Thursday, 21 May 2015

Sunderland Company Looking at Large-Scale Solar Manufacturing

A Sunderland technology company is hoping that its new solar technology will result in a significant expansion of its business, eventually leading to large-scale manufacturing.  Big Solar has the backing of the Sunderland City Council, which helped the company move from its old location at West Quay Court into new space at the £6 million council-owned Washington Business Centre.

Big Solar is now finishing the research and development stage of a new photovoltaic (PV) system it has named 'Power Roll'.  If the technology lives up to expectations, it should allow implementers of Power Roll to produce renewable energy at a cost that is highly competitive with fossil fuel energy production.  The technology is based on a PV material that makes it possible to manufacture solar panels that are seven times less expensive and up to 145 times thinner than panels currently on the market.

Cheaper and thinner solar panels would, in theory, reduce the cost of manufacturing while also boosting PV energy production.  Successful manufacturing and deployment of the technology could make PV applications the norm for UK residences rather than the niche product PV currently is.

Big Solar currently employs a staff of three at its new facilities.  The company hopes to expand to five by the end of the year, growing its numbers significantly once manufacturing begins.  No manufacturing timetable has been set yet however Big Solar managing director Neil Spann is confident that manufacturing will eventually get under way.

Limitations of PV

We certainly hope to see Big Solar succeed in its new space.  Making it to the manufacturing stage could pump millions of pounds into the local economy while providing jobs for dozens, if not hundreds.  The products it produces could also encourage a more widespread adoption of photovoltaic energy production throughout the North East.  All that said, there are limitations to PV for commercial purposes.

PV energy production is based on the principle of converting energy from the sun directly into electrical current.  That current can be used by a homeowner to power appliances, lighting and so on however an entire roof of solar panels could still not produce enough power for the typical UK home to disconnect from the grid completely.  The PV process is simply not powerful and robust enough.

This is the primary reason that PV has not caught on for commercial applications.  Think of the many new data centres established in the UK over the last five years.  None of them is relying totally on PV energy generation to power their operations.  Those that are utilising renewable energy are more often taking advantage of wind, water and geothermal.

Perhaps a better option for power-hungry data communications is solar thermal.  The concept of solar thermal is one of using evacuated tubes to harness energy from the sun that is converted to heat rather than electricity.  That heat energy can be used to heat water, provide space heating, or even drive a turbine.  Solar thermal can do for commercial purposes what PV cannot.  That is another blog post for another day…

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