Viridian Solar has just started business on the basis of a green water heater …

Next month is a critical time for renewable energy start-up Viridian Solar. November is when a 12-month pilot of its solar panel water heating system for residential homes begins.

Places for People, the UK's largest housing association, and Hastoe Housing Association, have each installed the panels in three homes to monitor the impact. If successful, Places for People has said it will look at installing the panels in all its homes.

Stuart Elmes, Viridian Solar managing director, says the pilots were needed to convince the industry that the technology would not only work but would also be cost effective.

“People we had spoken to in the industry were sceptical about the claims and they wanted it to be proven before they used it,” he explains.

The pilot, which is partially funded by the Carbon Trust, will measure how much energy the panels save over the course of 12 months.

Elmes expects the panels to provide 50-60% of the water heating needs for each household.

The pilot also allowed Viridian and the housebuilder to test the length of time it takes to install the panels.

“We didn’t want the systems to need specialist fitters – they can be installed by the roofers and plumbers already on site,” says Elmes.

As well as the pilot with Places for People and Hastoe, Viridian Solar has a computer-controlled simulation house with a solar panel system in front of its offices. The house replicates the energy use of a normal household. Results from the pilot will be independently reviewed by the BRE.

The construction industry was not an obvious target for the team of six designers and engineers behind Viridian Solar, which was set up in 2004. Its previous venture was in the medical arena creating equipment for genetic analysis, and was sold for £10m.

“We knew we enjoyed growing businesses together and the sensible thing would have been to go into the same industry. So we decided to go into construction, which we knew nothing about,” he jokes.

We came to the industry with all the preconceptions about hairy builders but these are really smart people

Stuart Elmes, managing director

However, there was method behind the madness. “We looked at different opportunities with renewables and it didn’t seem that anybody was targeting new-build adequately.”

Elmes and the rest of the team devised a solar-powered water heating system and the next step was to consult with the industry on what would encourage it to use more solar power in residential homes.

“We came into the industry with all the pre-conceptions of hairy builders but these are multi-million pound businesses run by really smart people. We found the industry really keen to work with us.”

Viridian Solar worked with a team of housing associations and large commercial housebuilders who spent 40 hours with the engineers explaining why solar panels were not being used more widely in residential new build developments.

One of the reasons cited by the experts was that “solar panels often looked like they had landed from out of space” so one of the challenges for the design team has been to make them aesthetically pleasing.

Viridian Solar’s industry partners also helped the company on the definition and specification of the product.

Even though the results of the pilot will not be known until next year, Elmes says that Viridian Solar is already in talks with some large companies about using the panels.

The water heating system is the start-up’s main focus but it is already looking at other ways in which solar energy can been used in new-build developments. These include using solar power to cool down houses in summer.

When asked about where he sees the future of the business, Elmes is in no doubt.

“We want solar to make the leap from fringe to mainstream. We have the potential to sell 10,000 units a year.”

Founded 2004
Managing director Stuart Elmes
Number of staff Six
Sector Renewable energy
Offices Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire