What on earth has happened?
Back in the 1990’s, while working as a freelance science and technology journalist I featured Kerr MacGregor’s amazing freeze tolerant solar panel patent on BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” consumer programme. It could freeze solid without cracking and he said it would revolutionise solar water heating by cutting costs, simplifying installations, by not needing special new hot water cylinders, nor chemical antifreeze, nor polluting mains power to run its pumps.
The BBC solar feature was broadcast. It was a success: many listeners phoned in expressing interest in this simple solar water heater which heated water for household washing and bathing, as well as for uses such as swimming pools. I collected my fee and moved on: wrote another story on something else for somebody else. But I never quite forgot Kerr’s great invention.
Unknown to me this clever patent was then licensed to STA board Member company AES Solar of Scotland, who, using some special formers, they attempted some kind of joint venture manufacturing project with Filsol Solar Ltd, of Wales, (now in administration) another STA board member company. Only a handful of their solar panels were ever made and installed. One delighted user of them contacted me some years ago but I do not know if I still have his details.
One cause of the boycott? I now know that both partners in this joint venture already had their own “conventional” solar panel manufacture facilities. Why have something new? Change is expensive. Apparently it was decided that this innovative solar water heating product would not reach the market. This secret high level STA “no-market-access” legacy (by Chairman and Treasurer, I think they were at the time) appears to underpin the subsequent boycott which we have endured for over a decade.
One sunny day, a few years later, I decided wanted a solar heating panel for my house. I dug out my interview notes from the attic, and phoned the inventor, Kerr MacGregor, who said that that the patent was not being commercialised, so that he (and his university: the rights were shared) had got the rights back after a legal tussle because no royalties were being paid.
I paid some lawyers. I acquired the patent rights and eventually raised enough funds to develop a mathematical “what-if” simulation model of its performance using a PV pump, several pre-production prototypes as well as run successful realtime trials. We established “technical feasibility”. A doctorate was awarded to the student who did much of the work for us at Scottish university. All very exciting! Look at Solartwin’s superb innovation cascade, where one improvement leads to another improvement. This was a real “disruptive innovation” of a technology.
Too good to be true. Too simple, people said. We went into production and started selling our amazing simple solar heating product. This showed “commercial feasibility”. Some of the people phoned in to the BBC expressing interest, actually bought from us (inventor Kerr had carefully kept their details!).
We know our product is better because it is PV pumped and uses no chemical antifreeze. Stupidly, as it turned out, we said so in our marketing material. That’s when the trouble started…
Censorship and threats came early. The next STA Chairman Dr Chris Laughton, came to my home for an off the record meeting (I now know that the nastiest ones often are) in which he complained about our marketing leaflets. He banned me from using the term “old solar” and he and warned me that if I did not remove third party DTI data showing operational carbon clawbacks of 17%-23% for mains pumped solar heaters I would face “consequences” from the STA board.
I was appalled. I was naive then. I paid some lawyers. Eventually we backed down partway (saying “conventional solar instead of old solar” and used average figures (not brand-specific as this embarrassed the STA board) But we had made a bad compromise. No only had we spent loads on lawyers, we had blunted our competitive edge and at a disciplinary held in our absence we were fined £1000 by the STA for seeking external advice (from the OFT). The fine was later rescinded, but only after our legal costs far exceeded it. As for all the hassle…
Threats, both explicit and veiled, warning and demands to censor have been a repeated feature of this boycott. Ritual exclusion (during important times of regulatory change) and re-instatement of the STA also a feature.
The market pincer movement continued. Unfortunately our route to the large DIY solar market was largely closed off because STA members blocked our product from the Solar Clubs network which was controlled by STA board members AES, Filsol and Thermomax. I paid some lawyers. After about a year we were allowed in but the network soon closed, and the low hanging fruit had been picked.
Solar heating grants were planned. We cheered. They appeared. Leading STA members developed exclusionary grant eligibility criteria for the UK’s Clear Skies Scheme for BRE. One member was Chris Laughton. Another appears to have been a well connected gentleman called Nick Davies. We should not have been excluded. I paid some lawyers. Our amazingly loyal and committed customers lobbied hard! Eventually we got in but only after months of losses and huge legal costs and again after missing the low hanging fruit of the non-DIY market.
Installers were kept in the dark. Unfortunately our route to UK’s huge “installer-reseller” solar market remains largely closed off. This is because we were boycotted from the (then a monopoly) BPEC solar thermal training manual and its various predecessors for over a decade. £86k of state funds flowed from the state to STA to Filsol Ltd, to Chris Laughton’s business. This exclusion seems to have been a misuse of state funds. I paid some lawyers. Finally, last year we finally gained recognition some by BPEC. Following a rewrite, we are now technically included in the manual but we are not on the equipment list and our offer to help to train the trainers (probably largely STA members) has been ignored. Thus the actual market block in this segment is not properly lifted. We hope that one day soon all solar installers will know and understand how to survey, specify, install, commission, troubleshoot and use a Solartwin solar water heater as a matter of course.
To bypass this devastating installer boycott, we developed an innovative low carbon business plan, direct selling to the public using aerial photos and a very details phone questionnaire. Of course this was attacked several times via the secrecy of regulatory meetings and other liaisons providing influential competitors with the opportunity to dynamite us several times with a fait accompli of “must have onsite survey BEFORE order is place” type of killer clause, even though our detailed green approach has worked great for 13 years. Secrecy in regulation is supposed to protect businesses. In fact it sometimes provides convenient cover for market-rigging.
An anonymous complaint (traced back to a senior STA senior member) was made to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) about our system supposedly not complying with the Pressure Equipment Directive (PED). We went to London, met HSE. They left the meeting angry that they had been hoodwinked, because no significant issues existed.
An anonymous complaint (traced back to a senior STA senior member, Chris Laughton) was made to a senior UK politician who was considering buying our system. But we had a load of malicious allusions to rebut. We managed to convince his more open-minded agents that Solartwin was worth buying. Fortunately the deal went ahead.
An anonymous complaint (traced back to an STA senior member) was made to the Health Protection Agency that our system was not safe regarding Legionella. We spent huge sums on consultants reports – which actually showed that in fact conventional twin coil cylinder type solar water heating, which did not heat to the base to 60C every day had a problem, not our “heat to the base daily” solar thermal technology. It seemed almost as if old solar thermal was claiming a green “special exemption” from good Legionella safety practice. Our internal risk assessment also calculated that old solar plumbing was delivering 11% more energy benefit that our plumbing, but at the price of 10 time increase in risk. We asked why solar consumers were not being asked to consent to an increase in risk.
Confronted with such questions, STA Chief executive David Matthews lied about what the STA did on Legionella safety and he ordered me in writing to be silent on the matter of Legionella safety benefits and on other benefits or our system saying or “I will act”. We decided to go public on Legionella. One way we did that was to speak with Which? Magazine. They were on the brink of publishing an article on it when the STA waded in and stopped them. Immediately one or our key regulations consultants phoned me up (while I was naked in the locker rooms at the gym – I remember the moment) saying he had to abandon our (lucrative) contract with him without going through the normal notice period because he had a “conflict of interest”. In other words someone had paid him shedloads more than we could afford.
Perhaps as revenge for rocking the boat, STA Chief executive David Matthews tried to have me thrown out of MCS solar thermal Working Group, apparently for expressing concerns about governance and misconduct. I paid some lawyers. He failed. But only the first time!
Working with Bath University, we found out that Solartwin had a mere 1.2 years “lifetime emitted carbon” breakeven time. (Old mains pumped solar takes about three years longer). We campaigned repeatedly for a requirement of published product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the analysis whereby this valuable data was unearthed, to take place as a precondition of state subsidy of microgeneration.
Transparency is vital. We asked UK’s Microgeneration Certification Scheme to require LCA disclosure for typical domestic microgenerators. After all, how can consumers (or government) make good environmental decisions about greentech without knowing what impact your candidate technologies have on the environment?
Lead boots brigade MCS, which is an “industry-led body”, have yet to implement this transparent performance idea. After all, why would any sensible-self-serving grant-gravy-training industry want consumers (or even government) to make good environmental decisions about “greentech” particularly if LCA might reveals, as it will eventually do, that today, heat pumps, for example, deliver little improvement in lifetime carbon benefits compared to high efficiency gas condensing boilers?
We pioneered PV pumped solar heating in UK and developed an electronic bespoke off-grid solar controller to turn the pump on and off. But STA Chairman Howard Johns, undercut our key selling point (PV pumping) by making numerous claims that solar (ie largely mains pumped) was the only truly zero carbon technology. We asked him to desist. He did not. We asked the renewables regulator the REAL code to stop him. They did not. We asked the ASA to stop him. They did.
Some big boys waded in and STA Vice Chair company Worcester Bosch also undercut our key selling point (PV pumping) by having a solar performance simulator on their website which concealed the fact that pumps emit CO2 during operation. The ASA got that changed.
We were upfront with the ASA. In both cases (against STA Chair and Vice Chair companies) we were identified as the complainant. Soon after an anonymous complaint came in to the ASA against us, saying we could not even claim “Zero Carbon Solar” for our PV pumped solar panels. We lost this one! As a consequence claiming “Zero Carbon Homes” is also banned. This throws UK building regulations and national plane for decarbonisation into chaos.
We called for both these people (Howard Johns and David Matthews) to resign on twitter and in a video. They both obliged, eventually. This video is being cited as a reason for us being kicked out of the STA (and the MCS blackballing).
Tax breaks were being awarded to the least sustainable solar heating systems, while the most sustainable, as assessed by low pollution operation, such as our PV pumped technology were excluded. So were could not market to businesses based on this selective-entry tax benefit. The “Enhanced Capital Allowances” rules which governed tax break eligibility were perverse. I found out that a quango called the Carbon Trust wrote the rules. I met them. (I offered no money.) They would not admit our technology, nor other PV pumped solar water heating systems like it. I went to hear an inspiring environmental Speaker, whose determination I had always admired, called John Selwyn Gummer (he had been Margaret Thatcher’s Environment Minister and he had stood up for green issues even in economic hard times) because had said he was a board member of the Carbon Trust. He cordially agreed to meet me to hear my concerns. I met him at his offices in central London. He sympathised. Yes, he understood. Yes, he could help. He then said we had to go into a different room. I trotted after him. He explained that from this particular room he operated his private consultancy. And I could engage him for a fee. I walked out politely, having learnt precisely what the expression “revolving door” meant.
Clarification on the above paragraph from The Carbon Trust. Please note that since writing it, the Carbon Trust contacted me on 23 May 2012 saying “John Gummer has never been a Board member of the Carbon Trust nor for that matter, has he acted in any other capacity for the Carbon Trust at any time in the past.” This disconnection really baffles me. I would not have gone 200 miles from Chester to London meet him if I had not been (initially) confident of his involvement and sincerity.
Masonic undercurrents. Chris Flaherty, a masonic STA member (according to his Linkedin entry) linked to an STA board member company issued what appears to be a blackballing notice against me on Twitter. “Not of good morals and reputation” was the damning phrase. Boo hoo. He also copied it to a major freemasons site. Not really knowing what to do, I formally asked the main UK freemasons body if he might care to apologise, but he did not.
Soon after this personal masonic boycott was published I was thrown out of the Microgeneration Certification Scheme’s solar thermal technical Working Group on what we believe to be spurious grounds. I had queried MCS governance and in particular some people’s impunity for fillibustering and blocking us from grants us for a year, and I had queried why MCS had no requirement for masonic declarations of interest and also why its crucial solar heating market-making committee had a quorum of just 1 person.
MCS Industry Chief, Gideon Richards writes that I was kicked out only for the “manner” in which I have expressed my views, not that I was kicked out for actually stating them, because, after all, he also states “Members of the group are of course encouraged to present their potentially divergent views, and to challenge the status quo”. I was expelled without any actual exclusion hearing process, nor, at the time, any right of appeal, by its (apparently masonic) Chairman Chris Roberts, who had even years ago operated with apparent fellow lodge-lurker Clive Hawkes to block us from state support while Chris Roberts headed up BRE’s innovation-blocking Clear Skies grants scheme along with another expert called Nick Davies. Masonic revenge can be as hard as stone: be warned.
MCS appeal pushme-pullyou update of 29 May 2012. Half a year later MCS eventually supplies a document outlining a new right of blackball-appeal while an official apparently validates, by sharing, my governance concerns by writing to me “…you have strong views on MCS governance processes and I am sure that there can be improvements put in place to address these…”
Fair appeals reply on disclosure of evidence. So in order to rule out any possibility of concerted action (this may be prohibited under competition law) or masonic influence, I asked MCS for sight of the original wording of the complaints, in order to rule out possible similarities in wording. Disclosure was refused. I requested disclosure of masonic memberships of the relevant MCS people in order to rule out Freemasonry as a factor. Again, disclosure was refused. This could be an interesting appeal: It is about the right to express concerns about governance, yet potentially important evidence on governance might be withheld. We will never know. Clearly improvements could even put in place to address the governance of the MCS appeal…
Update 22 June 2012. A higher committee at MCS recently considered my appeal. It was decided in my absence (at which I was not allowed to attend, let alone speak in my defence) that I did not, after all, breach confidentiality and although there was no complaint about by conduct at MCS meetings the blackballing was retained and I remain excluded until I deliver wide multimedia censorship, of twitter, of youtube and, of course, this website.
So here have a UK state regulator censoring an industrial dissident and holding their business to ransom, as an added extra. More on this story here.
In 2011 the Office Of Fair Trading fired a coded warning shot across the bows of the STA saying in their off Grid Energy Study report that “industry bodies play an important role in facilitating competition and have obligations to ensure that firms are treated without bias” Our further analysis of this report is here. It seems as if STA have not read it.
Our innovative solar panels freeze solid without damage. So of course you must “must ensure against freezing” was a requirement which was supposedly from the UK Water Regs and was claimed by water regulations “expert” Clive Hawkes in meeting of 17/12/2004. Of course if you actually read the regs you would read that protection from damage by freezing is required. Subtly but vitally different. We comply with the water regs by having stretchy pipes (because water expands 4% on freezing), but not with Clive Hawkes misrepresentation of them, which was that they must not freeze at all. What were the lessons learned? 1/ Never trust a mason unless you are one. 2/ Masons will lie to protect their mates up, right to the very edge of the law. 3/ Regulators and quasi-regulators should only employ freemasons who supply full public masonic declarations.
But do UK’s regulators require masonic transparency? Certainly not at MCS and ASA anyway. At MCS their sloppy position on declarations of interest is: “…we haven’t asked specifically about masons, though people are at liberty to disclose that if they wish.” I think that masonic rules generally say they should not disclose. The point is that we working in microgeneration and installing our kit is therefore in the construction industry, where freemasonry was actually created and where it retains significant influence. Surely MCS should require disclosure?
The ASA’s declarations of interest are merely voluntary, and are formally based on the “The Honour System” (a masonic style choice of words from Trevor Ellis, its Chief Executive, who, based on his interests disclosure papers is not a mason). The Honour System appears to be a slippery construct commonly used in the masonic world which means something like: “Trust which is implemented with minimal checking or revalidation.” Is this “adjudicators are free to lie” approach a good enough approach for the ASA, who are, after all, a trusted regulator which requires advertisers to be, among other things “honest and truthful”? The whole truth? Er, perhaps not among the ASA top brass anyway. Surely ASA should require disclosure?
Dirty tricks abounded. A report (traced back to an STA senior member) was made to the Building Research Establishment implying that that our system would routinely boil, melt header tanks and kill people. We spent huge sums on testing which showed that in fact this claim was false.
An anonymous complaint (traced back to an STA senior member) was made to DTI or DECC whatever it was called at the time implying that that our system was defective because it “lacked a temperature and pressure relief valve” Obviously an open vent is far safer, but the civil servants were not technical. I paid some lawyers. Eventually they were persuaded that the complaint was spurious.
And another legionella censorship demand. After being told for years that there was no issue at all with Legionella and solar water heating’s “dedicated solar volume” (AKA “dedicated legionella incubator volume)” in June 2012, at the same time as a tragic Legionella outbreak was occurring in Edinburgh which infected over 80 people and killed a man, I came across a short newspaper story about the Scottish parliament being plagued by Legionella problems since 2008. The cause was apparently a solar water heating system which was installed by, (guess who?) AES, the very company who had originally decided not to commercialise our technology. I wrote about it on this website. The following morning, a Saturday, while I was lazing in bed after a very busy week, the AES head man George Goudsmit (of the “we are not interested” in cleaning up the STA video) called me up and ordered me to censor it. No “please”. Just an order. I asked him to put his reasons in writing and rang off. He has, so far, declined. Here’s the rest of this strange story.
National Geographic Magazine featured Solartwin in a “what’s inside it” programme, where they cut the panel up with a chain saw. The wider public was enthusisatic even if the industry was not. Here are two video briefings we sent the NGTV before they broadcast. Looking inside Solartwin and Fun with Solartwin. So far there are no dirty tricks that we know of relating to this success.
An anonymous leaflet (traced back to an STA senior member due to his use of identical quirky language which was the same as in other complaints) was circulated to STA members saying that that our system was made of porous leaky hose pipes and ridiculing our business and brand. Although I was given time to address this matter at an STA AGM it turned out to be a horrendous lynch-mob experience, with George Goudsmit of ex patent holders AES being particularly nasty.
Fed up with the UK boycott, we once identified that working at a European level might help, bypassing UK regulatory constipation, but this means was blocked because the STA vetoed us from joining Europe’s solar thermal trade body, ESTIF, for years. I paid some lawyers. We went to Brussels to meet ESTF. We appealed their refusal but lost. This was a huge hassle at a time of changing EN standards. We nearly went bust as a consequence. We returned to Brussels to meet competition regulators and in the end we paid to join a Portuguese trade body (!) in order to bypass the STA boycott and eventually we joined ESTIF.
More grant schemes were announced. The eligibility gateway is called MCS. STA members implemented exclusionary grant eligibility criteria under MCS. We were flung off the market for over a year and needed large injections of funds to survive. Again I paid some lawyers. Eventually we got in but only after huge legal and lobbying costs and only (again) after missing the low hanging fruit.
In breach of STA rules, some STA members, did not properly represent our interests at standards setters BSI, guidance writers EST, grants access kingmakers MCS, and building regulators DCLG etc. Some actively worked against us. The STA Chief Executive agreed he would help us to alter the solar heating panel standard called EN 12975. Our carefully worded proposal text was submitted to BSI only to be immediately and unlawfully rejected by the Chair (and ex STA Chair) for not being in the form of a spreadsheet. This set back an important process of change by several years even though I enriched some lawyers again.
Using state funds, an STA technical expert wrote a solar thermal document called CE 131. It excludes our technology, contains some appalling market-rigging content and defines “best practice” in a historical-looking way which blocks innovation. I paid some lawyers. We persuaded EST to review the document. They agreed it needed improving but they did not rewrite it, as they had promised. So the problems remained.
For “a bit of fun”, his words, one STA board member cyberquatted our brand name as a domain, diverted inquiries to himself and then tried to ransom the name to us at an inflated price. We think this domain may now be in the possession of someone he now knows. We asked STA to get us the domain. They failed to do so.
Two Intelligence Officers from The Immigration Intelligence Service of the Home Office turned up last month at my office, brandishing their official laminated passes, as they sat down, to quiz me, just like they do in films. They politely asked me lots of questions and needed to know the names of everyone we employed and precisely where they all lived. They assured me that they were acting reasonably, on a tipoff, and that they had grounds to require me to send full payroll details (and so on) within 5 working days. I complied. All rather intimidating for my non EU colleagues.
One year we even had a tax investigation which we were told was was triggered by the huge costs for “professional fees” paid to (you guessed it!) lawyers and regulatory consultants. We came out as clean as whistle but with a bill of thousands from our accountant (which we paid).
We wrote a load of helpful clean-up motions for the STA to consider at the 2011 AGM. But STA did not table them formally and they threw me out bodily when I tried to attend (video). Ironic, when you consider the industry took the government to court for failure of process that same year, on a matter of subsidy cuts.
STA members are aware of such issues. For the record, the STA, who are the main gatekeepers to the UK solar thermal market, who have thrown us out several times, formally deny any involvement in every single one of these issues. Repeatedly STA have been asked to act and repeatedly they have failed to act. A huge failure by STA to operate properly was the reason why we resorted to public disclosure on youtube, our website and twitter. The above is only a sample of the numerous events and issues of concern.
The moral of the story is: (are?) don’t develop new green technology in Britain. If you do, be prepared to pay loads of bribes. Sorry: trade sponsorships and consultancy fees. Innovation which is better than the old stuff will inevitably be stifled. Watch out for the regulations consultants. They can only thrive on opacity and your problems. The PR hype about Britain being best for business is largely nonsense. As with all businesses, the ethics of some people in the renewable energy industry are superb while others are repugnant, and most competition regulators are too busy to act. That putting intractable problems in the public domain fixes them ten times faster than using lawyers, if anything can fix them at all.
We love solar. Solar is music to our ears. What about the affection of the UK solar industry? Why should a great British innovation face so many hurdles? What does this boycott do to the prices that customers have to pay, let alone to jobs and UK’s export potential? Nevertheless, thousands of Solartwin solar water heaters have been installed. Most are in UK and Ireland, but there are some in France, Portugal, Dubai, new Zealand, the Caribbean and even one, all alone in the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.
Yet again on 30 April 2012, the UK’s Solar Trade Association have thrown us out for not complying with their unreasonable demands, which is that we back down on telling you this story and the we stop asking them to remedy the damage
Update of 10 May 2012. UK’s solar thermal innovation boycott has now metastasised into the British Standards Institute whose Chairman Chris Laughton has apparently taken a lead in drafting yet another blocking document. This time it is a British Standard aimed at killing the retrofit solar water heating market stone dead by, among other means:
- requiring hot water cylinders to be over 140 litres in volume even though most homes have 120 litres – and this is fine for the average UK home, which on average have 2.4 occupants. What a waste! But what a great way to stuff solar heating which retrofits to existing 120 litre hot water cylinders!
- requiring pipes to be, not only metallic but “time served metallic”. Ours are silicone. We are off the market via this second measure as well. Imagine walking into your local Plumb Centre and asking for “one BSI time-served metallic pipe please”. And Laughton does all market-rigging this totally for free.
Will the Draft Standard become a full standard? All this market rigging is, at least partly in pursuit of a dangling carrot of £250 million in state “RHI subsidy”. Now his actions makes sense! More on the soggy BSI sleaze story here.
21 May 2012 Solar News update: Chris Heaton-Harris MP writes to Ed Davey, Energy Minister about all this.
Want to do something about this story? Here are some options.
- Add to it. If you are aware of any solar regulatory sleaze, please let me know.
- Correct it. I have been as accurate as I can. If you think any specific detail here is incorrect, please let us know asap which detail and why and we will try to correct it!
- Tell a journalist you know about it.
- Blog, tweet and link to it. Links really help people find the story!
- Ask the STA for a response on the bits relating to their members. They repudiate it all. Ask them to let us back in. email@example.com
- Further ideas on how to campaign on these issue are here. All actions are welcome.
- Please pass this page on to your friends.
We are appealing the exclusion and the text of our appeal is here with is an uncoded reference to what the Office of Fair Trading say about the obligations of trade bodies.
Many thanks for taking an interest from us all at the Solartwin team.
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