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Meet the renewables installer who is training the next generation

Apprenticeships in sustainable energy can shape the future of the sector.

By Samir Jeraj

Paul Leedham started Matrix Energy Systems, his business installing renewable energy systems, following a string of redundancies.

He worked in heating systems, manufacturing heat pumps, and renewables – each time going through rounds of redundancies. “I thought, ‘Right, stuff it now’, and set up my own business to take charge of my own destiny,” he tells Spotlight.

Eleven years later the business he started in his bedroom has ten employees and installs renewable energy systems like solar panels and heat pumps in homes and for businesses. “We try to give people the best advice so that they can make an educated decision on the best technology for them,” Leedham says.

At the moment much of his time is spent dealing with shortages of equipment and technology, working to source it to “keep the wheels turning”. Supply delays caused by a combination of high global demand for raw materials and for renewable technologies mean that instead of an integrated system designed and built by the same manufacturer, installers have to buy separate components and fit them together.

The rising cost of energy means there is an “abundance of customers” looking to install solar panels to offset their bills but Leedham is concerned that this could lead to inexperienced people installing systems that are not appropriate. “You’ll get plumbers that want to charge a lot of money to do renewable technology, just because it’s got a renewable technology tank, but they are not experienced, or by any means any kind of expert in this industry,” he says.

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Leedham is also concerned about the mis-selling of renewables. “You’ll see a lot of companies targeting people that are not necessarily vulnerable in the sense that we would think as vulnerable, but I suppose vulnerable from a knowledge point of view,” he says. For instance, his company has had people asking for solar panels thinking that they will provide completely free energy. Solar panels can save up to £700 a year on energy costs plus around another £100 from selling energy back to the grid, but that is against annual energy costs of £2,500 at the moment, and the cost of installing the system – around £6,500.

Skills are a significant challenge in the industry. “We don’t really have any apprenticeship course in renewable technologies, just plumbing and heating,” Leedham says. “Every day is a school day, I’m still learning different things with regards to technology.” Matrix Energy Systems has been working with MCS, which certifies low-carbon technology and contractors, to help them develop an apprenticeship into industry that should be ready next year. “I think that would be the greatest achievement because that will allow homegrown talent, at grassroots level, to then come into the industry,” he says. At present, he says, the training available on installing renewable technology is short courses organised by companies and colleges. The City and Guilds course is 23 days long; the apprenticeship, when it is launched, will be over three years.

Within the business, they have been training their own apprentices. One of the first is now their operations director, and the company is about to bring in its fourth generation of apprentices in the 11 years it has been running. “It’s an exciting time to be in the industry because there’s loads of things that are going on. Loads of different technologies, different integrations,” Leedham says.

In October 2021 Boris Johnson, as prime minister, made a pledge to have 600,000 heat pumps installed a year by 2028. In 2021, the figure was just over 40,000. To achieve such a rapid increase the sector will have to transform, or it will have to rely on imports. “We don’t have the skill set for it. That’s why we’re trying to address that with training and everything else.” Around 10,000 heat pumps were manufactured in the UK in the past year, less than two percent of that 2028 target.

Leedham would like a “common sense” approach from government and a “level playing field”. That means listening to industry and designing better mechanisms for funding home renewables and policies to incorporate them into new housing, but he feels the government has not listened to his part of the energy sector compared with powerful lobbying from oil and gas companies.

“We can’t influence things [at] framework level, and I suppose policy level, we want to do things differently from a training level and a training point of view,” he says. “The guys and girls coming through these courses are going to know more than what some of the people that are already entrenched in that business do about renewables and hopefully they can then forge the way forward for existing gas and oil companies.”

This article is part of a series exploring the front line of the net-zero transition. Read more here.

[See also: Conservative Environment Network: the government must attract green investment, not deter it]

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