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Solar Makes Sense

Solarsense is a Bristol-based solar power company with a difference. Not only do they have over 15 years and 4,500 installations to date under their collective belt, but they are responsible for the U.K.’s largest privately-owned rooftop PV system to date at a particularly famous festival site, have an impressive track record of overseas charity work using solar systems to improve facilities in the developing world, and get on so well with the neighbors that they are playing host venue to some of their timber sculptures for the local Arts Week this spring.

By Jennifer Stanley Smith




Worthy Farm


Michael Eavis, founder of Glastonbury Festival, the largest contemporary music and performing arts festival in the world, set a new record last year. A 200 kWp solar PV system, designed and installed by Solarsense, now adorns one of the barn roofs at Worthy Farm, the festival site. Keen to support British manufacturing, Eavis chose solar panels from Durham-based firm Romag.

Three years in the planning, the PV system covers 1,450 square meters, and is so large that if each of the 1,116 solar panels were put end to end, they would stretch for 1.5 km. The system will save over 88 tonnes of CO2 per annum, enough to fill 88 hot air balloons 10 m in diameter every year.

The power generated by the array will not be used directly to power the festival, as it is a private system supplying the farm itself, where milking rather than dancing is the main activity on site for most of the year. It will, however, be used to charge an electric buggy--which Solarsense is also helping to sort out for Michael Eavis--for himself and organizers to get around the site at this year’s Glastonbury. They would normally use a diesel 4x4 for this purpose, so this switch represents a further step in the ongoing ‘greening’ of the festival which is so important to its founder.



Solarsense had been working with Eavis on this project since early 2007, and broke some of their own records during the installation--for example, one Wednesday saw 210 modules fixed into place in a single day. Considering that a good day’s work for their most experienced teams was at the time about 24 modules, this shows how fast their German rail mounting system (manufactured by Click-Con GmbH, designed & supplied by Rusol GmbH) could be.

The monitoring system will automatically send Solarsense an email and SMS if it detects any part of the array is not working correctly, so they can be on-site quickly and safely--using the trolley system over the modules where roof access is needed--to investigate faults.

Solarsense was delighted that the U.K. Feed-in Tariff Scheme announcements of April 2010 enabled the project to be not just green, but also a sound financial investment for the Glastonbury founder. With the FiT payments, Eavis can expect a return on his investment of up to 12%, which translates into an annual income of over 60,000.

After barely 1 week in operation, during which the weather had been less than kind, the system had generated in excess of 2,600 kWh (2.6 MWh), meaning a single non-ideal week had earned Michael Eavis over 750 in revenue.


Solar Farmers


Since the launch of the system on November 10th, 2010, a couple of events have been hosted at the site, aimed at farmers interested in agricultural solar power. The first event ‘A Brighter Balance Sheet--all you need to know about on-farm PV’ took place the week after the system’s official switch-on and saw over 85 farmers from across the U.K. come to Pilton to spend the day hearing presentations about how to get PV projects onto their farms. The event was run by Farming Futures, in conjunction with the NFU (National Farmers Union) and Glastonbury Festivals, and after hearing a range of talks, many of the participants went for a tour of the new facility.

The day was such a success that Solarsense, having received such a huge volume of enquiries both about the installation itself and the informational event at Worthy Farm, decided to follow up with another similarly themed event. About 125 farmers, mainly from the South West, as well as other interested parties including investors, accountants, returned to Pilton on 27th January 2011, for ‘Solar--the facts for farmers’ a morning of presentations tailored towards agricultural solar. After a chilly but interesting morning, attendees enjoyed burgers and hot dogs from the ‘Glastonbury Banger’, and groups followed Kerry Burns, General Manager at Solarsense, for a brief tour and demonstration of the purpose-built inverter room.

Again the event was run by Farming Futures in partnership with Solarsense, as well as the NFU and the FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group), and speakers included experts from a range of relevant areas, including microgeneration specialists Good Energy and sustainable financiers Triodos Bank.


Worthy Causes


For Solarsense’s Managing Director and founder Stephen Barrett, along with the rest of the team, charity is close to the heart, and he is constantly thrilled to find himself in a position not just to contribute, but to take direct action to projects or areas of the world most in need. An important part of the company ethos is the feeling that it is only right that companies in the ‘rich’ world do what they can to share knowledge and benefits far and wide. A percentage of profits are, therefore, dedicated each year to helping out with charitable projects in various parts of the developing world.



Knowing that Solar PV performance is lessened when silicon gets too hot, and, therefore, that works best in clear, bright but cool climatic conditions, one might argue that (with equal hours of sunlight) the yield might be better in, say, the South West of England than in equatorial Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet in terms of standards of living there is simply no contest. This technology, born in the developed world, has a phenomenal effect when used to improve sanitation, health or social facilities in places where these are most wanting. Wielded correctly, this type of power represents such a vast improvement in the lives of people who have so little to start with, that the potential is overwhelming.

Solarsense has been using solar power to improve the lives of those in need since 2005, when they first went to Uganda to install a PV lighting system at Glenburnie Butego school-cum-orphanage. While there they realized the need for a decent water supply, and in 2006 a team from Solarsense went back to the school and installed a solar-powered water pump and rainwater storage system, to supply drinking water and also so the children could learn to grow their own food. They also supplied solar power to the local medical center, which is now up and running.

Solarsense then went to Senegal in March 2008 to help a medical charity by installing PV lighting in remote medical clinics for 10 villages in the South of the country. The general outline of their annual project is to team up with an existing charity doing work in the developing world--these tend to be local charities, and very often they are brought together with Solarsense via old or existing customers. The charitable organization are usually able to help enormously with the organization of the installation trip itself, and over the course of months of planning, Solarsense undertakes various fundraising efforts in aid of the final project. Generous donations from previous customers play a big part in the completion of these projects, and are a great show of the kind of support that is so valuable to the company.

The Solarsense team returned once more to Uganda in February 2009, and completed a PV installation on a new nursery building, paid for by the people of Bath. Then in March 2010, they went to the Bishop Bexell Orphanage School in Tamil Nadu, India, in conjunction with St Philip & St James Church, Bath. They installed solar PV panels which provide lighting in the study and dormitories, and during the trip, were the only lights still working when the local mains power went down. The team members also taught the children the invaluable life skills that come with doing the ‘Hokey Cokey’, of which a video exists on Youtube. The last communication received from the orphanage was that as well as the panels providing a more reliable constant supply, their electricity costs were a fraction of what they had been previously, which had allowed them to take on and look after more orphans.

The most recent trip was just recently, in conjunction with Bristol-based development charity For-Ethiopia (patron Dr. Alice Roberts of BBC Natural History repute) which again helped enormously with the organizational side of things. A Solarsense team went to Ethiopia from 26th Feb~5th March 2011, where they completed the installation of a 430 Wp solar PV array set up to power a Dulas combined medical fridge-freezer unit, used for desperately needed vaccinations, at the Beso rural medical clinic in a remote village about an hours’ drive north of Addis Alem. All the kit for the installation was already waiting when the team arrived, comprising two 215 Wp Kyocera panels and one Dulas combined fridge-freezer unit--the fridge for storing inoculations, the freezer for freezing ice-packs so that when the vaccines need to be transported they can be kept cool in transit.

Overseas installations of this kind are by no means problem-free, and one of the biggest issues in the long run is that of battery maintenance, a crucial part of off-grid PV systems. If the batteries are allowed to run down past a critical charge level, the whole system can cease to function. To guard against this, the Solarsense team spent the day after finishing the install in Ethiopia training local people in managing the system and how it works, in particular how to keep the battery healthy. Nine people received this training, including two nurses who actually live on site, and the local electrician. The electrician actually tended to shadow them most of the time so as to understand all about the system and the set up--which is reassuring, as he will be the chief maintenance man in case of any problems with the system in future. The local school, a mile or so away from the medical centre across the fields, could also stand to reap great benefits from solar PV but they lack the funding for such a project at the moment. To get involved and help For-Ethiopia to fund similar projects, please visit their Virgin Money Giving page at http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/ charity-web/charity/finalCharityHomepage.action?charityId=1000589.


Getting Creative


Following unprecedented growth in the PV sector since the introduction of the Feed-in Tariff, Solarsense has seen their business grow threefold, and upon outgrowing their previous premises they moved a few miles down the road to a self-contained warehouse and office unit in Backwell, Bristol, which has been aptly re-named Helios House. They have since been getting on so well with their neighbors from across the road, the Chelvey Designer Makers Partnership (CDMP), a local timber workers cooperative, they decided to join forces to take part in this spring’s North Somerset Arts Week, (NSAW: 29th April~8th May 2011).

The wonderfully secluded grassy outdoor areas at Helios House will be perfect for exhibiting the organic concept, sustainably sourced timber structures and handcrafted furniture which are the speciality of the CDMP. As well as neighbors they also new Solarsense customers, set to enjoy an ongoing creative and mutually beneficial relationship. They have plans together to create, among other things, new imaginative outhouses, sustainably built timber structures with solar-powered computer screens on which to display slideshows of solar projects and sustainable building practices.

During the Arts Week Solarsense will also be acting as host venue for two local jewellery makers, Marilyn Barrett (natural bead jewelery) and Charlotte Harris (handmade lampwork glass bead jewellery), who are both part of the Solarsense extended family. Since making the arrangements to take part, other neighboring businesses of various creative trades have been expressing interest in taking part, so the offering on the day will be diverse and include pieces from outdoor wooden offices to jewelery!

This is not the only creative endeavor with which Solarsense has been involved of late, as they recently completed the first-of-its-kind solar PV array on local creative hub The Tobacco Factory Theatre, renowned for its diverse offering of drama, music and even a weekly organic farmers market. Solarsense are thoroughly enjoying all the different projects in which they are involved, and have various ‘first’s recently added to their portfolio, including the regional first and largest solar PV array on a doctors surgery in Bath.

Now that solar PV has truly come into its own in the U.K. with the event of the Feed in Tariff, the industry is developing faster than ever before, including--and rightly so--an explosion of new entrants to the market, to meet the unprecedented demand for solar in the country. It’s reassuring to know that, for a firm that has been doing it for more than 15 years, this influx does not represent a threat so much as an excuse to branch out into ever more diverse and interesting solar projects.


Jennifer Stanley Smith, Marketing and Relations Coordinator at Solarsense UK Ltd (www.solarsense-uk.com ), graduated with a BSc in Economics from Bristol University and speaks fluent Spanish, having worked as a translator while living in Spain. Before finishing her first degree, she had realized a passion for renewable energy, in particular solar power, and went on to join Solarsense in 2010, where she coordinates charity projects, promotions and marketing.



For more information, please send your e-mails to pved@infothe.com.

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