Tue, Jan

Switch on to solar power

Commit to renewable energy and reduce your costs, increase the value of your premises, placate environmentally strident clients, differentiate yourself from your competition – oh, and help save the planet.

Switch to solar. The benefits are worth the hassle. Think lower energy costs and protection against future electricity price rises, reduced carbon emissions and one-upmanship in the corporate social responsibility debate. All that and you will apparently increase the value of the premises in which solar power is installed.

You’ve seen this stat. often enough: the printing sector is the UK’s fourth largest industry, with an annual turnover of £14.3 billion, comprising 10,500 companies, and employing over 140,000 people. According to The Carbon Trust, the annual energy consumption from the UK’s paper, printing and publishing industry is equivalent to 2,254 thousand tonnes of oil. But with oil reserves dwindling, and prices at a record high, an alternative and sustainable source of power is obviously needed – and solar power is an alternative that’s ready and waiting.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) is a viable source of sustainable energy. Solar panels work by converting sunlight into electricity. The technology is proven, relatively simple and reliable since there are no moving parts. Solar PV works well in the relatively cool but sunny UK climate – especially in the south of England.

For instance, a 180m2 solar PV installation would produce around 30,000 kWh of energy per year. Based on current electricity prices, this would generate savings of £3,700 per year, or over £300 per month. A further advantage of installing solar panels onto commercial facilities in the print sector is that, given most production equipment is running during daylight hours when the solar panel system will be producing power, any transmission loss associated with the distribution of electricity is avoided. Generating electricity via solar panels and on a system of this size will save around 110 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.

Sounds good – but at a time when cashflow may be tight and the banks are still limiting their lending to small businesses, is the installation of solar power doable? A typical capital cost for the solar installation described above would be more than £80,000, money perhaps considered better spent of production kit…

Fortunately, there are several ‘free solar schemes’ available to businesses. Under these arrangements, the provider will install the solar panels for free; leaving the businesses to consume all of the power produced by the panels and thus avoid paying for electricity provided via the National Grid.

The free solar providers benefit from the ‘feed-in-tariff’ (FIT) payments, which were implemented by the government in April 2010 in order to promote the generation of renewable energy and to aid the UK in meeting its 2020 EU target of generating 15% of its energy from renewable sources. For some businesses, this is the ideal way of saving money on energy bills, reducing carbon emissions and demonstrating a commitment to social responsibility.

There are now thousands of companies offering solar products and services in the UK, which means choosing the right supplier can be difficult. As a minimum, look for MCS accreditation, which demonstrates that the installer has the technical capabilities to look after your project. However, with many new installers coming into the market, it’s a good idea to look at their experience levels.

As solar panel quality and sunlight conversion efficiencies vary, businesses should also challenge their supplier to provide details about the technical characteristics of the panels. As free solar companies obtain their revenue from the FiTs, their income is directly related to the electrical output of the solar panel system, so they are incentivised to install a high quality and reliable system. One such company is Sol et Libre which is owned by the Oxford Sustainable Group. It has over 800MW of renewable energy projects in development across Europe. Its aim is help to small and medium sized UK businesses benefit from sustainable and free electricity (www.soletlibre.com).

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