Special Report

Adding value to the renewable sector in testing times

The renewable energy sector continues to experience highs and lows with a reduction in costs being been offset by the withdrawal of government subsidies for green energy. With further subsidy reductions expected in 2016, how will the renewable energy sector remain competitive? Electrical contractors, Robinson & Lawlor feel they can use their expertise to weather the storm in this continuously changing landscape.

2015 has seen the company diversify their skill set; having worked on one of the largest solar farms in the UK, helping complete one of the few UK gas-to-grid anaerobic digestions systems and installing hydro power to the iconic Cragside House. Although they’ve diversified, creating value for clients through quality workmanship at affordable prices has been a focal point throughout, regardless of the type of project, from 50MW solar farms to testing commercial properties. This focus on providing real value has resulted in a 35% jump in turnover from the previous year, with profit margins mirroring this.

Like many businesses within the sector, Robinson & Lawlor have felt first hand the impact of the Government’s decision to cut subsidies with many partners now struggling to find funding for projects. This is particularly frustrating as countries such as Germany and Denmark are setting records for meeting their national energy demand through renewable energy alone on certain days.

Energy Secretary, Amber Rudd is set to cut subsidies for renewables once again, with wind and solar being hit the hardest. In spite of this, there are still huge opportunities in the renewable energy sector. Robinson & Lawlor’s ability to work with a number of different technologies has meant they’ve naturally adapted to the way the market has shifted and been able to take advantage.

Peter Robinson, Director at Robinson & Lawlor, said: “We completed work on one of the largest solar farms in UK as recently as March, but since the election, things have changed drastically. The government wants to stop onshore wind farms while also cutting back on solar. As frustrating as this is, we don’t see it as a negative and instead we’re focusing on the positives and the opportunities it creates for other renewables. We’re taking on a lot of Hydro and Anaerobic Digestion work now, that’s why it has been so important to be able work with a number of different renewable technologies. We’ve made sure all of our eggs aren’t in one basket.”

Working with a vast range of local and international partners, the Blackburn based firm can offer a full range of electrical engineering expertise from 33,000 volts to extra low voltage, high contestable works to balancing of the plant. They offer a full service package that has the expertise to undertake all electrical aspects of a clients project. They provide complete design, supply, install, management and certification in all types of complex electrical installations for the renewable sector.

Originating from the North West, Robinson & Lawlor have over 58 years experience in industrial electrical engineering and are supported by a wealth of knowledge that their staff have gained from working with long term clients such as Rolls Royce, Michelin and Smith & Nephew. Over the last 7 years they have made a gradual transition from industrial engineer to renewable engineer. Their history as electrical engineers gives them a distinct advantage over their rivals in the renewable energy sector. This has been an important factor in their recent successes as many new businesses have identified opportunities in sustainable energy and looked to exploit them without the necessary experience that is crucial with this type of work.

Steven Robinson, Managing Director at Robinson & Lawlor, was initially surprised by the standard in the industry: “The renewable sector seems to have all the prerequisites for our industrial electrical engineering experience. Being able to work on the full range of systems from high voltage to process control means we are confident we can offer clients high quality, reliable services together with cost reductions. We were initially surprised on some of the larger projects by the amount of unskilled and semi skilled staff employed, and by the lack of quality control and management expertise exhibited by a lot of sub contract companies working in the sustainable sector. We feel its important when investing in renewable energy that reliability and quality are primary goals, as these are long term projects that need to stand the test of time in order to be beneficial and profitable. With our long-term experienced staff we are able to offer quality whilst also driving down costs for this client. This is something we feel is currently missing and one of reasons we’ve won contracts on some of the largest scale projects in the UK.”

The electrical engineering specialists have continued to take advantage of gaps that have appeared in the renewable energy market. They’ve gone on to secure 15 solar projects across the UK, ranging from 4MW up to 19MW, all to be completed before March 2016. How have they managed to secure such a large volume of work in a ‘slowing’ market? By identifying what their clients need and providing a solution, in this instance acting as the engineering procurement contractor, EPC. Being an internationally recognised EPC means that Robinson & Lawlor can oversee all electric and civil engineering aspects of large scale projects, with so much at stake their clients want reassurance from a trusted contractor to oversee fundamental elements.

Robinson & Lawlor have benefitted from partnering with leading experts in the renewable energy sector such as Biogas Hochreiter and Anaergia, both world leaders in the biogas sector who design and install anaerobic digestion plants. Partnering with world leaders requires working to the highest possible standards in the industry. As a direct result, Robinson & Lawlor recently secured work on 11 solar farms across the country due to the impeccable work they’ve previously completed for that client, British Solar Renewables.

Tamar Energy is another leading company within the renewable energy sector. They contacted Robinson & Lawlor to carry out the electrical installation on their Redford site, which is the largest anaerobic digestion facility of its kind in the UK. They treat huge amounts of agricultural waste (manure and maize) from local suppliers that generate enough electricity for 6,000 homes. Robinson & Lawlor oversaw all of the electric work on this facility; HV installation, LV mains, lighting, power and site wide earthing were just a few of the tasks carried out.

For the last 5 years Robinson & Lawlor worked on the CH Group’s UK anaerobic digestion systems, undertaking the complete turnkey electrical installation. Christopher Harrison, Managing Director of the CH Group, said: “Apart from the expected technical excellence, for us there is a far more important element we seek, that being a proactive, pre-emptive candour, which is a vital element in any business relationship, and Robinson & Lawlor have done this.”

Forging business relationships of this ilk is partly due to the personal service that comes with a company like Robinson & Lawlor. Their working relationship with Veka UK ltd is a prime example of this; for 25 years Robinson & Lawlor have carried out all of the installation work at their UK head office and production facility. David Jones, Managing Director at Veka, said: “Here at VEKA, we have worked with Robinson & Lawlor since our business was established almost 30 years ago. Over the years we have built up a fantastic working partnership with the team, who are always knowledgeable, professional and helpful. As our site and business have expanded, there have been many complex projects. The team at Robinson & Lawlor have worked with us on all of these key projects, as well as our day-to-day electrical requirements and have always delivered a first rate solution. I would not hesitate to recommend Robinson & Lawlor – our partnership with them is a valuable asset to our business and we look forward to continuing this into the future.”

Robinson & Lawlor’s work at Chatham Lodge, Leeming, one of the few biogas-to-grid anaerobic plants in the UK, is an example of just how diverse their portfolio is. Biogas-to-grid plants are much more complex as they require more technologies to upgrade the raw biogas to biome thane by removing contaminants.

World renowned German anaerobic specialists Biogas Hochreiter who supplied the technology and commissioning for two Robinson & Lawlor projects, Linstock Castle and Charlesfield farm, declaring that the installation Robinson & Lawlor delivered was the highest standard of electrical work our commissioning engineers have seen in over 160 projects throughout Europe.

It’s easy to talk about high standards and it’s something that all businesses claim to aspire to, but Robinson & Lawlor have the awards to back this up. The Tamar Energy AD project at Retford was awarded the Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association Best On-farm AD Project last year. One of their most recent projects, Owl’s Hatch, has been nominated for a prestigious Solar Power Portal Award in the ground-mounted category. It’s not just awards that Robinson & Lawlor are proud of; it’s being entrusted on projects such as Cragside House’s hydroelectricity installation. The 150-year-old building is Grade I listed and the birthplace of hydroelectric power.

Although working on some of the UK’s biggest projects in their field, they remain very much a family business with three generations currently working at the company. Founded in 1957 by Norman Robinson, Robinson & Lawlor have three generations working at the company. Norman acts as chair of the company, while his son Steven is managing director and his son’s Peter, Daniel and Andrew playing a major role.

With the EU’s renewable energy targets fast approaching, it’s clear that sustainable energy will continue to grow, despite the drastic subsidies cut in the UK. The real question left is which sector within renewable energy will lead that growth. With this in mind, Robinson & Lawlor has ensured it has focused on diversification, becoming experts in solar, anaerobic digestion, wind and hydro. This creates an exciting, if unpredictable, few years ahead for the company where they are in a position to take advantage of the growth of sustainable energy.