Solar thermal energy: an industry with untapped potential

When we think of the energy transition, the first images that come to mind may be roofs covered with photovoltaic solar panels, a wind farm – land or sea – or perhaps even electric vehicles. But one technology that is often overlooked and underfunded is solar thermal, which is used to harness solar energy to generate heat for use in industry, as well as in the residential and commercial sectors. At a time when the EU plans to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels before 2030, solar thermal experts stress the importance of including this technology in the energy mix.

After the invasion of Ukraine, the case for a quick and clean energy transition has never been louder and clearer. The EU imports 90% of its gas consumption, with Russia supplying around 45% of these imports at varying levels depending on the Member States. The EU initiative REPowerEU will seek to diversify gas supplies, accelerate the green transition and replace gas in heating and power generation.

Heat accounts for more than half of global energy demand. In the words of Christophe Williams, co-founder and CEO of bare energy“If you’re serious about decarbonization, you need to tackle the heat.”

Naked Energy’s team of engineers, scientists and innovators have developed two main products: a solar thermal collector that heats water from the power of the sun up to 120°C, and a hybrid solar collector thermal and solar photovoltaic which reaches hot water temperatures of 100°C and produces electricity. Distributed and renewable heating systems, such as solar thermal and solar PVT, provide a reliable, affordable and resilient energy infrastructure. For Williams, this technology is key to a just transition to net zero carbon.

A long-standing partnership with EIT Climate-KIC

Naked Energy was one of the first start-ups to graduate from EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator and has been an active member of the community ever since.

“It’s been a long road to get to where we are today. At that time we thought the EIT Climate-KIC would be a great organization to join as it is a diverse ecosystem, and it turned out to be correct,” says Williams.

We participated in EIT competitions and pitching events in Budapest and Brussels, received grants to perform some early field trials and were introduced to some of our first corporate clients. The fact that an organization like EIT Climate-KIC took what we were doing seriously also helped us get investment.

Since then, Naked Energy has raised nearly £14m in funding between private investments and grants. In fact, it was the first start-up in which EIT Climate-KIC invested, and the organization is still a shareholder. Naked Energy now has 18 employees and already supplies solar heating systems to hotels, hospitals, nursing homes and manufacturing in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Kenya, the UK and South Africa. .

The best of both worlds

Their first product, VirtuPVT, generates both solar heat and electricity. It first converts 60% of the solar energy into heat and converts another 20% into electricity using monocrystalline photovoltaic cells linked to the absorber.

“We’ve taken the best of photovoltaic technology and the best of solar heat technology and combined them into one product to achieve a solar collector that produces more energy than incumbent technologies,” says Williams.

The design of the product makes it easier and cheaper to install and maintain: Each tube comes with its own individual mounting system and is angled towards the sun and spaced to prevent self-shading in winter. To complete the installation, the network is simply connected to the existing electrical and plumbing systems.

Naked Energy also markets another product, VirtuWARMa versatile solar hot water solution that generates high operating temperatures and presents a unique solution for heat intensive applications including domestic hot water or swimming pools or process heat.

An economical alternative to heat electrification

Unlike electricity, heat is not easily transported and can only be generated locally. Solar thermal therefore provides a more efficient, high-density means of delivering carbon-free heat, presenting a cost-effective alternative to electrifying heat.

“Thermal energy is collected and stored during the warmer months and can be used throughout the year and in the opposite season when it is most needed,” Williams says. “The technology is also easing the growing load on the power grid as the world electrifies transport and moves away from gas.”

In 2019, a range of 40 VirtuPVT tubes has been installed on the south-facing facade of Swansea University’s Active Office, the UK’s first positive energy office, designed to generate more energy than it uses each year. This was Virtu’s first large-scale commercial installation.PVT, which is integrated with the building’s thermal and electrical storage systems. In the first year of operation, Naked Energy’s technology avoided CO2 emissions equivalent to 722 kg (Scope 1) and 472 kg (Scope 2), if traditional forms of heat and power generation, respectively, had been used.

That same year, Naked Energy installed 60 VirtuWARM tubes on the University of Westminster, generating 24 MWh of thermal energy per year, which supplies hot water to a block of student accommodation to reduce natural gas consumption. Following the success of the installation, the University of Westminster installed a second array of 135 tubes from both VirtuWARM and VirtuPVT on another accommodation block, which provides both heating and electricity to resident students.

Currently, Naked Energy commissions pioneering projects ranging from UK cultural landmarks to a range of projects across Europe providing domestic hot water, heating and electricity for a variety of applications.

The solar thermal industry is expected to reach $36 billion worldwide by 2026. According to the International Energy Agency, solar thermal and geothermal energy will meet 75% of all heat demand by 2050 For Williams, industry has an important role to play in all the transformation needed to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. With its innovative and proprietary technology and a growing number of business partners, Naked Energy is well positioned to capitalize on the growing demand for alternative heat sources.

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