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Friday, 13 July, 2001, 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK
New dawn for solar power
By BBC News Online's Kate McGeown

Solar power has never really taken off in the UK, perhaps because of the weather. But new generation solar panels soak up the rays on even the dullest days.

Solar panels have long been a power source favoured mainly by those right-on enough to lay out the extra expense required to harness the sun's rays.

Catch the sun
The technology needed is now 90% cheaper than in the early 1970s
But perhaps solar power's day has come, just as it did for lentils, yoga and other accoutrements of the trendy lefty lifestyle.

Solar electricity is currently one of the most expensive forms of renewable energy available.

But Intersolar, a company which specialises in renewable energy products, is hoping to change that with a new solar panel.

Bright idea

In partnership with building firm Alfred McAlpine, Intersolar have developed a new energy-generating tile which looks almost identical to traditional slate.

The MD and chairman of Intersolar with the new tile [Intersolar photo]
The new panel looks like traditional slate tiles
Managing director Philip Bouverat says: "We laminated a microscopic amount of solar material in the body of the slate to enable it to produce electricity.

"It can be used alongside standard building slates, and can be fitted without specialist training by any roofing contractor."

Mr Bouverat estimates that the average household would need 700 tiles to provide 20% of their electricity. At present, this would cost between 5,000 and 8,000 to install. But the price is likely to drop substantially as production gets underway.

Time is now

Other British companies are also pioneering this type of technology. Solar Century is the group behind the energy-generating wall in the Big Brother house.

Big Brother
C4's Big Brother house is powered by solar energy
Dan Davis, head of engineering at Solar Century, says that although the market is fairly small, it's growing rapidly.

"Installing solar technology is starting to get close to being a rational decision," he says.

Davis predicts that solar energy will rise in popularity in this decade in the same way that double glazing did in the 1980s and '90s.

Fitting double glazing can cost 10,000 or even 20,000, an outlay which is unlikely to ever be recouped in energy savings.

Not easy being green

In the three years that Solar Century has been in business, the cost of installing panels has halved.

wind turbines
Wind power is currently cheaper to produce
By 2004, Mr Davis predicts that solar panelling will be an increasingly common sight in the UK, especially with the introduction of government subsidy schemes.

But for now, it remains the preserve of the pioneering few.

"Most of our customers are wanting to make a green statement, or are people who want to be at the forefront of new technology," Mr Davis says.

Householder Fiona Adams is among the former. As well as running a rain harvesting system and switching to low-electricity appliances, she has had a new type of solar panel installed in her house.

The panel attracts a lot of attention, she says. "It's blue and shiny, and people stop and stare at it, because nobody has seen one before."

Power to the people

The first solar panels were just used to heat water, but the latest designs use photovoltaic cells which convert sunlight directly into electricity. The cost of these cells has fallen by 90% since the early 1970s.


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05 Apr 01 | Politics
15 Jun 01 | Business
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