof is where the magic happens. Different panels, some doubling as roof tiles, are absorbing the faint rays. One client commissioned solarcentury to build an entire building facade. “This is the future,” Leggett says. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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