The world is facing an energy challenge. Coal and gas will some day run out, and more and more nations are looking to renewables as a vital element in the mix. Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship alumnus Stephen Tordoff’s company, Energy Canvas, is at the forefront of making that happen.
There’s a public perception that entrepreneurship is a twenty-something’s game, but Stephen Tordoff (Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship 2011) is bucking that trend. He started renewable energy consultancy Energy Canvas 18 months ago, when he was 38, on the back of 15 years’ experience in the renewables sector. And, he says, age can bring advantages.
“I love the willingness to take a risk that comes with youth. But with age, you can understand the concerns of your customers maybe a little bit better, as you have that life experience. So it’s all about finding that happy medium while you’re still young enough to have that belief you’re going to be successful.”
Tordoff studied structural design at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, Canada before deciding it wasn’t for him. He then moved to Australia and took an undergraduate degree in renewable energy engineering at Murdoch University in Australia. He worked for a series of renewable specialists, including Falck Renewables and Iberdrola Renewables, designing large-scale renewable energy systems, and gained his diploma in entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School in 2011. In that period, he saw renewables gradually move from the fringes to being an essential part of the energy mix, and decided it was time to go out on his own.
Initially, Energy Canvas was a consultancy, with companies buying in Tordoff’s expertise. Getting used to the shift in thinking from employee to consultant has been an education in itself, he says. “I didn’t recognise this in the beginning, but it’s really hard to go from having long term interaction in the process, the company and its success, to where companies say: ‘thanks very much for your efforts, we’ll take it from here’, and then have limited opportunities and action. But I’ve always dreamed of starting my own business and going after my own ideas.”
Those ideas are now coming to fruition. Thus far, Energy Canvas has been funded mainly by Tordoff’s consultancy, but it’s now seeking its first tranche of investment to take his ideas to the next level and create as well as consult. The company has started two initiatives – tropical and arctic renewables – with the aim of massively reducing the carbon footprint of those living in these often isolated areas. It’s actively looking for investors to get behind these new projects.
In the Arctic, Tordoff points out, the majority of electricity is produced using diesel. Around 600 communities are 100 per cent reliant on this method. Some are only accessible in the summer, others only in winter. Not only is this far more carbon-heavy, but it’s also far more expensive – a kilowatt hour of electricity in the Arctic costs 60 cents or more, as opposed to the average Canadian who will pay just 11 cents. His aim is to get renewable systems up and running in these areas, reducing both the carbon footprint and the cost. Hybrid renewable energy projects, including wind, solar and energy storage, could produce around 90 per cent of the electricity these communities need. This could be done relatively quickly, in around two to three years.
And as well as benefiting those communities and the environment, there’s a strong business case for developing new ways of generating energy in those regions, increasing their productivity and providing an environment that will enable innovation in renewable systems.
The initiatives, says Tordoff, are his answer to the classic question that all entrepreneurs need to ask themselves. “I think it’s a great idea, but what about my customers? What is their pain – and how does my solution make it better?”
And he feels that the time is right. “When I started out, in 2001, nobody was really talking about renewable energy yet. 15 years later, it’s on everyone’s lips. Either you hate it or you love it, but it has become mature as a technology and there’s lots of innovation happening. We don’t know what the future holds, but it’s been a really neat journey so far.”
Stephen is interested in hearing from…
…potential investors, renewable energy companies in the Cambridge area and those with interests in renewable energy in India, sub-Saharan Africa, particularly South Africa, Zambia and Kenya, and potential mentors.