Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Energy Conservation and Solar Centre

  Solar Thermal, the provision of hot water heated by the sun, is the Cinderella of renewable energy systems. Overlooked or dismissed by government, unsubsidised, and often confused in the public's mind with photo-voltaics, the UK market has remained small and undeveloped. Yet there is much potential in the technology, and other countries, including northern European ones, are investing and installing far more units than here. Our comments in this submission refer mostly to the domestic sector, with some references to non-domestic uses, such as public swimming pools.

  The advantages of solar thermal are:

    —  It is not "rocket science", but a mature, simple technology that is low cost[12] (relative to other renewable energy systems, such as PV).

    —  It is generally installed at point of use (unlike large wind turbines) and is suitable for installation on buildings in all areas and at all UK latitudes.

    —  It provides heat cheaply, unlike other renewable energy technologies which primarily provide electricity.

    —  It is discrete, even when combined with a conventional heating system. There is no complicated, problematic or costly connection to the electricity grid.

    —  If installed correctly, a good quality system should be reliable and last between 20 to 30 years.

    —  It can be retrofitted to existing properties or built in to new ones.

    —  The materials used in construction are commonplace and are similar to those used in plumbing.

    —  The training needed to install the technology is straightforward, indeed some householders can "do it yourself".[13]

    —  Heat provided by solar thermal can be a direct substitute for heat provided by fossil fuels such as oil or gas[14], so cutting CO2 emissions.

    —  If the installation was subsidised, Solar thermal could help with fuel poverty, especially in hard to heat houses away from the natural gas pipeline.

  Despite these relative advantages, solar thermal continues to be overlooked. The PIU report barely mentions it and groups it with limited technologies such as small hydro to dismiss it in a sentence:

  "Since most . . . units are small, they would need to be installed in large numbers in order to secure a substantial amount of energy".

  Of course, solar thermal is ideally suited to be installed in large numbers of dwellings and commercial and public buildings. Because it is low cost, reliable and long lasting, a large number of installations would, over the years, make a real difference to CO2 output. Various attempts have been made to estimate the possible CO2 savings for the UK. In her submission to the PIU report, Professor Susan Roaf suggests 20 million tonnes of CO2 a year, if 20 million houses in the UK each saved one tonne of CO2 because they have solar hot water systems installed. As there are around 50,000 households with solar thermal currently in the UK there is some way to go to reach the Professor's target.

  Unless the Government wakes up to the potential of solar thermal it is difficult to see how the industry will break out of its doldrums. The vicious circle of low demand, leading to small revenues, leading to little advertising, leading to low demand, will continue for the foreseeable future, unless there are substantial fuel price rises for heating fuels.

  In lieu of fuel price rises through market prices or taxation, ECSC suggest that the Government institute a number of measures to encourage solar thermal in the domestic and business sectors through:

    1.  Funding for research and development

    2.  Encouragement/compulsion of installation in new buildings[15]

    3.  Advertising and information

    4.  Including as part of the utilities' EEC contribution

    5.  Grants to house owners (via local authorities)

    6.  Grants to businesses

    7.  Grants for public buildings, such as schools and leisure centres

    8.  Grants to social landlords

    9.  Extension of Enhanced Capital Allowances

    10.  Including the provision of solar thermal as part of the Government's Fuel Poverty Strategy.

  The Government, as customer, could also boost the industry through widespread installation in its own buildings.

September 2002

12   "Pay-back" times for domestic installation is between six to 10 years. Back

13   A small number of local authorities encourage householders to install solar thermal through grants or by supporting "solar clubs" where information is exchanged. Back

14   Fossil fuels either burnt directly on site for heat or used to generate electricity used for heating. Back

15   Especially the proposed 200,000 new homes in the growth areas of Milton Keynes, Stansted, the Thames gateway and Ashford in Kent. Back

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