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Thursday, 18 December 2014

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‘Cumbria gets enough sun to power all our electricity’

He has climbed Nelson’s Column and taken part in direct action campaigns against whaling, pollution, nuclear power and the destruction of wildlife.

Martin Cotterell photo
Martin Cotterell, the solar energy expert named Cumbria’s top boss by the Institute of Directors

Years later Martin Cotterell is still fighting for the environment. These days, however, he does it by running his own business.

And this latest green initiative has proved so successful that Martin, only 42, was named as Cumbria’s top company boss in this month’s Institute of Directors awards.

His solar electricity company, Sundog Energy, is looking forward to a bright future. For as rising temperatures threaten our planet – and we all need to switch to energy sources that won’t add to the problem – Martin believes his firm is well placed to benefit.

Sundog Energy’s primary business is selling and installing solar panels which turn the sun’s rays into electricity. They can be placed on the roofs of houses, churches, shops, offices and community centres, allowing them to generate their own clean, green energy – so cutting electricity bills and carbon emissions at the same time.

Sundog also provides wind energy, but focuses on small-scale, one-off wind turbines for remote places, rather than large-scale windfarms of the kind seen at Siddick near Workington.

And it was Martin’s years as a Greenpeace activist that led him to promote carbon-free energy and try to make a living from it.

Sitting in his offices in Matterdale End near Penrith – and dressed in casual clothes rather than the pin-striped suit that characterises most managing directors – Martin remembers coming up with the idea for his company.

“I had spent a long time protesting about the issues surrounding climate change,” he recalls. “I thought it was time to do something practical about it, and offer an alternative.

“Instead of saying: ‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ I wanted to be able to say: ‘You can do the other.’”

Martin’s interest in green issues dates back to his time as a student. He was born and brought up in Wolverhampton, studied electronic and electrical engineering at Sheffield University and immediately afterwards got a job with the British Antarctic Survey, which needed trained engineers to operate its meteorological equipment.

“It was just about the time the hole in the ozone layer was being discovered,” he says. “It was our job to measure it.”

His work there made him aware of the threats the environment was facing, and on his return to Britain Martin joined Greenpeace, initially to work on the pressure group’s Antarctic campaign, but later organising many others.

“I was involved in a lot of direct action protests, against whaling, nuclear power stations and climate change.

“I was out on the ships and was up Nelson’s Column. In fact I think I’ve been up most of the famous monuments in London!”

It was at Greenpeace that Martin met Ali, a wildlife campaigner. They married and now have two children, a daughter Sula, aged 12, and a son Kerran, nine.

The couple moved to Cumbria partly for the landscape – Martin is a keen hillwalker and now team leader of Patterdale Mountain Rescue – and partly because they felt it was a good environment in which to rear children.

But it has also proved a good environment in which to rear a business. In 1995, aged 28, he decided to put his principles into action and founded Sundog Energy.

It began life in the back room at their house in Matterdale End but now has premises in a large converted barn down the road and employs 20 people, with Martin and Ali as joint owners.

Starting any new business is always a risk and when it began 14 years ago there was less interest in green energy – and some scepticism as to whether solar energy was viable under Britain’s grey skies.

But he proved the sceptics wrong. The business’s rapid growth has demonstrated that even in northern Europe there is enough sunshine to make solar energy a serious alternative to our carbon-producing power stations.

“There were only a handful of solar businesses back then – we aren’t the oldest but we are one of the oldest,” Martin says. “Now there is a huge number looking to get into the market.

“We work across the UK, from the tip of Scotland down to Devon and Cornwall. We’ve worked on council buildings in Blackpool, Manchester, Leicester. Lambeth and elsewhere, and in Cumbria the majority of our work at the moment is with schools and village halls.

“We might not live in the Mediterranean, but there is still enough potential sunshine here to generate all our electricity.”

And in built-up areas, away from windswept hills or coastlines, solar proves much more effective than wind. “Turbines just aren’t appropriate in towns and cities. If you put a wind turbine on the side of a house in Carlisle it’s not going to work. But almost every building we look at has somewhere suitable for solar panels.”

Though by no means a Sundog millionaire, Martin says his company is doing well. And one factor that has helped its growth is its managing director’s high profile in the solar industry.

All new industries need rules and standards – there are cowboy solar panel installers as well as cowboy builders – and Martin wrote the UK standards for solar energy.

He now also sits on the International Electrotechnical Commission, the body which draws up the industry’s international standards.

“Because of that, Sundog got quite well known,” he says. “We got a reputation for knowing what we were talking about.”

Another factor which should help it grow in the future is a new Government plan to promote green energy – by paying everyone who generates their own.

At the moment those who have solar panels or wind turbines benefit in the long term by the savings on their fuel bills.

But next year they will benefit twice. The Government will introduce the “feed-in tariff”, in which it will pay householders a rate for each unit of green electricity they produce themselves.

The rate is likely to be around 36p per kilowatt hour. Since the average home uses between 3,000 and 4,000 kWh per year, those who produce their own stand to make a tidy profit from it.

Many other EU countries already operate feed-in tariff schemes which have proved a successful way of encouraging green energy.

“It’s happening all over Europe. In Germany solar panels are on all the house and shop roofs, and there are farmers who plant them in their fields.

“It will take a few years to cover the cost of the panels but after that the feed-in tariff will be pure profit – plus you’ll be getting free electricity.”

Of course no business is immune from the recession, and though there has been no drop in demand for solar panels, Sundog can lose out indirectly, when it provides panels for a building firm which then goes bust.

“We often work as sub-contractors to building companies, and we’ve had a couple of cases where those companies go under and we are left unpaid. That’s the biggest strain on our business at the moment.”

As a long-time green campaigner Martin is careful to practise what he preaches. Sundog staff travel by public transport wherever possible – and when there are no available trains from Penrith they drive vans fuelled by liquid petroleum gas, much cleaner than petrol.

It avoids the use of PVC, which contains dangerous chemicals, and buys British-made materials to cut down on the pollution created by importing them.

It was these eco-friendly measures, and Martin’s work with Patterdale Mountain Rescue, that helped secure him the title of Cumbria Director of the Year at the awards ceremony at the Manchester Hilton Hotel this month.

The award is made not just to the bosses of profitable companies, but those who take on board ethical considerations, ensure good staff relations and show involvement in their communities – and Martin’s 11 years volunteering with Patterdale Mountain Rescue counted as the last of these.

Like all those who work in mountain rescue in Cumbria he has seen his fair share of tragedies.

“There have been people who have fallen from Helvellyn or bodies that have lain undetected, and there was a father who had fallen dead in front of his children.

“But we have also helped people stuck on ledges and who wouldn’t have survived if we hadn’t got to them. You know you have saved lives.”

And considering the destruction that climate change could bring perhaps promoting clean, carbon-free energy is saving lives as well.

SBlease@cngroup.co.uk

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