GUEST ARTICLE: A new era? The Changing Response to Solar

  • 10 Jul 2018

Paul Hutchens is Director of Midlands-based solar specialists, Eco2Solar. He is a board member of the Solar Trade Association (STA), the UK’s leading solar industry voice, and Chairman of the STA’s New Build Working Group which aims to inform governments, councils, house builders and consumers about sustainability in housing.

Here, Paul explores how homeowners’ and housebuilders’ response to solar has changed over the past decade, and how expectations and demand continue to evolve.

“Eco2Solar was set up in 2007, and over the past 11 years, we’ve seen a significant change in how housebuilders and homeowners react and respond to solar. The technology and solutions available have advanced, and as solar becomes more mainstream, we’re seeing changes in how homeowners view solar, and how housebuilders are choosing to work with us.

We specialise in electrical technologies – particularly solar photovoltaic (PV) panels for new build housing, social housing and commercial scale buildings. Eco2Solar was set up just before the peak of home construction in the UK. It was boom time for the construction industry, with 223,530 new homes built in 2007/08. However, local governments and housebuilders were faced with new challenges, including how to respond to the recently introduced Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act. Over the years since then, we have adapted to the changing demands of the market and carved a niche for ourselves as specialists in new build solar installation.

What we do is mostly regulatory driven. Solar installation is driven by national building regulations and local government planning policies, and for some housebuilders, the technology has been considered a frustrating complication in an already complex construction process. Our experience working with housebuilders across the country, and getting to understand their frustrations and concerns, has helped shape our company’s growth.

Simplifying Solar

Domestic and international demand for solar is growing. In 2017, the International Energy Agency announced that solar power was the fastest-growing source of new energy worldwide, outstripping the growth in all other forms of power generation for the first time and leading experts to hail a “new era”. From a national perspective, the Solar Trade Association reports a growing demand from homeowners. There are now more than a million homes in the UK with solar (4% of all homes), most of which have chosen to install solar as a retrofit.

Homeowners are increasingly looking for solar solutions so that they can benefit from the financial and environmental gains afforded by the technology. This coupled with energy requirements from Building Regulations and Local Authority planning conditions to meet on-site energy, means solar is increasingly becoming the standard for new build homes across the UK, and this looks set to continue.

Since Eco2Solar began, we have constantly developed and adapted how we work with housebuilders, to offer them straight-forward install solutions. Installation is now fast and easy to integrate with other trades. The finished product looks neat, unobtrusive, and is integrated into the roof itself. We have an experienced team of installers who come in and work with housebuilders to ensure the solar install process is as hassle-free as possible. Recent feedback from our customers indicates that housebuilders are starting to consider solar as an integral element of the construction process, and the historic frustration at incorporating the technology in new builds is waning. Housebuilders know that solar is here to stay and are looking to work with high-quality, proven suppliers to deliver results that benefit local authorities, housebuilders and homeowners alike.

Local Government’s Role

Over the past decade, we’ve seen various national environmental legislations introduced, redacted and changed. As noted in the Leading Lights report from the Solar Trade Association ‘Brexit, unambitious national housing standards and stop start policies mean the solar industry is looking beyond Westminster and towards local government for leadership.’

Different regions are advancing towards solar at different rates, but the trend is certainly towards standardising the technology. Scotland has different regulations to the rest of the UK, and solar panels are installed on about 60 percent of all new builds and new homes. Local governments in England and Wales are moving towards more sustainable energy models, and there are some noteworthy examples of good practice.

Since 2010, Sheffield Council has required all ‘significant developments’ (five or more dwellings, or more than 500m2 floor space) to use 10% of the predicted energy needs from renewable or low carbon energy. South Worcestershire’s Development Plan also follows national timetables for carbon reductions, requiring all new developments of 100 m2 or more to incorporate renewable or low-carbon sources of energy.

We’re seeing eco-driven building regulations in other areas of the country, including London, parts of Devon, the Southeast, Lancashire and Yorkshire, where planning authorities have clear objectives to drive local energy from renewables. Certain local government administrations are assuming the mantle of responsibility when it comes to introducing renewable technology solutions, which is encouraging others to follow suit.

Solar in the International Context

National policies and local government targets all impact how housebuilders adopt and respond to renewable technologies. However, local government and housebuilders are also looking at the international landscape to see how solutions are evolving and being applied elsewhere.

The California Energy Commission recently announced that the state is poised to become the first in the United States to require solar panels on virtually every home. The building standard would mandate the existence of solar arrays on new single-family residences and on multi-family buildings of up to three stories. In a report released 9 May 2018, the Commission stated, ‘The building energy efficiency standards, which are the first in the nation to require solar, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 115,000 fossil fuel cars off the road.’ Although the sunny state of California is well placed to make such a confident move towards renewable technology, this shift in attitudes will have a ripple effect amongst housebuilders throughout the rest of the world.

Another country on the radar of housebuilders is Germany. Solar power in the country consists almost exclusively of solar photovoltaics and in 2016, PV accounted for an estimated 6.2 – 6.9% of the country’s net-electricity generation. In the same year, the UK generated 3.07% of its total electricity using solar power. The German government’s official goal is to continuously increase renewables’ contribution to the country’s overall electricity consumption – the long-term minimum targets are 35% by 2020, 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. The landscape for solar in Germany is changeable, and it is an issue that had been politicised over the years. Never-the-less they are arguably ahead of the UK in the journey towards sustainable energy solutions.

Innovating with Housebuilders

We are continuously responding to the changing needs of housebuilders and are always looking at how we can improve our solutions. One new solution on offer is our Eco2Offgrid system. This is a hybrid power solution that works as a giant onsite battery on the construction site. Housebuilders can install stand-alone PV solar energy generators on-site that provide power to builders on the construction site for the duration of the build phase, reducing the need for diesel-powered generation. Once the development is complete, the temporary solar site is removed. This new system is quick to install, and we anticipate that it could produce fuel savings of up to £40k p.a. for housebuilders. Plus, there are numerous other benefits for housebuilders, including improving air quality, lowering emissions from the construction site, and significantly reducing noise vibrations compared to the use of traditional generators. All of which are likely to seen favourably by local governments and local communities.

We are working with developers on some of the country’s most exciting residential developments. We have recently agreed a contract with Legal & General Homes, who are constructing their first site ‘Bucklers Park’ in Crowthorne, Berkshire. When complete, it will provide 1,000 new homes, 100 of which will be affordable housing. Sustainability is at the heart of the development, and Eco2Solar has been selected above competition to install the PV solar technology to the new houses. We anticipate that between 25 – 50% of the buildings will have PV solar installed, which represents one of the largest solar PV residential installations in the UK to date.

Remaining Sustainable

Solar is very much a “fit and forget” technology – it is extremely reliable with virtually no maintenance or snagging issues, and as we continue to invest in product development, the longevity of panels increases. Solar PV systems are good for 30+ years, far outstripping a new home warranty. One criticism of the technology has been that the panels are not recyclable. However, solar panels are comprised of metals and glass, and it is now possible to recycle 90% of a solar panel.

Solar PV offers an impressive life span, and continues to provide piece of mind, financial and environmental benefits to housebuilders and homeowners. When we first started out 11 years ago, solar was considered as an ‘alternative’ technology by homeowners and for housebuilders, an awkward hurdle in the already complicated construction process. By adapting our service and streamlining the installation process, it is now a simple, economical and increasingly standard element of home builds. Internationally, there are some very interesting moves towards making solar standard, and we are seeing some local governments and housebuilders making great strides towards sustainable energy models. Developments like Buckler’s Park indicate that renewables are no longer an ‘add on’ in the construction process, but instead an integral element of the homebuilding model.

Our work with housebuilders is just one part of a wider cultural and behavioural shift, as public demand increases for more sustainable energy solutions in the home. Undoubtedly, there is still work to be done in changing attitudes and expectations of solar. However, I believe that at some point, in the not-to-distant future, the technology will be an asset demanded on all new developments. In the same way the concept of installing a single glazed window is now out-of-date, as we move towards greater environmental awareness and the necessity to work towards sustainable energy solutions, the idea of building a home without incorporated renewable technology, will too seem archaic. The culture on solar is changing. But that change will take time.

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