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Welcome to Talking New Energy, a podcast from LCP Delta. I'm Jon Slowe.
And I'm Sandra Trittin, and together we are exploring how the energy transition is unfolding across Europe through conversations with guests from the leading edge of the transition.
Hello, and welcome to the episode. So, Sandra, I'm really excited about the conversation we have today because it's someone from outside the energy sector who's come into the energy sector recently. And I'm excited because I think we need these skills and perspectives from other places, like tech, media, telecoms in the energy sector to really drive the transition forward.
Yes, I think also the energy sector is transforming, right. Especially all the IoT (Internet of Things) communication part plays really an important role. Then also other topics like supply chain management, et cetera. So, yeah, looking forward to our guest today.
Hi, John. Hi, Sandra. Delighted to be on the podcast and really looking forward to our conversation.
Hi, Jamie. Great to have you. And first, we would like to ask you for two elevator pitches. So, one would be about yourself and the other one about zolar.
Great. Okay, so I don't know who I'm pitching to, but if I talk a little bit about myself and then a little bit about zolar. So, in terms of who I am, I'm CEO at zolar. I've been enrolled for six months and loving my transition into the energy sector. Before Zolar, I used to run Uber's business in the UK and across 14 countries in Europe. So, working really in the post Travis Kalanick era, where Uber struggled with growth and had a near fatal sort of episode back in 2017. And I was brought in by Dara to help sort of guide and steer the ship and to help what was a really fast-growing business sort of live up to the responsibilities of its growth, both in terms of regulators, in terms of technology, in terms of reputation, and also in terms of the internal culture of the company. So, a really interesting time running what's, one of the world's biggest marketplace businesses. Before Uber, I was at Amazon. So, at Amazon also during a period of kind of hyperscaling from 2014 to 2018, when the business was growing 25-30% year on year. And again, I was running four electronics categories in the UK across retail and marketplace, and just helping a company deal with scaling and grow while still not becoming bureaucratic and remaining in control.
And then before that, I was in telecoms for a long time. So, I was in telecoms then for 20 years. Before that, I ran Virgin Mobile in the UK. I launched Virgin Mobile in India and China. And I launched Orange in Thailand. So, I have an Asian streak in me as well, because I was born and brought up in Asia. I've got two sons. I love playing squash. I love reading and I love hiking, but we may talk less about that and more about energy in terms of zolar. So, I think zolar, what interested me about the company was I think it's a unique blend of kind of two things within the residential solar industry. It's effectively a marketplace bringing together homeowners and solar installers. And we, unlike some of our competitors and we can talk about that a bit, operate primarily through third party installers. And the reason why I joined zolar and why I'm so excited is I think it's the only company in Europe at the moment that really brings together two big growth engines. One is a marketplace, in other words, a marketplace mechanism to try and make sure that homeowners get the best installers and installers make the most money.
And that's similar to my experience running marketplaces in Uber and running Marketplaces in Amazon. And it's also a supply chain business. Right. It's a supply chain business where we will source panels inverters batteries from China, and we need to bring them from China into Europe and have them delivered at a customer's home the day before an installer turns up to install so that there's no wasted time and there's a lot of intricacies in that. And again, that draws on my experience at Amazon, where in the electronics categories that I ran, we were sourcing TVs, cameras, mobile phones from China, and how you run that transglobal supply chain in quite a volatile world is, I think, a real art. And zolar has brought those two businesses together and is sort of trying to make this two-sided marketplace between homeowners and installers work for both sides. And we're seeing great growth and a really good transition to what I think is a profitable company.
So, Jamie, your background is fascinating. What brought you to the energy sector? Were you looking at the energy sector for opportunities? Did you come across that spark something in you? Tell me a bit about how that played out.
At Uber, I did a lot of work with vehicle electrification. Right, so effectively, when I joined Uber, I made the first commitment within Uber that London would be fully EV by 2025. So, we had 45,000 drivers in London and back in 2019, just after I joined, I said, okay, we're going to be fully EV in London. And that big commitment got me into a lot of conversations with EV manufacturers and EV charging companies about how the hell are we going to make this work? Right. Because we, at the time when I made the commitment, had 100 drivers in EVs, right?
Yeah. It's a bold commitment.
I don't know what the numbers are now, but when I left, it was sort of 6000, and we were the largest EV fleet in the UK. So originally, I was very committed to trying to play my role within the energy transition. Right. I think it's the most important transition for humanity today. I think I've got two young boys of 19 and 17. I want to make sure they grow up in a world where we're not at one and a half degrees or two degrees host than where we are today. And actually, when I left Uber, I felt the way I could play my role in that transition was in the world of transportation. And then I got a call from Alex Meltzer, who'd founded zolar. And he, you know, transportation is interesting, but the real problem is in household energy. We have a path on vehicles, you know EVs are getting cheaper, it's gradually built, right. European governments have made generally the right commitments.
Yeah, it's a bit too easy to say it will look after itself, but it will happen.
Households is much tougher nugget to crack. And so, I got talking to Alex and talking to Alex about zolar, and I was completely sold. I just thought, actually, he's right. The household problem is of a similar scale to the transportation problem, but there's no line of sight to how we really get it fixed and we know what it takes. Right? And actually, I think residential solar is a completely integral part of what it is going to take to make household energy sustainable. And I think zolar has a particularly important role within that because I think its business model is very well suited to that transition, so, I was completely committed to coming into energy because I think that's the most interesting work in the world today. And I think that's the most important work in the world today. I just wasn't quite sure how to play it, and I thought I was going to do it through a transportation lens. The founder of zolar sold me that actually coming and doing household energy would be much more interesting. And I think he's right. I think he's right.
Yeah, I mean, there can be a lot of discussion what is the main driver? Right? Because at the moment, there's also quite a take-up rate on eMobility and chargers, et cetera. But I fully agree with you with the point that the drivers of the energy transition are the end consumer, and they will go forward no matter what, right? They drive car, electric cars, they build up solar, they build storage, but we have to make their life as easy as possible. But coming a bit back, based on your background, right, and now moving into the energy space, what would you think are the skills and experiences that you can most profit from your past now at your work during the energy world?
Yeah, that's a great question. Maybe two general observations about the energy space. As an outsider or someone who's six months in.
You're not yet native in it, which is really valuable.
I haven't been blooded, so I'm kind of able to naively say these things that many of you may inhale at. Well, actually, I'd make three general observations. The first one is it's a sector that is at the start of a very long period of transition, right? And so, if we look at residential solar penetration today, of homes that could have residential solar in Germany, only about 15% have it today, and that excludes multi-family homes and that excludes commercial buildings. So residential solar has a long way to run. And so, it's a big growth area. And I've worked in growth areas like mobile telecoms. I started in mobile telecoms in 1997. And there are certain aspects of being at the beginning of a growth industry where it's all quite turbulent. No one quite knows how the whole thing is going to work out, no one quite sees the business models of the future. And I find that a really incredibly interesting time. So, I think one general observation is we're at the beginning of a really long growth wave and no one really knows how it's going to work out. And I think that's an opportunity for new business models and new ways of thinking about the space.
The second observation I'd have on the space is it's going to be quite volatile, right? Transitions like this one, like the energy transition, where we're pushing a whole bunch of new renewables energy into what's traditionally been a kind of very stable, kind of coal powered gas nuclear world, means we're going to see a lot more volatility. And then you add on to that volatility of regulation and geopolitical change and you've got quite a lot of sorts of volatility in the market. And so, I think consumers need a way of digesting that volatility. And I also think businesses need to really look into that volatility with very open eyes because a volatile universe is quite a turbulent universe. If you end up taking a large, fixed cost basis or you can't manage the downturns or you can't manage the upturns, actually, we may find that really good companies just get shaken out because of the volatility. And then I think the third observation I'd have on the energy spectrum, and this is specifically less energy and more residential solar is the real bottleneck to allowing us to do what we need to do is the installer, right?
Actually, and it hasn't always been that way, right? If you went back two, three years, it would have been materials availability and before that would have been materials cost, right? The cost of panels and the cost of battery and the cost of inverters. But if you look now, I was in the Intersolar Conference in Munich in the summer, in July, I think it was, and it was like 13 football fields of vendors selling pretty similar PV panels, right, with improving efficiency rates, some looking better than others. Battery technology, but plus or minus a bit, a number of vendors doing the same, and huge amounts of capacity increases that are being built into the supply chain. So, materials costs are coming down really quickly and as they come down really quickly, the bottleneck moves up the value chain. And the bottleneck, I think, now is with solar installers, it's people who can put these things on homeowners’ roofs. And we were looking at some of the data on this where if you look at the growth in solar installers over the last ten years, it's been kind of low single digits every year, right? And if you look at the growth required to hit the sort of EU's aspirations and growth targets on sort of PV capacity, we need a three to five x.
So, it's hard to see how you get three to five x over the next sort of eight years on a base that is growing, wherein your installer base is growing sort of single digits. And the answer to that has to be either we bring more installers in, right, which is going to be hard.
Because it's always going to be an uphill battle to do that.
Or we need to work out how we help the average installer just do more installs than they've ever done before. And that's a great problem to have, because if we can solve that, installers are going to make more money that'll bring them in. And if you look at actually the bottleneck at the macro level, it's actually installers and helping them be as efficient as they possibly can be in order to allow them to earn more, to attract more installers into the market. And it was very interesting in Intersolar, as I was wandering around the booths in Munich, 13 football fields, there are only two or three companies that were talking about installers at all. Everyone else was selling equipment, right?
But of all of those, and we were one of them, clearly, of all of the companies, the number of companies actually trying to solve installers problems as opposed to trying to manufacture kit was very few. And that, I think, is a signal for me that we're playing at zolar, we're playing in a really interesting space because we're trying to solve a really hard problem that needs to be solved. And it's the bottleneck problem where I think it's the bottleneck problems where the value resides. And I think we're sort of trying our hardest to address that. How do we help installers earn more money? By doing more installations.
Based on that and also based on your background originally, I'm also coming from the telecom space. How would you see that around the topic of digitalisation, right? And trying to make the administrative processes and topics for the installer much easier than before, right. Because I think they just want to install. They want to execute and bring the equipment on the roof, but not deal with any kind of permissions and writings and papers, et cetera.
I think there's huge opportunities for digitisation to drive convenience and efficiencies. And the key place to start with is what are the problems that installers are having where digitisation can help. And I think, Sandra, you're absolutely right. I mean, sort of document management, grid operator liaison, that's certainly one area that no one likes doing and we can manage that very much more easily. I actually think that's one of the lower hanging fruits. I think there are deeper areas where we can use digitisation to drive efficiencies into the end-to-end value chain, both with partners but also with consumers.
With partners, we're looking at ways where with just a few photographs that a homeowner takes of their home, we can draw out a complete digital plan. And if we do that, as to how the system should be installed on the homeowner's roof. And if we can do that, that eliminates the need for an onsite visit. And if you eliminate the need for an onsite visit, you save an installer a 30 miles drive to a home, a few hours wandering around the home and then 30 miles drive back. And let's say that takes a day. That day is then a day they can spend installing. So, I think there's a huge opportunity there. I think also installers. Now some of the installers I've spoken to, they're spending time on the phone to the wholesalers, they're organising the scaffolding, they're sort of now then negotiating wholesale prices and trying to get discounts.
All of those are things that we can make much smoother and we can just save the average installer time. And with the time that they have, they can then do more installations. And a lot of that is digitisation. I think the other aspects of digitisation that we're working on is how do we use digitisation to really make the consumer onboarding easier? Right? So, the sale process easier. We have a way where customers who go on site can work out their savings, they can configure the plan themselves on the website as to how many modules they want and which battery they want and how much they'll save and how much it will cost. So, I think there's things that we can do to make both the partner and the consumer side easier through digitisation. And I think the great thing there is, the easier we make it for partners to earn money, the more partners will come on, the more installations we'll do, the faster we're going to help reverse climate change and the easier we make it for consumers to buy solar again, the more people will come on.
So, it's a virtuous cycle and I think digitisation is absolutely at the heart of it because many of the ways of working of the solar industry traditionally have been very manual, right. As a result, if you're at the start of a growth wave, you need to work out how you're going to two x three x five x your business without two x three x or five Xing your costs and I think the answer has to be technology.
So, Jamie, in terms of that digitalisation journey. Where would you say the solar sector is? I can imagine where you say the solar sector is and where would you say solar is? And I don't know if you want to use a zero out of ten to ten out of ten, or some kind of way of giving a picture of the solar sector and a solar how far down that journey you've gone?
Yeah, I think it sort of depends what you mean by the solar industry. But for me, today, in Germany and across much of Europe, 90% or more of the installations are done by local installers. And the average local installer, the modal solar installer, has five people. And the mean solar installer, if you look, I think 90% of installers are in companies with less than 50 headcount. So, it's just a small, fragmented industry, and that's not unique to solar. If you look at electricians and plumbers and craftsmen, multiple industries, it tends to be small. And so, I think because of the very fragmented nature of the installer base and I'm talking installers because I think they're the scarce resource in this whole game, those guys are using some fairly generic, off the shelf software to manage their business, if they're using any software at all. So, I think therefore, at that level, they're not doing much because no one has really come and sort of worked out how you digitise.
Yeah, there's not digital tools that can give them the perfect exactly.
Of course, they're using Excel and they're using Word. That's not efficiency tools, that's a standard stuff. So, I think we're working into a world where digitization currently is quite low. I'm not going to give a number, but that's the idea. And what we are developing at zolar, is the digital tools to allow the management of solar installation projects. The average solar installation is probably 100 plus stages. If you really break it down into its sub-component parts. And the questions we're asking is, how do we provide as much technical support at each of those stages to ensure that the partner is being as efficient as possible, and that the quality of the installation is as good as possible. Because when that's happening, then homeowners are going to be happy because they get quick installations that are great quality, that last a full 2030 years, and partners are going to be happy because they're able to do as many installations as possible.
Jamie, I'm intrigued by something you said at the beginning about needing new ways of thinking in the energy sector. I mean, one of those we've just unpacked a bit is digitalisation. But if you were talking with a heating company or an energy retailer or companies involved in offering home energy solutions in whatever country in Europe, what would you be highlighting around the new ways of thinking beyond digitalisation?
I've come out of telecoms, so maybe if I'll say it as it relates to what I think energy is, but it's really based because I haven't spoken to loads and loads of retail utilities. If I talk about maybe for me, what was one of the big transitions out of telecoms and into Amazon and Uber and these worlds, and I think it will probably be true in energy as well. And I think many of the people who've been in the energy sector for a long time, I think have often spent some time in a utility, right? I mean, it’s kind of those tend to have historically, if you've been in the industry 30 years, kind of been the way of playing the energy sector. And I think the utility mindset is not a customer mindset, right? So, utilities sort of tend to look into their networks and they tend to look to the regulator as their starting posture on how you compete and how you earn money. Whereas I think actually where the industry is, energy industry is going is you've got a lot of new business models and you've got a lot of new players.
And I think the companies that win are those that are going to be very customer focused and by that, I mean really think deeply about what customer needs are as this transition unfolds. Because customer needs are changing year on year. Right? I mean, the reason why people bought solar five years ago are very different to the reason why people are buying solar today. And I think the ability to ride that transition requires being very tight into and very intuitively informed by what customers want and how their needs are changing. And I don't think that mindset is a natural mindset for people who've grown up in a utility world. I came out of telecoms, if I talk about me rather than criticising the energy industry, and I was used to looking at how many competitors there were, whether the regulator was issuing a new licence and what our capex budget was for infrastructure rollout, those were the kind of and how much of a price rise we could put in at the end of every year. Right? And that's not a customer focused industry, but that's how the industry has sort of the telecoms industry had grown up over many years. And I think that mindset, which is a kind of network first mindset, needs to be a customer first mindset over the energy transition, the next ten to 20 years of that.
And it's interesting because we were talking in one of the other episodes of the podcast around the LCP Delta Summit, especially around this topic, about the consumer centricity and I think this is also where the advantage of all the newcomers in the market, like your company but also others, is right, because you can do it differently. You don't have a heritage, so it gives you much more flexibility.
I mean, I think even the terminology in the industry, which is behind the metre, in front of the metre, just that little word shows the whole it encapsulates a view of the world where you’re standing and which way you're looking.
And you see the flow diagrams from generation to networks to customers and customers at the end at the end of the chain. I liked what you said about the need to why people buy solar has changed. And people don't buy solar because they desperately want the panels on their roofs. It's underlying needs, isn't it? Jamie, can you just unpack that a bit? Because I think that's a really good example of where a non-customer centric person from a utility would say, customer wants solar, let's offer solar. But how do you think about that in terms of those underlying needs?
We do a lot of research, and we talk to a lot of our customers and a lot of our prospects who choose not to buy from us. And we spend a lot of time really trying to understand what drives their purchase decision and what drives it at different stages in the process, right. Because the reasons why they will start to investigate may be different to the reasons why they eventually buy. I think some of the big trends that we've seen are many customers. When we launched zolar launched in 2017, we've been doing this for quite a long time relative to other similar companies in our sector. And a lot of the people, customers we were talking to and prospects we were talking to were really there for sort of to make the difference to climate change. They came for very sort of strong personal values. And then I think also a kind of independence mantra. In other words, we want to be independent of the grid. This is about sort of protecting ourselves in the event everything goes down and the world sort of strange things happen in the world. Whereas I think as solar has trended into more of the mass market realm in the last two to three years, actually it's become much more about saving money.
And of course, people do still care about the environment and they still like independence because they're very conscious that when energy prices go up, that can cost them a lot of money. But actually, the raw reason of just saving money on their energy bills in the long term, I think has become more, relatively more important than it was two, three years ago. And we are changing the way we communicate and we're changing the information we give customers to try and accommodate that changing need. I think the other changes that we're seeing is in order to really help customers save money, actually, you need to be not just talking about solar, you need to be talking about energy management. And you need to be talking about financing options, and you need to be talking about the longevity and giving them peace of mind on the quality of the system that they're installing. So, the saving money sort of piece unpacks in a number of important ways and we therefore need to help customers get comfortable with buying a system from us on all of these dimensions.
Yeah, I think the concept of almost an insurance policy against future price rises is now something we see with more and more customers. Customers are scared, they've been scarred by the last 18 months. So, anything that people can do to protect themselves against that in the future, that becomes a value that I don't think existed two or three years ago.
Yeah, I think also the other good thing about the savings mantra is materials costs are going down every year and have been going down for the last 30 years and probably will continue for the next for the foreseeable future. And every time they go down, even if energy prices stay the same, the paybacks are getting better, the returns are getting better for customers. So, when we say there's never a better time than now to get solar, actually, that's know the paybacks are as good as they've ever been.
Jamie, there's so much more we'd like to talk about with you but keeping our time. And its probably time to bring up the talking new energy crystal ball. And I'd like to set the dial this week to 2030. So, can you give us a picture of zolar in 2030 compared to zolar today? Or maybe talk about how you've progressed, how you've grown, what you've achieved in the seven years, and a sub question, the biggest challenge that you had to overcome to reach what you described for 2030.
So, I think in 2030 we would like to be Europe's largest marketplace for residential green energy solutions. So, we have a Pan-European, aspiration we believe the marketplace model is the way of delivering against that. And we would like to be sort of providing a set of solutions to customers rather than at the moment, I think it's quite a solar product Led component. I feel the two key things that we need to make sure we hold true to, if we're going to deliver on that aspiration the first one is we need to be the best partner for our installation partners. Right? We need to put them absolutely as one of our core two customers. Right. We treat homeowners as a customer's customer, and we treat installation partners as a customer. And we need to keep both in mind because installation partners are the bottleneck and so they need to see us as a partner in the long term and we need to be helping them make more money, install more. I think that's one critical thing. I think the other critical aspect is really internal. I mean, I think to realise that aspiration we need to grow our company and I think growth causes growing pains both in individuals but also in companies.
And we need to really be making sure that we think about how we scale our organisation, the culture of our organisation, the calibre of our people, the way we use tech to ensure that we're building an organisation that is always 18 months ahead of where we need to be, so that we're growing into our organisation rather than having internal organisational constraints hold us back from the potential that we could be realising.
How much does that part worry you, Jamie? Because you've done that from what you described at the beginning, that period of intense growth at Amazon, and you I wouldn't say you feel wrong to say, are you relaxed about that? But have you gone through the experiences that give you the tools and capabilities to manage that, or do you think it will be different from your other experiences in this case?
I think internal organisational growth is not an engineering problem, right. It's a people problem. It's a people challenge because it's about a culture, it's about ways of working, it's about ways of fostering collaboration without bureaucracy. And I have done it before. I did it at Virgin when I was scaling the business in India. I did it in Thailand with Orange, I did it with Amazon, I've done it with Uber. But every environment is different, right? You can't just bring an engineering blueprint and say, I know how to scale. This is what it looks like. It's very on the culture of the company that you come into and the culture of the country within which you're working on. So, I feel I bring some insights to that. But I'm humble in my belief that I need to work with the existing teams and the existing organisation to make that happen. And I need to therefore be very conscious of working with the raw materials we have, not trying to impose a sort of Amazonian ethos on which I think would be like drinking the wrong Koolaid. It would not go down very well.
So, for sure that will be the one or the other surprise exactly.
Is you can't predict it. Right. You've got to ride the highs and ride the lows.
Well, Jamie, I love the ambition, what you described Europe's largest marketplace for residential green energy solutions, because I'm really pleased to hear you say that, that your ambition isn't just solar, we need a huge amount more of that, but we do need a lot more in European houses besides solar. So, a huge amount to do. And, yeah, absolutely fantastic that a company like Zolar has got your skills, backgrounds and.
You. Thank you. Well, it'll be a fun journey. And look, John, it's been great being on the podcast and having this conversation, so thank you very much for inviting me.
Thank you, Jamie.
Thank you as well.
Sandra, what's probably lot stood out, but if you had to pick one thing from that discussion, is there one thing you'd highlight?
So that's a difficult one, but I think you just mentioned it when I was listening to Jamie saying, like, you're becoming the marketplace for green energy solutions, which shows already the ambition to move also in other areas, potentially heating, charging, storage, et cetera. And what I found interesting around that point is that we see different players from different starting points in the industry converging exactly in the same space, but the execution and the business model is always different. Right? So, like, Solar is doing a marketplace, other companies are providing a full hands-on solution with their own installer base. But if we think again about the consumer, what will hopefully end up in his home is always like a package of green energy solutions.
And I think this is really great to see because it shows that the industry is, in the end, joining forces, even though on many different paths to get this done. What's your key point or outstanding point of the conversation?
I think I was delighted to hear Jamie's vision encompass the heating sector as well in terms of residential green energy solutions or potential encompass heating sector, because the installer challenges for Solar are very much the installer challenges when it comes to heat pumps. So, yeah, having that mindset, that intense focus on treating installers as customers, I think in the heating sector there are probably different flavours and elements of that challenge, but the fundamental challenge is still the same, we don't have enough installers and there's huge opportunities to get more out of what we have. So, yeah, lots to think about, lots to take away. Thanks to everyone for listening. We hope you enjoyed the episode and I look forward to welcoming you back next week.
Thanks. Looking forward. Thanks.
Thanks for tuning in. We are excited to bring you captivating conversations from the leading edge of Europe's energy transition. If you've got suggestions for topics or guests for future episodes, please let us know.
And if you're enjoying the podcast, then please do rate it and share it with colleagues. For show notes, transcripts and more, please visit lcpdelta.com.
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