Mark Nicholson, head of special projects at N Group Priority One in Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, saw an opportunity in solar where others didn’t.
What got you started in solar?
I had a personal desire to put solar on our own factory because I felt it was the right thing to do. The first job was on the roof of our own factory. We’re electrical contractors, plummers and refrigeration mechanics. What I’d found after going into the market to investigate [adding solar to the factory] is I just became confused about all the different products and what was better than all the products and so forth.
So some direct experience of dealing with installers inspired you to become one yourself?
Correct, and I also became completely confused about product. In the end we bought and installed three different 5kW systems so we could actually work out whether the BS meter – the bullshit meter – was going on different inverters and different panels and so forth. So we did three installs next to each other to compare what worked and what was fiction.
From what you discovered with that experiment how did you adapt your message to customers?
In the end we ended up with six systems on our roof and we were able to go to customers and explain the methods and equipment used. We could explain why these were better solutions because we’d spent our own dough on our own research. By then I had also chosen a system and installed it at home.
Is your customer base commercial or residential?
It’s about half domestic and half light commercial, not big commercial. Most systems we do are about 10-30kW. Commercial and industrial customers [are more likely to benefit from solar than domestic customers] because they normally pay more for power, they normally use more power, they’re there during the day and they’ve normally got big roofs. Everything adds up.
How are you winning commercial business?
We have 7,000 customers in our database and I just keep picking out ones I would consider are philanthropic and leaders and maybe even a little bit tree-huggers like myself. They often own their factory and they’re high energy users. For me they are not exactly cold calls because I have relationships with them.
That’s a big database. How long have you been in business?
Eighteen years. About a quarter of our time is taken up with solar; we have three teams full-time on solar and a sales person. The rest is our normal stuff: the sparkies the fridgies and the plummers.
Is solar a profitable business?
I believe it is. When I started in the field five years ago the consensus perception of my peers was that the big rebates had gone and feed-in tariffs were jiggered, so hence it was a diminishing market. Many electricians were of the belief it was a diminishing market, so they’ve all left. So who’s left doing it? Our customer base is very receptive to it, so I’ve found the absolute opposite of the ones who left in despair.
Have you done much storage?
We’ve done a fair bit, mainly lithium and saltwater batteries. The saltwater batteries don’t have a high density, and they’re quite heavy. They are also very safe and non-toxic, so they suit a hostile environment. If someone wants to be off-grid or independent, more people have been choosing saltwater batteries; whereas if someone just wants to store some excess energy they’re mainly using lithium.
Is it a good time to get into solar?
Absolutely – the market is at an avalanche point. The demand will exceed the ability of people to supply, and the electric vehicle market in the next five years will be immense. People with lots of solar will end up getting electric cars, and people who end up getting electric cars will want to install lots of solar. The more people that purchase electric cars the more demand and appetite people will have for solar and also batteries. They’re mindful of the energy they’re using and they can capture the energy they use themselves, so they’re less reliant on non-renewables.