Don’t let ignorance rule

Gordon Brown claims that Britain will lead the international response to climate change. But as a nation compared with virtually every other developed nation we are short on real measures, especially those relating to heat technologies and in particular thermal solar energy.
Thermal solar is the United Kingdom’s most popular microgeneration technology, but its take up here is tiny compared with its take up in virtually every other European Union country. The UK government seems to disbelieve in solar thermal – even its grants are organised by the Department of Trade & Industry’s Emerging Technology’s Unit.

There are already nearly over 80,000 solar thermal systems in the UK, probably comprising around 200,000 square metres of glazed solar panels. How this government sees the technology as emerging is difficult to fathom.

Last year I visited South Korea where I saw thermal solar installations on many government and public buildings in Seoul. I have yet to hear of a single installation in Westminster.

Our failure to take up the solar thermal technology is almost certainly the fault of the Government who have developed an energy policy almost wholly centred on electricity production, to the exclusion of heat production.

As a result we have relatively few solar thermal installations in Britain and so we lack in the technical engineers to design large scale systems and sufficient trained plumbers to install them. Instead of simply copying the best practices of established markets like Germany, Austria and Greece – we reinvent the wheel.

Mike Darvill writing about solar thermal systems in BSEE criticises B&Q claiming that their introduction of solar thermal panels is encouraging a mix and match approach, which he feels should be discouraged. In fact he is wrong about B&Q, who are selling kits where each component has been sourced to work properly with all the other components in the kit. A mix and match approach is the rule in Germany, where they know all about solar thermal with nearly eight million square metres of installed panels and installers buy their kit from wholesalers, according to their own individual preferences and experience.

Solar thermal installations can be very sophisticated and in these cases design and simulation expertise is necessary to get the best out of a system. Large installations also need care in the design. Careful and accurate design can produce excellent results.

Usually green technologies like solar thermal are regarded as expensive because they have long paybacks. That state of mind does not apply to fossil fuel technologies. I have never been given my money back by British Gas, no matter how long I have been a customer, but most people will only install a relatively carbon free way of creating energy if there is a pay back.

Pay back should be a fairly complicated calculation; you have to factor in future energy prices, savings on maintenance type of fuel being displaced and repairs of fossil fuel equipment as well as individual energy usage patterns. Taking a reasonable view of these factors most domestic installations will pay for themselves within 8 to 12 years, and if the product is guaranteed for 20 years and has a 35 year life expectancy it will pay for itself, unlike the gas bill. Perhaps, however, a better way to look at this financial side is to figure out the return on your investment – domestically around 10%, tax free.

We find that from our end users’ experience some types of installations produce better returns than others. For example, pool heating, where the fossil fuel displaced is oil, becomes a no brainer by using thermal solar. Pre heat systems for blocks of flats are also very economic. One installer of Genersys panels using our bespoke design of a pre heat for a hot water system in the West Country for a housing association’s apartment block calculated (using the monitoring equipment installed) around a four year payback.

We need to use more solar thermal in Britain. The key barriers we face are those of an ill conceived government policy towards solar thermal and ignorance about the true financial returns that solar thermal offers. Solar thermal is a critical weapon in the fight against global warming. We have talked enough; let’s get on with some action.

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