London-based Solarcentury has worked on its most challenging project to date, installing photovoltaic panels at the CIS Tower in Manchester. But it warns more must be done to give companies an incentive to support sustainable solutions

Solarcentury is a London-based company founded in 1998 that designs and installs renewable energy systems, in particular, solar photovoltaic panels. According to a national newspaper rating, it is one of the fastest-growing technology companies in the UK, with growth of more than 110% in the past two years, due to the rise in demand for on-site renewable energy solutions.

The company has 70 staff and an annual turnover of £15m, and works across a wide range of sectors, from commercial to public and residential. Recent schemes include Nicholas Grimshaw’s Eden Project in Cornwall and Gazeley Properties’ Magna Park distribution warehouse in Lutterworth.

This year, Solarcentury embarked on its most challenging project to date. At the CIS Tower in Manchester it had to cover 3972 m² with 7244 dark blue solar PV panels. Jan Muller, head of engineering, says that to deal with a scheme of this size, rather than change its approach the company simply worked longer hours.

Solarcentury worked with Arup on the £5.5m landmark project to make PV solar panels the standard accepted module. Muller says: “To fit specialist glass laminates would have been much more expensive. It would have killed the project.”

To keep the value engineering within set boundaries, the company kept the supporting material for the panels to a minimum. The power produced by the panels – 180,000 units of renewable energy each year, saving 78 tonnes of carbon dioxide – might be difficult for the lay person to evaluate, but Muller has an appealingly down-to-earth way of explaining it. “It’s enough energy to make 9 million cups of tea,” he says.

The CIS Tower is a good example of the company getting involved early to keep the costs of PV installations down. Muller explains that a lack of understanding of the technology by specialist contractors responsible for the installation pushes prices up. They see PV as complex to install and delicate to handle so price on the high side to cover their perceived risk. The solution is to have as many meetings as possible with the other members of the team to allay these fears and bring prices down to a level commensurate with the actual risk.

Muller shares the concern of the industry about one of the most talked about sustainable issues of the moment: incentives – or rather, the lack of them – for using renewable energies. “Our main challenge is the complex and uncertain grant situation. With the energy review, the government is clearly looking into that. But you don’t achieve objectives by providing small grants. The government has to give real reasons for companies to support sustainable solutions,” he says. He explains the focus on capital grants for the installation rather than the end product is wrong. He cites the approach other European countries, such as Germany, Spain and France, have taken in terms of feed-in tariffs, as good examples to follow. Here people selling electricity back to the grid from renewable energy sources enjoy an enhanced rate, thus encouraging them to maximize the output from their PV installation. “We have to ensure that energy-efficient systems that deliver clean, green electricity are well maintained,” he says.

The world according to Muller

Jan Muller, head of engineering at Solarcentury

Q: My dream specification is …

A: C21e tile roof because it can supply homeowners with at least half of their electricity, and research has shown that it adds almost 9% to the house value. And it received Building’s award for innovation at last year’s Sustainable awards. I think standard roof tiles are past their sell-by date because they are a waste of productive roof space.

Q: My worst specification nightmare is …

A: A project without a roof.

Q: The worst piece of red tape is …

A: Local authorities insisting customers have full planning permission before they go solar, particularly for bolt-on systems.

Q: The next big thing will be …

A: Micro-generation renewable energy.