From Wales' first large-scale PV plant to zero-energy affordable housing, North Pembrokeshire company Western Solar is not messing about when it comes to local low-carbon innovation. We spoke to its CEO Glen Peters about the story so far.
Ty Solar Homes was an idea that sprung up after statistics showed that 40 per cent of homes in Wales are in energy poverty. Peters explained:
“We had been previously working on a solar farm, so were very aware of the energy that could be generated here in Wales. When we saw that figure we thought 'this is crazy' and then decided to explore the idea of essentially making a mini solar farm where homes were part of it.
“We built a prototype home two years ago, essentially to test our own claims. We ran tests for three winter cycles and found that it consumed 2,800 kWh per annum, while producing 6,400 kWh from the solar PV.”
The home design has 'passive house' features such as all major windows facing south for energy and light gain, and 11 inches of insulation – though other aspects have been adapted to make the houses as affordable as possible. This includes minimising plumbing, not having a loft, and only featuring non-90 degree angles on the roof, thereby making it easy to construct. The idea is for the homes to be assembled in a factory and finished on site.
The current stage of the project is developing a solar-powered hamlet of six homes. This was launched before Feed-in Tariff (FITS) rates were slashed – vitally, as the model works by the generation and export tariffs subsidising a reduction on marked rental price, while maintaining a modest 5 per cent return on investment.
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The main benefit of living in a home like this seems clear enough: getting £1,200 a year's worth of free energy (up to around £30,000 over the life of a home). But the practicalities of a scheme of this kind can be far from straightforward, as Peters explained:
“We managed to scrape in five of the six units before the rate was cut. On our next development we’ll have to consider increasing our revenue from community energy schemes. And, access to affordable land is our greatest challenge.
“We're not selling the homes, we're renting them out as we won't find building societies to lend people the money to buy, based on incomes in the area. In terms of planning, there are also no benchmarks for homes with a SAP 107 rating (Standard Assessment Procedure) which produce their own energy. Local authorities can only point you in the direction of traditional bricks and mortar, and that's the way the supply chain is geared up too. We have to create a critical mass of dwellings to gain acceptability to traditional buyers such as Local Authorities and Housing Associations.”
Wood-framed and locally-sourced, it's fair to say that Ty Solar Homes are a break from the norm – which has led to outside interest, including from the BBC's Countryfile. Peters said:
“After Ty Solar were on Countryfile, we actually had more interest from councils in Scotland than elsewhere – probably because of more severe issues with fuel poverty and there being a lot of timber there. But Scotland is also looking more to the Scandinavian model of home energy than other parts of the UK.”
There are still some innate preconceptions to be changed, as Peters explained:
“There used to be a prejudice about timber frame. People have gotten over that, but there's still some reticence. We simply need more of them, because I'm confident that these houses are better than the traditional building stock. They have a lot of natural advantages such as no problems with subsidence.
“When there are more and more people living in homes like these and raving about them, they will gain acceptance. It's a bit like electric cars, where progress was slow at first but has started to gain acceptance.”
After the solar hamlet, a significant scale-up could be on the cards, if only the right supporters would get involved.
Peters said: “We'd like to build a thousand of these homes, linked to a community energy scheme. It would involve solar PV and battery storage to distribute the electricity generated, and biomass for winter. The model would be to sell the energy to people living there, at rates significantly below the market.
“Ideally we'd find a business partner who'd like to get on board out of interest in the intellectual property around creating smart homes and distributed energy at point of use, as well as the modest commercial returns.
“I'd have thought that a large corporate with and interest in sustainability would like to solve help solve an energy and housing problem, where there's still some of the research and development journey left to run. I'm keen to demonstrate that the private sector can play a role in affordable housing.”
Crucially, the company is developing its own supply chain by using apprentices from local colleges. Peters added: “The skills are there, but on a limited scale right now. It's about reformatting carpentry skills – the most important thing is the building system. People cite the iPhone as being a major step forward for innovation, and it is, but essentially it's also made up of a set of bits of existing and accessible technology. This is like what we're doing with homes.”