The North East has a good track record in the renewable energy field, with waste food powering homes in County Durham, the National Renewable Energy Centre (Narec) based in Northumberland and Carillion, formerly eaga, supplying energy solutions from Newcastle.
And there are still opportunities to be in at the start of something. Steve Caseley has an impressive CV covering the aforementioned Narec and eaga but has now turned his considerable talents to solar energy, with the creation of Solar Capture Technologies. He explained his route there.
“I started life as an apprentice engineer with George Angus on the Coast Road, which was part of Dunlop, but after about six weeks it was, ‘I really don’t want to be down here in a boilersuit getting my hands dirty.’ While it was interesting, it wasn’t for me. And as an apprentice you were out of a job on your 20th birthday so just before then I applied for a design draughtsman job at Draeger in Blyth and joined there, it was fantastic.”
This was the start of Caseley’s rapid rise up the career ladder. He was promoted to design engineer at Draeger, a global leader in firefighting and gas protection equipment, then started travelling around the world to see through the designs he had done. By then he had hopes of joining the marketing team and attracted the attention of the marketing director.
“He offered me a job as a product manager then it just took off, it was absolutely fantastic. I travelled the world, won various contracts with Draeger at firefighting centres around the world, so that was brilliant for me, and all of a sudden it was, ‘Right, this is what I really want to do.’
“I got various promotions - it seemed like every few months for a few years - and was then offered a position in Germany as head of marketing for the whole business.”
This was a promotion too far for the then managing director in Blyth and resulted in Caseley leaving the company after 10 years. However, he wasn’t out of work for long.
“I was approached around about the same time by Domnick Hunter on the Team Valley and joined to set up a breathing air business and look at how to change the business from engineering-led to a sort of customer-driven need, and again I think that helped them step up their business.
“Once again there was a lot of travelling, setting up various sister companies and strengthening the daughter companies around the world. It was great but by this stage I had a young family and missed a few of the children’s first and second birthdays because I was overseas, I was travelling probably more than 120 days a year, it was tough, too much.”
He left Domnick Hunter after seven years to spend a year at Sage where he helped establish a commerce division before being approached by an Australian company which was looking to break into the UK market.
“I found a fabrication company in Teesside, helped them procure that then took over one of their businesses which was composite materials. The business wasn’t going particularly well so I managed to bring in some new contracts, got the business up and moving and was there for about four years when I got a call from Domnick Hunter asking me to go back.
“As I went back I realised it was a bad move. At the same time I got approached by a head-hunting company telling me there was another organisation looking to set up a renewable energy business so I met with them and thought it was fantastic. This was eaga, which managed the government’s Warm Front scheme - it was a massive business opportunity as they didn’t have any renewables, it was all about cavity wall, loft insulation and new boilers but if you want to improve the property in terms of energy efficiency, and eradicate fuel poverty, you have to have some sort of prime energy source so solar thermal was what they decided to go for.
“I set up a joint venture business called Zeneagasolar - the manufacturing company in Holland and eaga - and ran that for a couple of years, However, it became clear that we were limiting ourselves calling it solar when really we should be involved in all renewables so I suggested that the board buy that business, which wedid and called it eaga Renewables.I was managing director. It was going exceptionally well and I was asked to be part of the strategic team - we grew from 450 people to 5,000 people in about five years, massive growth and very exciting times, then the business Warm Front sort of collapsed and was sold off.”
He was encouraged by contacts within One North East to get involved with Narec, an academic organisation without much experience on the commercial side. He joined as director for distributive energy, where he helped to secure £150m of government funding to build testing facilities.
While there he became aware that its solar arm was struggling. He managed to pull it around by making redundancies, cancelling contracts and bringing the work in-house. He got a £1.8m loss down to about break-even when the Narec board, driven by perceived government demand for offshore energy, decided to offload the PV centre.
Caseley sold it to Swedish company Absolicon, but less than a year later they were in trouble. Having identified it as a fantastic facility with great potential, Caseley took it over, putting in some of his own money, renaming it Solar Capture Technologies (SCT) and setting about raising its profile.
And in the 10 months since being appointed chief executive, he has already built up an impressive list of would-be customers as well as exporting overseas.
“We’re working with the US Navy, Unipart Dorman, a massive supplier to rail and road industry, Alkertel-Lucent, a big mobile phone company, Network Rail are really interested and an innovation group there is going to hold their quarterly meeting here next year and bring all their senior team. Three of their senior people have already been here and they’re pretty excited about what can be achieved using remote power, solar power, but ultimately they won’t be our customer, it will be the people who supply them.
“One option is condition monitoring. One of the assets is the tracks themselves, so how do you keep an eye on the rolling stock - if you have some kind of sensor on the track it can count how many axles pass, how long the train is, if it should be longer, or it there’s a large clunk it tells you the wheel is damaged, it can measure the weight, tell you the speed, all from this one device but you have to have the power to keep the device running.
“The PV panel collects the energy from the sun, charges a battery and the battery charges the device. This charging happens in daylight hours, then in the evening the battery is powering the device.
“Traffic bollards, mobile communication systems, there’s massive application for the military - something like 85% of military personnel are killed transporting fuel so if you don’t use much fuel because you’re using natural energy, then why wouldn’t you do that? We’re talking to a few companies about putting PV panels into the protective armour plating, or rucsacks, or charging night vision goggles, weaponry, the batteries, it’s just looking at all these different applications and focusing on a few and see if we can get some business.
“You can really do anything that you need for remote location monitoring. Another application can continually monitor water levels which would set an alarm off for relatively low cost. Rather than have an organisation send a driver out to put up a sign saying Flood, in the areas where you know it’s going to flood, you can put some sensors there so organisations like the Environment Agency are interested in having a chat, they say that this would really help them.”
The future, literally, looks bright, and Caseley has plans to reward the team helping to make that happen. He said: “Once we’re in a profitable position, I’ll share out the profits so there’s an opportunity there for everyone here because they are fantastic people, a great workforce, We’re not quite on an even keel yet although we’re almost there.”
Home life is with Andrea, his wife of 25 years, and their children Lewis, 19, and Charlotte, 17. He and Andrea spend time at their cottage in Seahouses where they run, kayak or walk in the Cheviots, an area he loves. When he’s at home in Whitley Bay, evenings and early mornings are spent sending emails, dealing with companies in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, the Far East and Canada - “That’s where the customers are.
“We’re the only organisation the country to manufacture cells, pretty much of the manufacturing is done in China, on a massive scale. I’ve got PV cells in my house, it’s a bit of a passion, renewable energy, and if you can do it and make money then even better, but it’s tough.
“Running a business is hard anyway, if you combine that with it being in an emerging sector like renewables then it’s doubly hard because there is loads of interest.
“In the past we’ve got involved in projects because they’re interesting but weren’t paid, we’ve been too soft. When I first got involved, it was a shock for people here.
“The senior scientist, a guru in the physics world, would say he didn’t have time to talk to customers, he had tests to do. I said, ‘If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a job’. So we all have to be sales people, we all have to sell the capability of the business.”