This website uses cookies primarily for visitor analytics. Certain pages will ask you to fill in contact details to receive additional information. On these pages you have the option of having the site log your details for future visits. Indicating you want the site to remember your details will place a cookie on your device. To view our full cookie policy, please click here. You can also view it at any time by going to our Contact Us page.


Solar guru shines in the Dragons Den

A former national bodybuilding champion, Chris Hopkins, Founder and Managing Director of Yorkshire’s Ploughcroft, is a man on a mission. His goal, to become the UK’s number one solar installer and a household name.

Thanks to the latest series of the BBC’s Dragons Den, it’s looking like this just might happen. In the two weeks following Chris’s appearance on the show, Ploughcroft received more than a thousand enquiries from homeowners interested in solar panels and he is working closely with Deborah Meadon, one of the Dragons who is backing Chris.

How it all started
Ploughcroft certainly isn’t a fly-by-night solar success story. Having worked with his father in the family-run roofing firm since 1997, Chris took over the helm in 2004 and decided to focus his efforts on team development and creating a roofing company that was a little different from the rest. His vision was to provide ‘hassle-free roofing delivered with a smile’, and to help other members of the roofing industry to improve their skills.

Then, in 2005, Chris made a strategic decision to become specialists in the solar roofing installation sector. Ploughcroft became the first roofing contractor in the UK to achieve Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) accreditation – a pre-requisite for all solar PV installers – leading them to be named as ‘Best in Britain’ for their work fitting photovoltaic (PV) solar panels by the MCS in early 2010.

Being an active member of various industry bodies, including the Federation of Master Builders, NAPIT and the Solar Trade Association, Chris quickly built up a raft of blue chip contacts and in the last couple of years has secured national contracts with Plumb Center, Vaillant Plc and NPower.

Always passionate about training and excellence within the solar and roofing industries, Ploughcroft has a dedicated training division and is the only roofing contractor with an NVQ solar roof training centre and CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) centre in the UK. Chris has worked with the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NRFC) to develop and deliver the NRFC Solar Roofing Course, which has been provided to over 150 companies nationwide. The current solar roofing NVQ unit was developed by Chris, and is used by Construction Skills in colleges and for training companies across the UK.

Solar success
In 2009 the government’s Renewable Energy Directive set a target for the UK to achieve 15% of its energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. Already popular in many European countries, the UK followed their lead on solar and in April 2010 the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) Scheme was launched. The government initiative pays householders and businesses to generate their own energy from renewable sources.

What’s more, the FIT scheme makes it more financially viable for householders and businesses to buy and install a renewable energy generator, such as solar PV panels. Qualifying generators are eligible to receive a set payment rate for every unit (kWh) of electricity produced and additional payments are also made for any electricity not used on site and exported to the grid.

Payment rates for both generated and exported electricity are fixed, Retail Price Index linked and are currently guaranteed for 25 years. This gives anyone participating in the scheme the security of a long-term market for the electricity they produce.

Always at the front of the pack, Chris was well prepared for the new FIT scheme and was convinced that this was the incentive that consumers needed to ‘go green’. And he wasn’t wrong. Since April 2010, around 50,000 solar installations have been fitted on homes and Ploughcroft has worked on 5,000 of these projects.

Keeping on top of training
Ploughcroft’s training offering is a key element of what sets it part from the thousands of other solar installers in operation. Earlier this year the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) warned that as the solar energy market continues to grow there may be training and competency issues for the sector, for example working at height.

Chris has ensured that his firm offers the highest quality training programmes – ranging from NFRC Solar Panel Installation, Solar PV for Electricians and Solar Surveying to general roofing courses – and is urging other solar and electrical companies to ensure their team is properly trained. “By making sure that your installation company and its employees have the right training to carry out the job, you’ll be minimising the chance of any legal wranglings, and of course most importantly, keeping your customers and your staff safe.”

“But with literally thousands of different organisations offering solar training courses how do you know which are legitimate, industry recognised training centres and which are just out for your money? And then, which specific courses should you and your staff opt for? Again, with hundreds of choices, it is incredibly difficult to know which will benefit your staff and your customers most, and also offer value for money.”

For a start, Chris says it is key to use an organisation which itself has all the top building, health and safety and solar accreditations, which include: the Microgeneration Certification; NAPITUK; Renewable Energy Association; Solar Trade Association; ConstructionSkills; Construction Awards Alliance. Ideally, you should also choose an organisation which runs its training courses in partnership with a renowned vocational educator such as City & Guilds. It’s a bonus if the trainers themselves have been through the solar training as they’ll be much more in tune with what you’re looking to get out of the session/s, and if the training organisation offers a range of relevant courses, you’ll be able to go back to them time and time again.

In addition, the awarding body can be a very significant clue as to how valuable the course will be for you. Leading bodies such as BPEC, Logic and the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC) will help ensure that the training provider you have selected is competent and reliable.

Product innovation
Chris and his team are constantly reviewing the products they provide to their customers and are always looking to be at the forefront of cutting-edge innovation.

The company has teamed up with Liquid Plastics – a world leader in liquid membrane for flat roofs – to provide an exclusive national service which provides the Solyndra solar PV panels to British homeowners. Solyndra’s unique design incorporates a 360 degree light absorbing cylindrical module which absorbs three different light sources; direct, reflected and diffused light, making it far more efficient than conventional flat solar PV panels which heavily rely on roof orientation. In addition, Solyndra solar PV panels give homeowners a higher energy yield and a faster return on investment than flat solar PV panels. They are also self ballasting and can withstand maximum wind loading of 130mph.

Chris is also passionate about making changes to the solar sector when homeowners’ safety could be put at risk. Just this month, Ploughcroft has launched an awareness campaign to ensure the correct use of fixing solar brackets to timber rafters on pitched roofs, whilst complying with building regulation BSEN 1995-1-1.

Government cutbacks and the effects of the recession on the construction industry mean there is now a severe shortage of Local Authority Building Control inspectors to confirm if solar installations are compliant with building regulations. Couple this with the 1,000% growth of the solar industry in the UK in the last 12 months, and Chris realised that the industry has to act fast or it faces a potentially devastating backlash of complaints which would cause immense damage.

Chris says: “I became aware that the majority of the solar industry, and contractors working within it, are using roof anchors and roof bolts that were designed primarily for the German market which use 8mm or 10mm screws. In Germany, roof rafters are typically 75mm or 100mm wide so an 8mm or 10mm screw would comply with the building regulation of: ‘the absolute minimum acceptable edge distance is 4x screw diameter.’ Knowing that UK homes have smaller rafters (typically 38mm), I was greatly concerned that, unknowingly, UK installers were not complying with LABC building regulation BSEN 1995-1-1.

"The LABC states: the absolute minimum edge distance is 4x screw diameter, so the screws used to fix solar panels to roofs need to be smaller. At Ploughcroft we use 6mm screws, and I will be doing everything possible to inform all solar companies and contractors that they need to switch to a smaller sized screw with immediate effect.”

Chris has worked with popular German manufacturer, Schletter, and instigated the development of a new and unique solar mounting bracket for the UK market. This bracket complies with the BSEN 1995-1-1 standard and passed pull out tests in August. The new Schletter bracket will be available this month, with other manufacturers expected to follow suit immediately.

Making Ploughcroft a household name
With so much already on Chris’s plate, it will come as no surprise to hear that Ploughcroft is also currently going through a significant expansion plan.

Two new offices in the south east and south west of England have added to the company’s northern head office – the Eco Roof Visitors Centre – in Huddersfield, and a further six regional offices are currently in the pipeline. To underpin Ploughcroft’s growth in the homeowner solar installation market, Chris has also opened four new training centres in Edinburgh, Ashton, Ipswich and Bognor Regis, which means that the firm now offers both installation and training on a national level.

So what’s next for Ploughcroft and the UK renewables sector? “I will continue to be extremely passionate about the future of renewable skills, renewable energy, and the sustainability of the planet. It’s crucial for us to retain and build our relationships within the renewables industry, and I’ll be making sure that I meet with DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) on a regular basis.

“In order to meet the 2020 renewables targets, I believe the government needs to fast-track a programme of renewable energy product integration, with initiatives similar to FIT, Renewable Heat Initiative and Green Deal.

“For the electrical market, there needs to be closer liaison between roofers and electricians and more training. We are behind other countries mainly because we have always relied on our own North Sea Gas and Oil, other countries have not had this and have developed their renewable energy and efficient energy circuits well in advance of the UK. Basically the UK has been lazy and complacent, so professionals in the electrical market need to grasp every renewables opportunity that comes their way and act quickly.

“My Dragons’ Den experience has really put Ploughcroft on the renewable energy and solar map, and I’m extremely excited about what the future holds. Watch this space!”

Contact Details and Archive...

Related Articles...

Print this page | E-mail this page

Electrical Products