Green Wales

Page last updated at 07:44 GMT, Thursday, 10 December 2009

Solar's 'dividend for homeowners'

The solar energy research project at Technium OpTIC in St Asaph
The thin film solar strips on glass convert 10% of the sun's energy to electricity

As talks on the production of clean energy continue in Copenhagen, BBC Wales environment correspondent Iolo ap Dafydd looks at how we could soon be paid to produce some of our own.

The talks in Copenhagen are all about carbon emissions, and who should pay what to who for reducing carbon dioxide levels back to 1990 levels, or 2005 in America's case.

Over the past decade, solar energy panels - called photovoltaic or PV panels - have become increasingly visible.

They power street lamps and road signs in some counties, and can be bought at the local DIY store as cheap garden lights.

You may have a neighbour with a few panels on his roof, either for hot water or the 'Full Monty' electricity-producing type.

"Wind is a big hitter in renewable energy terms," says Ian Draisey, managing director of Machynlleth-based Dulas Engineering, a firm specialising in installing various forms of renewable energy sources.

"And, yes, there's a lot more discussion and debate about wind power - but what I think you'll find is that micro-generation and particularly solar panels are going to be much more important in future."

Prof Stuart Irvine
You and I can earn money from generating our own electricity
Professor Stuart Irvine, OpTIC Technium

Solar photovoltaic panels are yet to take off in Wales, unlike other parts of Europe, despite the assembly government policy of backing wind and solar as preferred energy micro-generation.

But Prof Stuart Irvine, director of the solar energy research project at Technium OpTIC in St Asaph, Denbighshire, predicts a change and a different type of solar panel.

The building in which he heads a team of researchers and analysts boasts an exterior wall of thin film solar strips stuck onto glass panels - probably the largest in Wales.

It is a Welsh Assembly Government-owned building project funded through European Union objective one money.

At Technium OpTIC they are working on a newer film of copper indium diselenide. This currently converts 10% of the sun's energy to electricity, but has cheaper materials than traditional crystalline silicon panels, or PV panels.

At the moment the more mature technology, crystalline silicon, is up to 20% effective in generating electricity from the rays of the sun.

If you put solar panels on your roof the government will pay you 36p... for each kilowatt you generate
Ian Draisey, Dulas Engineering

But according to Prof Irvine the potential for the thin film technology is to get to 30% and then higher still.

UK and Welsh governments have targets to reduce carbon dioxide levels. The European Union target is 20% electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

Solar energy is about to become more affordable, and as every salesman knows, the main selling point is the cost.

"The key change the government are bringing in April next year is the feed in tariff and that means you and I can earn money from generating our own electricity," says Prof Irvine.

So if there are doubts about how effective solar panels are, and overcast skies, the financial argument is about to get much better.

Especially as electricity costs have doubled in the last three years, says Mr Draisey.

On an average kind of day there's enough juice to keep our HDTV, surround sound stereo and other creature comforts running
Robert Barrow, Borth

"If you put solar panels on your roof the government will pay you 36p - or 36.5p is the number out for consultation and what we expect it to be," he said.

"They will pay that level for each kilowatt you generate whether you use it or not. And that is a substantial return given you pay 12-13p in the market at the moment."

The pay-back time on your investment could still be nearer to 10 years.

But how effective is solar? Robert Barrow and his family live off solar power, and has a generator for back-up in the house they rent near Borth, Ceredigion.

"Even on a cloudy day, it can generate over 50%," he says.

"We do have doldrums. When we have heavy clouds, they cease to produce anything to let you run the washing machine and so on.

"But most days, on an average kind of day, there's enough juice to keep our HDTV, surround sound stereo and other creature comforts running. No problem."

Ironically most solar panels manufactured in Wales are exported to mainland Europe, especially Germany. With more generous grants for householders to invest in lowering their energy bills there, solar panels are more common than here.

Possibly - if homeowners prefer to invest £8-£20,000 in solar panels rather than keep their cash in a bank - the feed-in-tariff system next April could see far more panels on houses all over Wales, utilising the power of the sun. Unless of course it rains.

Solar panels help school go green
01 Dec 09 |  Green Wales
Scheme to help homes save energy
03 Dec 08 |  Wales
Free solar power first for school
19 May 08 |  South West Wales

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