Solar energy the key to feeding green to public

AS the Solar Flair conference returns to County Durham in December, John Hill looks at the hopes for the sector following the introduction of incentives for renewable energy generators.

The Solar Flair conference at Hardwick Hall

A YEAR ago, several experts gathered at Sedgefield’s Hardwick Hall to debate the future prospects of solar power. It’s a form of renewable energy that has seen its star rise and wane since the 1970s, but hopes were high at the first Solar Flair conference last September.

That was partly due to the quality of research into solar technology around the world, and partly due to the fact that this technology is now cheaper and more accessible to potential users than it was in the 70s.

However, it was the upcoming introduction of a feed-in tariff in the UK that had most experts drooling. That measure, which appeared in April, means that building owners receive regular payments from energy suppliers for generating their own electricity from renewable sources.

Britain is by no means blazing a trail here. For example, some form of feed-in tariff has been in place in Germany since 1990. However, analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers say the tariffs could boost the UK’s solar photovoltaic market five-fold in this year alone. Local councils were also cleared earlier this month to sell renewable energy to the grid for the first time in 25 years, in a move that could raise £100m a year for authorities in England and Wales.

As a result, the mood will most likely be even brighter when the second Solar Flair conference swings into County Durham’s Lumley Castle on December 8 and 9.

Solar Flair is the brainchild of the County Durham Development Company, working on behalf of the Electronics Knowledge Transfer Network. Last year’s speakers included representatives from QuantaSol, Sanyo, Romag, The Centre for Renewable Energy at Durham University and the Printable Electronics Technology Centre based at Sedgefield’s much-hailed NETPark facility. This year’s speakers include Durham University’s Dr Ken Durose and journalist and presenter Michael Mosely.

CDDC’s Alan Bramble says: “Within my span of knowledge, solar has moved from being a scientific novelty to a very serious form of alternative technology.

“There’s a genuine change of attitude but also in technology catching up with an idea. The technology is now ready and available to realise this type of concept, and it’s growing and expanding almost exponentially. The advances in the last 10 years will be replicated over the next two or three years and so on. It’s all going to happen very quickly.

“It sounds very mundane but I’d like to see photovoltaics on top of my car, so when the sun comes out it heats it up and makes it possible to step into a nice warm car with a clear windscreen. It’s life-enhancing rather than life-changing.”

Talk at the last conference was that the average household would make £1,200 per year from the feed-in tariff, while neatly evading the full burden of the seemingly-inevitable energy price rises. While it is often mentioned that reserves of oil and gas are finite and dwindling, Tim Bruton of the New and Renewable Energy Centre told delegates that the sun sends 6,000 times more energy to Earth than is used. A major debate this and last year is how sun-worshippers soak it up to power their daily activities.

Chrystalline silicon is a very popular material for solar cells as it is extremely efficient, but some opt for printing photosensitive materials on to thin-films of plastic, steel or glass.

CDDC director of innovation development Catherine Johns says: “I think it’s going to be horses for courses as to who uses what type of solar cell. The advantage of printing on a plastic background is that it’s lighter and easier to produce in large quantities. The US army uses thin-film materials because they’re bendy and more transportable, but the efficiency isn’t as good. Silicon is by far the best in that respect.

“The trouble with bendy photovoltaics is that the material needs to be impervious to water. The trick is to find the material that’s bendy but as imporous as glass, and that’s what people like Petec are working on at NETPark.”

NETPark is already helping to raise awareness on green issues through its work on the Recharging the Earth challenge with Sanyo. Rosa Street Primary School won a £15,000 solar system as a result of a County Durham schools competition, and the equivalent of 43,000 AA batteries were collected for recycling by students county-wide.

While students are warming to the theme, businesses and the state itself have also become more open to discussions about renewable energy in recent years.

Bramble says: “With each successive government, whether national or regional, they’re tending to understand more and more about the importance of science and technology as an economy regenerator.

“As far as business in the region is concerned, you need look no further than Thorn Lighting. They were on the verge of closing the plant down in Spennymoor several years back.

“We persuaded the parent company in Austria that the technological development in the region was so important that they should maintain an enhanced presence in the region to take advantage of it commercially. It made a significant investment in the plant and it has given them a considerable commercial advantage. Narec has a wind centre but also hosts one of the leading PV testing labs, while companies like Romag are making solar panels for charging electric cars.”

The morning session at Solar Flair 10 will feature discussions about the application of solar technology in sectors such as transport, construction and space technology, while the afternoon will look at the pros and cons of materials.

Johns says: “This year, solar was the most popular renewable technology in terms of sales because it’s very unobtrusive, and people understand the principle of light and power.

“The man objective of Solar Flair is to keep the message going that innovation is where it’s at.”

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