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Leapfrogs or squashed toads for the best renewable energy innovations?

Filed under: Latest News

Edited version of a letter replying to Ed Milliband’s inspirational article in the Guardian newspaper of 21 July called “One More Giant Leap”.

Dear Ed Milliband,

I laughed heartily when I read your recent funny Guardian article on “leapfrogging-in new renewable energy technologies”. It prompted me to write to you because our solar company produces a UK invented and UK manufactured solar water heating technology which is demonstrably greener and safer than conventional solar water heaters. You may ask is this true. Well…

– Its independently assessed lifetime energy payback (ie embodied plus operational energy) is under 2 years compared with over 4 years for conventional solar. So it is twice as green.
– It does not use any mains electricity at all in order to work because its water pump is 100% photovoltaically powered. Again greener.
– It can be retrofitted to existing hot water cylinders in half the time and with less waste than old solar. Greener once more.
– It is safer than most in that it is lighter to carry when installing, operates at lower peak temperatures, and lower pressures and has 20 times lower voltage electrics. Surely better.
– Its hot water storage complies with HSE guidance on Legionella (a pneumonia causing bacterium), while 80% of the solar industry does not appear to comply. Surely essential!

In short it is a demonstrably superior and inherently disruptive technology. As a consequence of this, for the last ten years an obstructive majority (but not all) the UK’s self-regulatory solar thermal industry in UK has, in our view, unreasonably:

– excluded us from the main trade body’s membership, the Solar Trade Association thus reducing our ability to consult proactively with regulators
– excluded us from eligibility from state funds and tax breaks. (Low carbon Building Programme and Enhanced Capital Allowance.)
– excluded us from state funded key training and regulatory documents on solar thermal (BPEC solar training manual and the EST solar thermal guide for example).
– backed with threats, sought to censor us from publishing the real facts about our superior safety and performance
– carry out their threats and apparently even delivered revenge via abuse of the regulatory process when we have stood up to bullies rather than back down.

Some of the government departments involved tend to refuse to give us helpful or substantive replies about these matters when we ask them. One key government official even has the gall to complain   we are being “vexatious” – when all we are asking for is a level playing field! Another leading government contractor has inappropriately refused to accredit any of our solar water heating installations to get grants under the Low Carbon Building Programme even though they are IDENTICAL to Solartwin installations which other installers have been certified to install for grants for years. There sometimes appears to be a clubby undercurrent to this industry but when we ask for declarations of interest in this such areas under the civil service management code, we just get flannel.

So, to the detriment of the environment, we are being forced to market more intensively and expensively than most of our competitors. Then we have to give our customers at least £400 in lieu of discount in just order to compete with our peers. As a consequence of these extra costs we are unable to deliver   carbon savings as cost effectively we had hoped to deliver by now or to reduce prices in order to bring zero carbon solar water heating panels into the mainstream, and to make them as common as fridges, which is our ultimate aim.

Is it hot air or is it the truth – when you write in the Guardian newspaper of leapfrogging new low and zero carbon technology into position? Our reality is of a government sitting back and allowing vested interest to squeeze out innovation. Our experience is that of an inept government turning a blind eye to certain self-regulatory majority-led decisons which, occasionally, but just often enough, manage to keep Solartwin and its loyal customers at a financial disadvantage. There are uncomfortable parallels with the issues of MPs expenses, the banks and of the conduct of your prededecessor, Lord Truscott here. By raising these matters I am not seeking to bring you or this industry as a whole into disrepute, only to open up to public scrutiny, certain aspects of conduct of powerful established interests towards innovation, as I trust that I am entitled to do in a democracy without being ordered, as have been ordered in the past, to cover up – or else.

I will take you at less than your word – and not to ask for any leapfrogging. I just ask, as I have asked a succession of ministers before you, for your government to deliver level market access (not any advantage whatever) for our disruptive technology. Then the market, not you, and certainly not any of our competitors, can decide if the Solartwin technology should leapfrog over old solar (a term which we are permitted to use by law, but which leading players in the solar panel industry have again tried to ban us from using).

Are you really interested in promoting a level playing field in the solar energy arena? “He who writes the regulations owns the market.” is especially true in where we sit the construction industry – an industry which is renowned for misconduct. It is your government’s blindfolded and hands-off approach to industry’s self-serving self-regulation – and its consequent market-grabbing – which is responsible for forcing so many great British innovations to struggle unneccesarily against what the IPPR recently called “the valley of death between invention and fair market access”. Your government’s abject complicity in the frustration and sometimes even the extinction the best of innovation is no laughing matter.

I invite you to meet me to discuss our case study and then an industry-wide solution.

Regards, Barry Johnston

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

(Ed Milliband is the UK Government’s energy and climate change secretary of state.)


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