Monday 20 May 2013

A Chink of Light for the Solar Heating Industry?

What the new £600 Grant Really Means for Solar Heating in the UK

Are you a glass half-full
type of person?
The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced today that grants given to households installing solar heating and other renewable heating technologies have been doubled in value.

The grant for solar heating under the Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP) is increased from £300 to £600.  Householders will have to spend a bit of the extra money on a Green Deal assessment, at a cost of around £100.

The move follows lobbying from renewable heating trade associations and a twitter campaign initiated by the solarblogger. 

The #TweetforHeat campaign had the aim of attracting the attention of the Climate Change Minister, Greg Barker, to a blog article on this website – 'You Just Couldn’t Make This Up'.  The article points out the damage that successive delays to the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has been doing to the renewable heating industry and proposes an increase to the grants as an immediate measure to help the industry get back on the front foot.

While the grant increase will undoubtedly boost installation rates for solar heating and is fantastic news for the solar industry, the most important aspect of this might not be the grant itself but rather what it signifies.

A Shot in the Arm

You see a feature of the argument to increase the grant was that DECC had revealed in its own consultation on the domestic RHI its intention to pay the RHI net of grants already made.   

If DECC truly was serious about launching the domestic RHI next spring, then the extra money to increase the grant would cost government nothing extra. 

After promoting solar heating systems to householders based on the promise of a future RHI, many solar installers had lost faith that this scheme would ever see the light of day.

The increase in the grant and Green Deal tie in sends a strong signal to the industry that DECC really is serious about getting the domestic RHI going next spring.  Because solar heating systems installed today will be able to apply to join the RHI once it launches, solar installers should be able to get back to promoting solar heating to householders with a renewed confidence.

For its part, government needs to ensure that it gets the promised summer announcement of the scheme details right.  The announcement needs to be comprehensive, including not only the tariff levels, but also the qualification criteria and the method for deeming the energy upon which the tariff will be paid. 

Once this information is out, (and assuming a reasonable tariff rate for solar) DECC will have put everything in place for the solar heating industry to really show what it can do.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Winners and Losers, but Mostly Winners

Changes to the MCS Photovoltaic Energy Calculation

The solarblogger has been working on a briefing document about how the new MCS PV Guide has changed the landscape for solar photovoltaic installation companies in the UK.

I've reproduced the results of the analysis below, speaks for itself really.  For more details on how it was arrived at, read the briefing here.

Here's a thought.

If the EU Trade War with China adds 50% to the cost of PV modules (BBC News reports the average is 47%), and if the modules are around 40% of the total installed cost of a domestic system, then the cost increase to domestic customers will be about 20%.

The increase in the MCS energy estimate maintains the return on investment for customers....well, so long as they live in Kent.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Is the Solar Keymark Fit for Purpose?

The Solar Keymark is held up as the "gold standard" for solar thermal accreditation, but is it still up to snuff?

So what happens when it rains?
Image courtesy: Viridian Solar
 They say that Nature abhors a vacuum. National test laboratories on the other hand love the stuff, and they've been falling over each other to fill the vacuum left by the current embodiment of the Solar Keymark with highly profitable testing requirements and a hotchpotch of local standards.

Ireland, France and now the UK have introduced additional requirements for solar thermal installations, and guess what? They're all ever so slightly different.

Solar thermal panel manufacturers are tearing their hair out. How has this come to pass?

The Keymark is intended to ensure the performance and durability of solar thermal collectors. A random sample of solar panels from the factory is selected and subjected to a battery of tests at one of a small number of accredited test laboratories.  In addition, the quality systems in use at the factory are regularly audited.

The tests are designed to answer the question "are the solar panels you're making this week any good", and the audit answers the question "is what you're going to be making next week anything like what we just tested?"

The tests are based on the European standard EN 12-975 parts 1 and 2. Part 1 determines the thermal performance of the panel, while part 2 assesses the durability of the solar panel. A series of tests attempt to break the panel, for example:

·         Leaving it to bake in the sun, then pumping cold water through it
·         Leaving it to bake in the sun, then throwing cold water over it
·         Dropping a ball-bearing onto the glass
·         Spraying the panel with water and seeing if any goes inside it
·         Trying to break the glass by pushing and pulling on it

It really is a very good test of the solar panel.

Unfortunately, it only considers the solar panel in isolation.

In most real life situations, a solar panel is attached to the roof of a building. People can be fussy about their roofs.  Most seem to prefer that the water stays outside when it rains and that the roof doesn’t end up in the garden after a windy night.  Building Regulations cover these two points, to which they add the requirement that if your neighbour’s house is on fire, your roof shouldn't go up in smoke at the first lick of a flame.

In theory a solar installer must be able to demonstrated to building control that the solar panel they have installed does not impair the weather tightness of the roof, is proof against the wind loads it may face, and is installed the correct distance from the boundary for the fire rating of the panel.

How does the Keymark help the installer with this?  

It doesn't.

Enter MCS012 (UK), CSTBat (France) and Irish Agrement (Ireland), none recognising the other.  (Read my article about MCS012 here)

The Keymark is no longer meeting the needs of the industry for a single, Europe-wide test to ensure free movement of goods and services.  It rapidly needs to mandate the following additional tests:

1. A wind uplift test with a defined substructure to which the panel is attached. The substructure should be representative of a worst-case timber width, as the strength of fixings to timber is affected by the ratio of timber width to the screw diameter.  The tests should also take into account that timber is a natural material, which is normally done by repeating the test and taking a worst case.  The current test limit of 1,000 Pa mandated by Keymark is completely inadequate for windy islands like the UK, especially once safety factors are applied.  Manufacturers should test their panels to failure and declare the limit.

2. A water penetration test for roof integrated systems, taking into account each family of roof coverings (tile, slate) with which the panel works.

3. A single fire test, which works across Europe.  Currently there are four different tests in the "harmonised" European fire standard, and different national governments require different tests.

CEN is currently developing a new version of EN12-975 with the aim of including optional tests for weather tightness and fire performance.  This cannot come soon enough for european solar manufacturers.

(Incidentally, everything written above applies to the EN61215 durability tests for solar PV modules. MCS 12 covers both solar thermal and solar PV, whereas the CSTBat only applies to solar thermal.  For once the UK has beaten France by getting its barriers to trade in first, perhaps not something to celebrate.)

This article first appeared in Solar Business Focus UK, Vol 7-2013, sister publication to