It’s been five years since bp invested an initial $200 million in an up-and-coming solar development company called Lightsource Renewable Energy. Since then, the two firms have created a 50:50 joint venture – now called Lightsource bp – with a team of almost 1,000 people and solar development projects in 19 markets. We are incredibly proud of our partnership and what we have achieved together in those five years.
One member of the team has lived through all these changes. In fact, Penny Laurenson has been part of the Lightsource bp story since the company was established back in 2010. Born and raised in New Zealand, Penny came to the UK for what Antipodeans call ‘the big OE’ or ‘overseas experience’, starting out as Lightsource’s first planner. Although she never expected to stay in the UK for long, 12 years later, she’s now Lightsource bp’s director of environmental and social planning, heading up a team of around 30 people.
To mark the fifth anniversary, Penny talks to us about the impact of joining forces with bp, her project highlights and why she believes Lightsource bp’s culture is so special.
I think there have been two standout changes. The first is the speed with which it has allowed us to expand. We’ve gone from developing projects in five countries to 19 in just five years. It’s not just the financial investment, it’s the brand. It’s definitely opened up new conversations. When we go into a new region, we’re seen as a serious player because of the bp name.
The other big change is all about our internal processes. For a long time, a lot of our knowledge was in our heads. Working with bp has helped us to create more structure – and that is essential to be able to expand successfully and hit our goals. We’ve gone from six people in 2010 to almost 1,000 today. Our earliest project produced 0.7 megawatts of solar power – now, we have a target to reach 25 gigawatts across our portfolio by 2025. You can’t do all that well if you don’t have good processes and really efficient, agile ways of working.
And bp has made it clear from the start that they liked what we were doing and wanted to support more of it – it is a real joint venture in that sense.
It’s actually one of our most recent projects in West Wyalong, New South Wales, in Australia. We’re almost at the end of construction – it’s the first site in the country that we developed wholly by ourselves. I’ve been over a few times to work with consultants and run community engagement sessions. It’s really special to see our first fully ‘in-house’ project come together in each new country we enter.
Another personal highlight for me has been developing a company-level Biodiversity Net Gain Framework. We’ve been doing some really positive work in terms of biodiversity on a lot of our sites – and this helps to formalize it and provide a way to report on our achievements. We are expecting the final framework document next week and will then roll it out across the company.
Definitely. Solar farms can do a lot more than reduce carbon emissions – although that is important, of course. A solar farm is a passive environment with a lot of open space – so there’s a huge opportunity to create a more biodiverse landscape around them.
For example, we plant wildflower meadows, trees and hedgerows and install bird and bat boxes at a lot of our solar farms, tailoring our plans depending on the wildlife we’re trying to support. Our sites are also home to around 1 million bees, harvesting about 1,000 jars of honey every year. At one of our projects in Italy, we’re looking to plant olive trees to create a natural screen around the farm itself, retaining agricultural production on the land. It’s called agrivoltaics today, but it’s actually something Lightsource bp has been doing since our earliest days, with many of our sites home to flocks of sheep that graze the grass.
We’re involved in a research project at Lancaster University in the UK, which is looking at the idea of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ on solar farms. The university has been doing surveys on 10 of our UK solar farms to look for evidence of benefits, such as carbon sequestration in soils, soil fertility improvements, soil erosion control, nutrient cycling biodiversity gains, and pollination, and we’ve got two studies going on at projects in the US.
One of the biggest impacts will be battery storage, which can store excess energy for use when the sun isn’t shining, as well as help to balance the power grid. We’re starting to incorporate that into most of our project designs.
Green hydrogen will be a big change, too. Lightsource bp won’t be making hydrogen ourselves, but the world is going to need more renewable power, like solar, to make it. That’s obviously a good synergy with bp, which is already involved in some big hydrogen developments around the world.
Probably going from managing a team that was mostly based in one place and overseeing a handful of countries, to now looking after a team of 30 people spread across multiple countries managing more than 200 projects at different stages across 16 countries. The biggest challenge – and sense of achievement – is creating a really cohesive, positive working environment to help people feel connected even though we’re not all in the same office. It’s knowing that someone in Poland can call their teammate in the Netherlands or Spain, for example, and talk through common issues. I love seeing people’s eyes light up when they realize they have teammates with shared experiences.
It was a complete surprise! I was really honoured to be named but what means even more is the fact that four ex-teammates had got together and started a secret campaign to nominate me. It’s a great feeling to know people still value you as a former manager.
It’s all about the people. One of our five core values is ‘drive’ and I always think that’s the one that best encapsulates us. I’m very lucky to work with colleagues who are good at their jobs and want to do well. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster at times, but there has always been an amazing energy in the team – it’s full of positive people who roll up their sleeves and get on with it. We’re workmates, not just colleagues.
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