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Growing UK Solar Thermal Interest Requires Clear Government Commitment

There is little doubt that UK householders and the business and commercial sectors are anxious to expand their interest in solar thermal, but they face mixed messages from the Government and EU legislation, which is somewhat hindering their plans.

UK growth in use of solar thermal

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) has operated since 2011 and many households and commercial properties have been financially rewarded for generating heat from renewable sources, including solar. There are also opportunities to expand the technologies included under the RHI subsidies, with installations such as swimming pools and space heating, which don’t currently qualify for RHI funding, beginning to make use of solar thermal technologies to reduce costs and atmospheric emissions.

Solar space heating and underfloor heating systems are slowly catching on in the UK too, and can contribute around 10% of the annual demand for a well-insulated home. Other industry sectors are also beginning to see the benefits of solar thermal, particularly those commercial applications with high process heat demands, such as agriculture, food production and cleaning.

It is fair to say, however, that the UK still requires some education in the skills and knowledge needed to fully capitalise on solar thermal, but there are training courses available. As solar thermal generally works in tandem with other heat sources, such as gas and oil, a basic understanding of heat engineering will allow for individuals and businesses to reap the maximum benefits of using solar thermal. But fundamentally, the desire is definitely there.

Government support for renewables

While the UK has had a recognised solar thermal market for many years, this has existed without Government grant support. But while the time is ripe for the market to expand, there is some confusion over how committed the Government is to fully encouraging it.

The recent Government Spending Review in November 2015 outlined a £1.15 billion budget for RHI over the next five years until 2020, and while this was a welcome commitment for the renewables industry, many felt the Government could have gone further, particularly with legally binding carbon emission targets needing to be met. There was also a lack of clarity on how the Government would support the growth of renewables beyond 2020.

Overall, the Spending Review was seen as a positive step for renewables by industry experts, as the RHI budget will rise from £430m in 2015/16 to £1.15 billion in 2020. Those facts speak for themselves, particularly when heat contributes to around one third of UK emissions, and a transition to low carbon heating is essential in attempting to meet carbon targets. But the most perplexing factor in trying to establish the Government’s true attitude to renewables and other green issues is the raft of other policy changes that have taken place.

Since the General Election in May 2015, there have been a total of 13 policy changes which have impacted on the renewables industry. Perhaps the most damaging is the proposal unveiled by the Treasury to increase the rate of VAT paid on solar, hydro and wind installations to 20%, a 15% increase. While the HMRC is under pressure from EU legislation on this particular reform, many industry experts feel that the Government should push back and argue the case for solar thermal, particularly as the three renewable technologies singled out for the tax increase deliver a great social benefit.

Renewables development in air conditioning

While the renewables industry reacts to the Government’s varying initiatives, it continues to develop internally, with air conditioning becoming a sector showing a considerable growth in the use of natural resources. An emerging trend for using natural refrigerants such as ammonia and hydrocarbons utilises environmentally-friendly and high energy efficient resources.

Chilled and passive beams technology – an aesthetic and energy-efficient heating and cooling solution in modern architecture and design, which uses only small supplies of air and water – are also contributing to the use of renewables in our rising standards of living, and therefore, our increased demand for climate control in both the home and workplace.

Certainly it appears that the UK is in the grip of a renewables revolution. But it can only grow as naturally as the resources it utilises if the Government is coherent in its support, and the next five years will tell us a lot about that.

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