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Rewiring the UK for Clean Energy: SolarCentury

This article was written by Alex Steffen in September 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

solarcentury.jpg SolarCentury is wiring the UK for clean energy. They're a tremendously exciting company, led by Jeremy Leggett and growing quickly. I visited their offices here in London yesterday, and SolarCenturion Joy Green gave me the grand tour, from their rooftop demonstration projects to their swanky showroom of PV products.

SolarCentury does everything from empower consumers to make the best investments in home energy systems to work with governments and companies to cut costs and slash carbon emissions.

Here are some highlights:

They've done a great job showing businesses and homeowners that solar can, actually, make sense in many situations. They even convinced the Guardian's Ashley Seager:

Sure, the payback time is still long, at 15 years or more. But the annual savings on electricity or gas bills - which is, I think, a better way of looking at it - is now at least as good, if not better, than sticking spare cash in a building society. ...And that is based on the cash yield on the capital. It does not include the value of carbon dioxide not emitted or the satisfaction of walking the walk, rather than talking the talk, on global warming. The payback time would matter if a solar system added no value. But evidence suggests solar power can add nearly 9% to a property's value.

Their complete solar roof is made of roofing tiles that offer both solar energy and solar thermal (for heating water) capacities, and can "generate two-thirds of the hot water and half the electricity required to run a three-bedroom home."

They designed the cladding for the CIS Solar Tower, a retrofitted skyscraper in Manchester (covered earlier) which is clad in solar, turning the whole building into a renewable energy installation. (And given Manchester's notoriously rainy climate, as Joy puts it, "If solar can make it there, it can make it anywhere.")

They created 330 off-the-grid bus shelters in Plymouth, which generate their own electricity with vandal-proof PV panels and hidden batteries, and illuminate their interiors with LEDs, eliminating the need to excavate and mess with the underground infrastructure (and thus, in many places, saving money). This reminds me a bit of the StarSight.

They worked with ARUP to make the Vauxhall Cross Bus Interchange an iconic solar building, with two giant runways of solar panels aimed skyward.

The sheer variety of solar technologies impressed me (panels, hot water systems, solar cladding, solar louvres, solar glazing), but none more than the Uni-Solar thin film panels, which are flexible, almost more a sheet of screening than a panel. It's not very efficient (~8%), but it could be used in a whole variety of settings, is fairly cheap and pays back its embedded energy within a year. I sort of want to cover everything I own in this stuff.

All this ties in with the Mayor of London's energy strategy, Green Light to Clean Power, which puts renewables and energy efficiency at the core of London's urban design and economic revitalization strategies.

SolarCentury is definitely worldchanging, with a clear vision of the chunk of bright green future they're working to create. As I was about to leave, I noticed their recycling set up, with bins for glass and paper and plastic...and a small one marked for trash "landfill."

SolarCentury is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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