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“Disruptive technology” solar water heating innovation gains UK grants recognition.

Filed under: Latest News

Solar panel grant   – Solar water heating subsidy –   Solar heating installations – Solar energy panels – MCS – Best solar prices

Solar panels news: Thursday 10 December 2009.

“Disruptive technology” solar water heating innovation gains UK grants recognition.

An innovative solar water heating system which delivers three improvements on traditional solar heating technology (the improvements are financial, environmental and safety) has this week been accepted as valid for solar panel grants in UK. The company behind the innovation, Solar Twin Ltd, is delighted but critical of “opaque” regulatory processes operating within the solar thermal and construction industries.

Today’s announcement marks the technology’s official acceptance by the UK solar accreditation scheme called the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). MCS is owned by the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). DECC give grants for solar water heating under their Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP).

Because the financial and environmental costs-benefits of solar water heating will now improve, substantial solar heating market growth is predicted. This is because existing homeowners have been reluctant to install conventional solar water heating for reasons such as costs and the hassle connected with installation and maintenance will be more likely to adopt this innovative technology.

This Scottish-invented “disruptive technology” solar heating innovation, had been opposed for ten years on commercial grounds by the self-regulating solar heating industry in UK. The particular regulations which have been amended are definitions of acceptable ways of how to install solar water heating for grants purposes in the context of Legionella risk management. This new accommodation of innovation has happened despite opposition from the the main solar industry trade body, the Solar Trade Association, which represents traditional solar heating technologies, some of which have hardly changed since the 1970’s.

Barry Johnston said today: “I take my hat off to my colleagues, to our customers, to our installers, to those more forward looking trade bodies which had the guts to support innovations, and and to the scores of enthusiasts who have patiently made the case that Solartwin’s technology is not just grant-deserving but in fact that it is actually significantly better than conventional solar. The Solartwin solar heating technology should have been accepted into the mainstream a decade ago but the very fact that it is the only major technical advance is solar water heating to emerge from UK has also been its weakness.

“The fact that this solar heating technology it is substantially different from conventional solar installations in several technical ways has been systematically exploited by its competitors who have picked on these differences in order to create spurious technical criteria which have disadvantaged the technology in areas such as building regulations and eligibility for grants. As a result, for much of the past decade, Solartwin solar heating systems have been unable to compete on a level playing field. However I now expect that consumers will start to catch up fast.”

Kerr MacGregor, the inventor of the key patent behind the technology commented: “I am absolutely delighted that Solar Twin Ltd have finally achieved this breakthrough. The fact that the Solartwin technology is the most significant solar heating innovation ever to emerge from UK is at last being celebrated.”

Barry Johnston added: ” The financial and environmental costs-benefits of UK solar water heating   will improve because the changes in the solar grants rules. I estimate that the UK solar thermal market is likely to be boosted by about a third by the introduction of these changes. The change took place partly thanks to government agencies having taken notice. For example the influential Water Regulations Advisory Service (WRAS) recently published expert evidence in favour of the innovative and safer installations, such as ours. It became inevitable that the grants eligibility regulations, called the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) had to be radically rewritten to allow several previously excluded innovations, such as ours to gain grants. One question still remains and it is this: why is compliance with safety guidance from the Health and Safety Executive, with which which conventional solar heating plumbing still does not comply, but with which our installations do comply, [HSE Legionella guidance document L8 para 158] still being ignored by all of UK’s state grant awarding agencies?”

Technically speaking, the changes allow solar installers to adopt safer approaches than previously to Legionella risks and they will now permit existing hot water cylinders to be re-used, instead of requiring them to be replaced with new redesigned “solar cylinders” which are inherently less safe. Industry pressure to cover up this Legionella issue has been immense. Said Barry Johnston, Managing Director of Solar Twin Ltd. “Legionella experts were telling us that there is a “serious flaw” in the design of conventional solar thermal and we have been vindicated in our refusal to install these.

“One leading independent expert said that conventional solar was “highly likely to creating a risk.” This change to allowing existing hot water cylinders to be re, can reduce installation costs because not replacing them save considerable expense. It also prevents the installation incurring negative environmental impacts from recycling or disposal. In addition, unlike most conventional solar water heating the Solartwin solar water heating technology does not need to be plugged into the mains electricity supply in order to operate. Instead it is completely self-sufficient, powering its pump using solar electricity which is generated onsite. this saving money and carbon emissions which would otherwise happen at a power station somewhere down the wire.

The name Solartwin derives from this twin energy supply feature. Technically, in full summer sunlight, it collects 1600 Watts of solar heat energy in the form of hot water, while 5 watts of solar electric energy is generated using a photovoltaic panel which is used to collect and deliver that heat to the customer’s hot water store. Research by Bath University on how long the energy invested in both making and running a solar hot water system to actually pay back, shows that thanks to not replacing hot water cylinders plus, the savings from using solar electric pumping, the actual energy payback of Solartwin is about two years – while for conventional solar the payback time is 4.5 years – more than double his figure. (references to all above claims and documents available on request).

Commenting on the huge costs of gaining this breakthrough, Barry Johnston said today: “My frank advice is: don’t ever try to innovate in the construction sector – because: “he who writes the regulations who also controls the market”. The old technology incumbents squarely hold sway. It is my experience that too much regulatory red tape exists for opaque purposes of market protection rather than for anything useful such as consumer protection or environmental protection. The process of changing regulations is ponderous, profoundly self-serving and can be devoid of evidence-based decision-making. Eloquent marketing people with commercial and political axes to grind but who have no technical expertise sit on and vote at supposedly independent technical regulatory committees, even though some of them candidly declare that they have little or no real understanding of the technical issues at stake.

“Crucial technical meetings are held virtually in secret and I have been refused information on who attended, who they represent, what they said or how they voted. Even at meetings where I have had a chance to attend, I have been appalled to find that declarations of interest which should be routinely be made are rarely offered, with disastrous technical outcomes for the consumer, and for innovators. I personally investigated the supposedly “independent” authorship of several solar technical regulatory documents. I was disappointed, but not surprised to discover that some authors are potentially being paid twice. Once by the agency who commissions the document and potentially a second time by companies which are closely linked with technologies which stand to benefit from these documents being written in their favour. When I have expressed concerns to Government about this common practice, my concerns have been swept aside. It seems to me that Government permits, and indeed licenses this approach, except where it is brought to the widest public attention, such as in the case of the past Energy Minister Lord Truscott. Anyone who seeks to openly challenge or substantially improve this cosy regulatory system risks being threatened and blackballed by industry incumbents.

“For example the Solar Trade Association in UK warned us that “Any mention of potentially negative perceptions that are unjustified such as… legionella that is just not happening and I will take action… Any mention of legionella and solar brings customer concerns out that are unjustified. Any mention of legionella will reduce total sales… The legionella issue is best left alone (for all members)… There has never been a case of legionella anywhere in EU on a system with storage as low as 50C”. In fact, close to, but outside the EU: evidence of infection from solar exists – from Turkey. I do not want it to happen in Europe. The company had been the target of repeated exclusionary actions linked to the Solar Trade Association or its members. As just one example, we were incorrectly instructed by an STA Ex-Chairman (who was then working as a consultant to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) carrying out a BRE/DTI/Clear-Skies Grants inspection) to rip out and replace a fully working Solartwin installation which we had fitted with a traditional solar water heating system made of conventional materials instead. (evidence available)

Barry Johnston concluded: “I am delighted that we have finally removed the barriers to trade. We have made both strong enemies and strong allies in the process, I am most grateful to our allies.”

BACKGROUND

1 – What is a disruptive technology?

An innovation creating a new (and sometimes unexpected) market by applying a different set of values. (E.g., the lower priced Ford Model T. ) Firearms replaced bows. Refrigerators replaced ice houses. Digital photography has replaced films.

The values which old solar heating applies are: Sell lots of heavy technology, focus on energy efficiency at a narrow component level. Ignore wider environmental aspects.

The values which Solartwin applies are: Technology is secondary. Look wide: at sustainability and energy efficiency at a “whole of life” level. Sustainability, reliability and getting rid of bought in energy are what really matters to consumers.

Disruptive technologies may face commercial regulatory exclusion by dominant market incumbents.

2 – What is solar water heating?

It is a way of using the sun to heat water. (Solar heating is occasionally confused with the other main type of solar energy is solar electricity, also known as photovoltaics or PV. PV delivers energy in wires, while solar water heating delivers it in hot pipes instead). Solar water heating usually involves fitting a solar heating panel to a sunny roof for wall. This solar panel delivers hot water roughly at the speed that the sun dictates. The hot water is then stored in a hot water store until you need to use it. The UK climate is suitable for solar but just as you would get wetter faster, standing in a downpour than in the drizzle, so a sunny summer day delivers the hottest water, and more of it than on a dull winter day. Meteorologists say that there is about six times more solar energy available to collect in June than in December. Naturally, solar collectors respond to this fact accordingly and so delivering central heating (rather that hot baths) using solar water heating is a challenge of demand being inherently highest when supply is least (on dull days, in winter and at night). Consequently, solar water heating is best for heating hot water for washing and bathing, most in the summer. Depending on its size and design, a solar water heating system can deliver 30-70% of a home’s hot water over a year with water temperatures typically reaching 80-90C in summer. For comparison, a hot bath is about 40C.

3 – What about Legionella and solar?

Technically speaking, the changes allow solar installers to adopt safer approaches than previously to Legionella risks and they will now permit existing hot water cylinders to be re-used, instead of requiring them to be replaced with new redesigned “solar cylinders” which are less safe. Industry pressure to cover up the Legionella issue has been immense. Said Barry Johnston, Managing Director of Solar Twin Ltd. “Legionella experts were telling us that there is a “serious flaw” in the design of conventional solar thermal and we have been vindicated in our refusal to install these. One leading independent expert said that conventional solar was “highly likely to creating a risk.”

4 – Are there grants available for solar heating?

Yes. The subsidy available varies from 10% to 50% under the main scheme which is called the Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP). LCBP is funded by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The eligibility rules for LCBP funding are collectively called the Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS). It is a recent change in the MCS rules which have allowed Solartwin to access DECC’s LCBP funding.

Further details of UK solar grants and funding schemes are here.

5 – Who are Solar Twin Ltd?

Solar Twin Ltd is a UK renewable energy company who have installed thousands of Solartwin solar water heating in the past decade. Winners of DTI-SMART awards for innovation from the UK government and a best buy from Ethical Consumer Magazine, from the outset the company specified sustainability as the essence of their business. For example they pioneered a reliable low carbon solar sales technique which did not involve surveying on site (and all the mileage and emissions which his brings) by initially using satellite photographs of a customers a home to determine if roofs were suitable locations for well-performing solar panels.

6 – What is the Solartwin technology?

The Solartwin technology is a disruptive solar heating systems because it installs in half the time of conventional solar heating and which also has half the energy payback time. Halving the installation time means that the installation takes less than a day, instead of two days, so that there is much less disruption to their home’s water supply and they can take baths the same night. Halving the energy payback time means that people who seek green, sustainable, technologies tend to choose it.

To ensure low carbon operation, every single solar water heating installation is pumped using onsite solar electricity, thus improving the carbon footprint of a typical installation by 20%.   Getting rid of the regular chemical wastes associated with the fact that every conventional solar contains several kilos of antifreeze chemical, a chemicals which needs replacement every five years, the Solartwin panels contain pure water instead. This happens because their patented solar panels can actually freeze without cracking. Getting rid of antifreeze (and the driving about needed to replace it) reduces the environmental impact of this innovation even further. (references available)

7 – Is there any independent technical evidence for the Solartwin technology claim of being superior?

Plenty. According to independent statistics of UK state aided solar installations, Solartwin installers scored higher than most in satisfaction ratings, also other brands of solar thermal experienced significantly more problems after installation. Thus Solartwin seems to be an inherently more technically elegant and less fault-prone concept. This evidence derived from an extensive, statistically significant, government-funded, third party dataset: the DTI Clear Skies database of solar thermal installations. In addition to reliability evidence, there is abundant other evidence of inherent superiority in areas such as safety and sustainability. In the safety arena, for example it is pumped using ultra low voltages (22V instead of 230V) and it operated at very low pressure (0.5 Bar instead of 2-5 Bar), thus minimising significant risks from both high voltage and high pressures.

The very real risks from large areas of smashable glass falling off roofs is nil since the collector is glazed with polymers. There was a recent Europe-wide product withdrawal and delisting of an MCS phase 2 (community grants) product (Schott) because of unpredictable self-destructive glass glazing smashing spontaneously and landing on people in their gardens below. Smashing glass cannot happen with polymer-glazed systems such as Solartwin. Regarding Legionella safety, conventional solar is regarded as being a “serious fault in design” (Legionella Control International) which is “highly likely” to be creating a risk (Dr Tom Makin report for WRAS).

Regarding sustainability, research from other independent studies such as Bath University (SR Allen et al) show that the energy payback time over the lifetime of a Solartwin system is around half that of conventional systems. This is a phenomenal achievement which is attributable partly to its light weight, its ability to retrofit at low cost to existing hot water stores and also to the fact that every single Solartwins uses PV pumping – never mains electricity. Regarding the touchstone of performance, in the DTI funded “Side by side tests of eight solar water heating systems” it came better than average on the critical annual carbon savings criterion, despite it being undersized for its collector class because we were asked to supply an existing size of collector from stock at very short notice or miss any chance of being tested.

Thus, this technology is more reliable, greener, safer and simpler to install.

8 – What are the benefits of the regulatory change?

The solar heating regulatory change to allowing existing hot water cylinders to be used can reduce installation costs, because not replacing them save considerable expense. It also prevents the installation incurring negative environmental impacts from recycling or disposal. In addition, unlike most conventional solar water heating the Solartwin solar water heating technology which uses this approach does not need to be plugged into the mains electricity supply in order to operate. Instead it is completely self-sufficient, powering its pump using solar electricity which is generated onsite. this saving money and carbon emissions which would otherwise happen at a power station somewhere down the wire. The name Solartwin derives from this twin energy supply feature: in full summer sunlight, it collects 1600 Watts of solar heat in the form of hot water, while 5 watts of solar electricity is generated using a photovoltaic panel which is used to collect and deliver that heat to the customer’s hot water store. Research by Bath University on how long the energy invested in both making and running a solar hot water system to actually pay back, shows that thanks to not replacing hot water cylinders plus, the savings from using solar electric pumping, the actual energy payback of Solartwin is about two years – while for conventional solar the payback time is 4.5 years – more than double his figure. (references to all above claims and documents available on request).

So faster and less environmentally wasteful solar installations are now available at lower cost.

9 – Any other sources of solar information?

  • The Solartwin retail website:     http://www.solartwin.com
  • The Solartwin trade website:     http://www.solartwinprojects.com

Youtube videos on Solartwin.     http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=solartwin+solaryes&search_type=&aq=f

  • DECC website.     http://www.decc.gov.uk/
  • MCS website.     http://www.microgenerationcertification.org/
  • LCBP website.     http://www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/home/

Interviews and photos available on request.

Barry Johnston

Managing Director
Solar Twin Ltd
50 Watergate Street, Chester CH1 2LA


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