Turning Homes Into Mini Power Stations: Case Study

Although everyone understands the enormous potential benefits of generating electricity from sunlight, no matter how big a fan you might be, there’s one very obvious drawback – the cost. Even though the price of photovoltaic (PV) cells has fallen dramatically over recent years, it remains a relatively expensive option when it comes to providing for household needs.

All of that may be about to change, however, if a £20 million project currently being undertaken in South Wales produces the results that its main participants – Swansea University and Tata Steel – expect. According to them, if all goes well, their work could soon be turning homes, schools and other buildings into mini self-generating power stations and providing as much as a third of the UK’s renewable energy by 2020 – and all at a fraction of the cost of a conventional PV approach.

Solar Coating

At its heart is a special coating for conventional building materials such as glass and steel, which collects, traps and stores solar energy and as Kevin Bygate, Tata’s director of business development stresses, it’s not pie-in-the-sky. The first generation of the technology is already here – it’s just too expensive at the moment to be used widely enough to gain the benefits. The necessary materials and the processes required to make the coating are abundantly available, he says, and they’re low cost and well suited to mass manufacturing. The goal is to make it possible at a low enough cost to make it economically competitive for large scale uptake, but with potential uses on everything from government offices to sports stadia and homes – existing buildings as well as new-builds – the pay-back could be enormous. It would do very good things in terms of users’ emissions and carbon footprints too.

Based in a purpose-built facility in Swansea, the project also involves the Welsh Assembly and a number of other major industrial partners, having been funded to the tune of nearly half its cost by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board. The 50-strong research team, made up of scientists, engineers and technologists, intend to bring a commercially viable product to the market-place in under five years.

How Would It Work?

“It might not be quite as efficient as a silicon solar cell but the trick is to make it in a large enough area so that is irrelevant,” explains Professor Dave Worsley – the project’s academic leader. A properly coated building, he says, will be collecting the solar energy and storing that energy within its fabric, until the owner decides it’s needed and it can be released in a controlled way, as and when required.

He’s particularly excited about the opportunities for larger buildings in the community too, seeing them doing more than simply generating their own electricity, with supermarkets and bigger schools possibly generating so much that they feed the excess into the grid. Better still, he hopes that one building might be able to generate for itself and then distribute the remainder to neighbouring properties. It is “ a very good way of managing electricity generation,” he says.

Additional Benefits

If this kind of system has its advantages for a country like Britain, with our established and mature electrical infrastructure, then it offers major benefits to other countries where their geography or local economic circumstances dictate that grid power is unlikely ever to exist. The export market could be huge – and that means the long-term potential to bolster the UK’s green energy sector and create thousands of jobs in the process.

Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done before any of that can happen, but those involved don’t seem too fazed by the prospect. “The ingredients used for making the solar devices are very similar to those used in normal coatings for any kind of building,” says Professor Worsley, “they are just put together in a different way.”

It looks as if we’re all going to be generating our own power pretty soon; roll on 2015 then!