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Proterra case study

Proterra Energy

A childhood spent in Papua New Guinea, combined with expertise in micro renewable energy systems, led Terry Stebbings and his brother Neil to develop HydroTrailer, a cost-effective mobile hydropower system designed for developing countries.

proterra case study

Developing HydroTrailer

The brothers had been successfully running Proterra Energy since 2012 - designing, installing and maintaining micro hydro systems from their base in Drumnadrochit when in 2015 the government announced the phasing out of renewable energy Feed-In Tariffs. The move threatened Proterra Energy’s future growth. In response, they focused on expanding their hydro scheme maintenance service, and moved ahead with developing HydroTrailer into a viable product.

HydroTrailer is a standalone off-grid power source. It works in a similar way to a diesel generator, but the energy source is rivers and streams, and it has the added bonus of providing purified drinking water. It’s a good alternative - or partner - to solar and, because the whole system is housed on a  small trailer, it is very versatile.

Each HydroTrailer can supply power for up to 20 households, bringing several socio-economic benefits to rural communities. A successful trial in Malawi provided power to a small village, meaning residents could have electrical lighting in the evening as well as the ability to charge mobile devices in their homes.

We wanted to meet with organisations like Oxfam and Red Cross - but Pathfinder pushed us to find out who could make the kind of decisions our business needed, and how we could get in front of them
Terry Stebbings, Proterra

Working with our Pathfinder team

When Terry found out about our Pathfinder Accelerator programme, HydroTrailer’s product development had been successful but things weren’t moving as fast as he wanted. Pathfinder is a Northern Innovation Hub-supported business growth programme delivered over six months by world-class coaches.

“It came along at the right time”, explains Terry.  “It was appealing because it was a programme with fixed timescales that would take us out of the day-to-day running of the business and push us to focus on the commercialisation of HydroTrailer. It was tough - but that’s what we signed up for, and it got results.

“Pathfinder gave us an understanding of focus. We wanted to meet with organisations like Oxfam and Red Cross - but Pathfinder pushed us to find out who could make the kind of decisions our business needed, and how we could get in front of them. Before taking part, we were too broad brush. The external insight, drive and energy from the coaches was invaluable. They inspired us to work hard at distilling our product and breaking down our markets and customers.”

By the time Terry finished Pathfinder, he had a clear plan for HydroTrailer’s future and was focused on making connections in the right organisations. HydroTrailer was supported by HIE and there was a lot of good feedback about it from NGOs. This was in February 2020. Shortly after, his business was disrupted when COVID-19 hit.

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Adapting to COVID-19

Several of Proterra’s hydro projects were put on hold and four of the company’s employees were placed on furlough, leaving Terry and Neil responsible for essential maintenance and servicing on existing projects. Lead times for the production of crucial components were severely affected too, as were delivery schedules. As a result of furlough, two employees left the business to pursue careers elsewhere. It was a challenging few months.

By summertime, Terry felt confident enough in the company’s future to employ a student through our Technology Placement Programme. “I spoke to HIE about our supplier database project, and they agreed to support it with a student placement, which was great. Our suppliers are now properly catalogued and categorised, which helps us with quality control and saves a huge amount of time”.

A few months post-lockdown Proterra is busier than ever, and all employees are back at work covering both the backlog of postponed projects and work that had been previously scheduled.“We had to keep our business alive”, says Terry. “I wasn’t going to roll over, so we’ve been heavily focused on keeping the engine of the company going. I’m very happy to have emerged - we took a hit, but we’ve recruited new people and we’re busy again”.

Looking to the future, Terry has big plans for HydroTrailer. He’s keen to get back the momentum they had started to build on Pathfinder and, while HydroTrailer is aimed at developing countries, Terry is passionate about the benefits of local renewable energy systems in on-grid countries like Scotland. “It’s all about storing energy and releasing it at the right time”, he says. “We want to take off-grid, on-grid, and help Scotland reach its climate change targets”.

Pathfinder

Pathfinder Accelerator is a programme delivered by the Northern Innovation Hub. This is part of the Inverness and Highland City-Region Deal - a joint initiative supported by £315m investment from the UK and Scottish governments, The Highland Council, HIE and University of the Highlands and Islands. This programme also receives financial support from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Innovation strategic intervention.

Find out more here 

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