New housebuilding models required to support an affordable, sustainable future


In August, we published a blog discussing some of the benefits of homes that can generate, store and release their own energy – we call these ‘Homes as Powerstations.’ Independent energy consultant Andris Bankovskis’s report suggested these homes can cut energy consumption by 60%, saving households up to £600 per year. He went on to suggest that building one million of these homes could reduce peak generating capacity by three gigawatts, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 80 million tonnes over 40 years.

So you might be asking yourself – why haven’t more sustainable homes being built? To really reap the benefits of ‘Homes as Powerstations’ we need to scale-up, but here-in lies the problems. We are currently stuck with a housing model which is designed to maximise the profits of housing developers and their investors, rather than the community at large.

At the heart of the issue is the ‘speculative’ house building model – this is the competitive way in which housebuilders acquire the land to build on. Developers compete against one another to offer the highest upfront sum to the landowner, based on assumptions of how many homes they can build, how much they can sell them for, and how much they’ll be expected to contribute to the community in the form of affordable housing and infrastructure. The developer who can offer the highest sum wins.

Because the landowner naturally goes to the highest bidder, the developer is forced to cut affordable housing and community infrastructure as well as slow the build rate to keep house prices artificially high – competitive pressure, therefore, works against the public interest and the end result is, poorly built homes taking no account of total cost of ownership and energy efficiency other than minimal compliance with the codes which in themselves are kept low to appease the major house builders.

 

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Speculative building is a system we have been relying on to construct homes for over a generation, and it is one of the primary reasons the housing crisis runs so deep in the UK. Thankfully, there is another, a community-led model called ‘Civic Housebuilding’ that has already created some of our most iconic housing areas in the UK including; Bath, Edinburgh’s New Town, the Peabody Estates, Letchworth Garden City and Milton Keynes. Housing charity Shelter recently released a report about the new housing model and how it can be harnessed by Government to build the homes we need.

At its heart, Civic Housebuilding is based on the principle that the goal of building homes is to benefit the people who will live in them, and the communities they will be part of. Under the speculative model, the public benefit from housebuilding is generated by whatever value is left in a scheme once profits have been extracted. The Civic Housebuilding model means the opposite: the level of profit in a scheme will be determined by how much value is left once the public interest has been served.

It works like this – the local community decides what they want to see from the development, which is published in a detailed plan. Government steps in to empower local authorities and other public agencies to buy the land for a reduced rate. These agencies then ask developers to bid for the project and the one that best meets the community plan wins. Lower land prices mean the Civic Housebuilding model can afford to build better quality, more affordable homes, as well as invest in community infrastructure and sustainable enterprises.

There is little doubt that incentivising community-led housing development models is the key to building affordable, sustainable homes at scale. The additional money available through these schemes will also enable developers to build energy savings technologies into the infrastructure of housing, reducing the cost of living and delivering long-term environmental benefits.

We are beginning to see these schemes working on a small scale – developments in Nansledan, Cornwall, and Derwenthorpe in North Yorkshire have all demonstrated the success of Civic Housebuilding models with sustainable credentials. In June, the UK’s largest ‘Passive Housing Scheme’ was opened in the Saffron Lane area of Leicester. The scheme has been described as a ‘beacon of sustainable, affordable housing’ and is a classic example of a development that has the community and environment’s interests at its heart.

However, we need to see a fundamental change in the way housing is built in this country before we will witness change at a scale that will truly make a difference in the cost of living and the environment. It is up to Government to support and incentivise new models of housing development that serve the needs of our communities, rather than housing developers and their profit-focused investors.

Compelling new report demonstrates wholesale benefits of ‘power station homes’


Independent energy consultant Andris Bankovskis has authored a new report which shows that energy consumption could be cut by 60% if homes were designed to generate, store and release their own energy. According to Mr Bankovskis, this could save the average household up to £600 a year. Mr Bankovskis serves as a member of the Panel of Technical Experts, a group appointed by the Government to advise on the technical aspects of Electricity Market Reform.
In addition to the cost saving advantages for the consumer, building ‘homes as power stations’ would also have far reaching benefits for the environment. The report highlights that building one million self-generating homes could reduce peak generating capacity by three gigawatts, equivalent to a large power station. It would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 80 million tonnes over 40 years and be the conduit to a brand new industry in the UK.

We provided integrated photovoltaic solutions for the UK’s first energy-positive classroom in Swansea in 2016, which definitively proved that the concept works. The classroom combined solar and roof storage integrated panels using our Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) technology, with solar heat collection on the south facing walls. Over the six months the classroom has operated it has generated more energy than it has consumed.

The concept of ‘homes as power stations’ is about to be implemented on a far larger scale through the Active Homes Neath Housing development, which was recently granted planning permission. This pioneering new social housing development will be the first of its kind to build 16 new energy generating/saving homes.

In partnership with Neath Port Talbot County, the new development for Pobl Group, the largest housing association in Wales, is being led by Swansea University’s SPECIFIC Innovation & Knowledge Centre and features solar roofs supplied by BIPVco, shared battery storage and the potential for electric vehicle charging. Water waste will be captured and recycled within the building, with water heating coming from solar heat collectors on the south facing walls.

The Active Homes development is hugely significant, as it represents the first opportunity to see the concept tested and used under ‘real life’ conditions. The fact that the project has been designed under a standard design-and-build contract, also means it can be replicated at scale.  

Timing is also critical to its success and we believe the time and appetite is ripe for significant wholesale changes to the way we generate and use power. Only this month, the Government announced plans to make it easier to store power in batteries and pledged to phase out new petrol and diesel engines in favour of greener options by 2040. Major car manufacturers including Volvo have demonstrated a similar commitment. The Swedish car manufacturer is promising to only produce electric or hybrid cars from 2019. This is a bold and brave step by a globally recognised manufacturer that will inspire others to follow.

What we need now is to continue to build solid partnerships between universities developing new products with industry that manufacture and distribute them to market, whilst the Government provides the financial and legislative framework to oil the wheels of change. No pun intended!

 

 

Bypass Diodes come of age


The development of thin-film flexible solar modules including Copper Indium Gallium Selenide solar cells (CIGS), has been a major benefit to the BIPV market. The technology has not only provided designers with the opportunity to expand traditional architecture and transform buildings into aesthetically pleasing, energy-producing structures, it has demonstrated the capacity to achieve impressive year on year improvements in efficiency.

In the past, leaders in the BIPV field were only able to muster performance efficiencies in the range of around 8%. This meant that to achieve efficiencies on par with traditional silicon solar panel technology, you needed two to three times as many solar panels to achieve the same power output –  not only did the economics not work, it meant you needed more roof space to house the technology. Today, many leading BIPV CIGS products, such as BIPVco’s Metektron and Flextron range, are achieving efficiencies in the range of 16-17%, which is helping to transform the economics of BIPV from a niche to a mainstream technology.

Manufacturers creating thin-film flexible solar module technology have been working hard to introduce efficiencies into the production process. For example, new proprietary tools have been introduced by some companies, allowing all the layers of the PV film to be deposited in one go.

At BIPVco, we build our modules with Bypass Diodes embedded within the cell area of the module rather than within the junction box as with silicon crystalline modules. This helps to reduce the negative effect of shaded cells in other parts of the module and improve overall system performance and efficiency. Shaded cells dissipate power as heat and cause “hot spots,” dragging down the overall IV curve of the group of cells.  Bypass Diodes get round this problem by allowing current to pass around shaded cells and thereby reducing the voltage losses through the module. We have introduced a module with 28 diodes, which means 56 cells are protected by diodes every 2 cells – the standard approach is just three diodes per module (1 diode per 20 cells).

As efficiencies continue to rise, conversely we are seeing the cost of production fall, which means BIPV is cheaper than it has ever been. The economies of scale, brought about by the emergence of new manufacturers and the ‘industrialisation’ of the supply chain, has had the effect of increasing competition and reducing costs within a once niche market. Over time, this is helping drive down the price of BIPV technology. Something we at BIPVco are very excited about.

Why it’s time for BIPV to hit the big time….


Across Europe, it is clear that the political drivers governing the solar sector are changing. Historically, the industry has been supported by a subsidy driven system that encouraged rapid growth and volume to drive down costs. Within these market conditions, niche products such a BIPV were less economically viable and as a result, have struggled to gain traction. But the traditional market parameters are changing.  Subsidies are being cut across Europe, which is reducing the incentive to build large-scale solar projects.

 

At the same time, so-called ‘Prosumer’ policies, which encourage the self-consumption of own generated power, is likely to fill the subsidy gap and this could be good for BIPV systems. If these prosumer policies gain traction, then BIPV has the potential to hit the big time, particularly as the cost of solar cells continues to fall. This does not mean that roof installation will be competitive at any price. However, it is likely that with the fall in the cost of production of solar cells, it becomes more viable to build customised products at costs which are still compatible with profitability on rooftops across Europe.

 

Another trend we are seeing across Europe is the drive to create more sustainable, environmentally friendly buildings that minimise energy consumption. For example, the European Commission’s ‘energy performance of buildings directive’ stipulates that all new buildings must be ‘nearly zero energy’ by 2018’ and existing buildings by ‘2020.’ On the 30th November 2016, the commission also proposed an update to the directive to help promote the use of smart technology in buildings and to streamline existing rules. The commission has also recently published a new buildings database – the EU Building Stock Observatory – to track the energy performance of buildings across Europe. BIPV is a technology that can assist Governments in reducing general emissions from buildings and hit their greenhouse gas targets. As Government policy continues to put pressure on developers to build more sustainable buildings, BIPV is likely to become an important technology enabler.