Senergy’s new thermal solar panels
The competitive, new generation technology the Belfast environmental startup has developed is thermal-based, enabling new and existing buildings to create their own hot water and heating from the sun. Solar thermal panels produce three times more energy per square metre compared to the commonly found PV solar ones. But high costs to make and install current products, made of glass, copper and aluminium, and limitations in the heat they can conduct, have held back mass adoption.
Senergy’s patented polymer solution overcomes these drawbacks, however, while allowing the technology’s core advantages to shine through and increasing the appeal to consumers and architects, explains Boyle.
“The new nanocomposite materials and our manufacturing process make the panels lighter, durable, lower cost – 50 per cent less – to produce, and with a lower carbon footprint.
“We can cover a lot more roof space, deliver not just hot water but into space heating and cooling. They also make it economic to store excess heat energy in summer to feed into homes and workplaces in winter.
“Innovation in those three areas – materials, process and our digital internet-of-things platform – optimise the delivery of the energy and provide data to reduce costs.
“We have crucial intellectual protection around hardware but it’s the software platform that will be the most valuable in the long run. This will provide data enabling us to make it affordable to deliver energy from the sun all year round.
Startup Senergy going far with technical collabs
“That is how we are changing solar thermal from being an ‘ugly sister’ into the Cinderella of renewables.”
Although Covid initially set back roll out, awareness about the climate crisis has accelerated in all areas of society, increasing recognition of the UK’s wealth of environmental engineering talent and pioneers such as Senergy.
The Government’s latest Green Plan is set to transform opportunities for businesses and now Senergy is expecting a £1 million turnover next year, potentially rising to £40 million in 2025, as further pilots and projects in its target market – housing both new build and retro-fit in the residential and social sectors – get underway.
In a low carbon heating market worth £7 billion in the UK, “every construction company is currently focussed on building smarter and greener,” says Boyle.
“Public and private funding for the renewables industry in the next decade is predicted to be over £350 billion and we have definitely noticed a fundamental change. We have to decarbonise residential energy if the UK is to meet its carbon targets.”
Design is in-house and manufacturing outsourced, helped by Belfast’s long-standing engineering experience.
Senergy’s partnerships with Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Ulster and as well as the UK’s High Value Manufacturing and Energy Systems catapults, have played a vital part in leveraging expertise that the early stage company employing four would have struggled to access otherwise.
“It’s the idea that drives me,” says Boyle who maintains strong links too with the Royal Academy of Engineering where she received “invaluable mentoring” as she travelled the long road of innovating a new product and bringing it to market.
Keen to inspire other women to become engineers, she is also part of the Academy’s This is Engineering Campaign celebrating the profession and its inspiring innovations improving life now and in the future.
The £1.7 million investment so far in Senergy has come from grants, backing from government agency Innovate UK, angel funding and Boyle herself, who came to environmental engineering after running a family roofing business.
Green engineer and business chief Christine Boyle
Her fresh look as an industry outsider, who saw the unrecognised commercial potential for flat roofs in improving the environment, has given new life to a technology languishing in the doldrums.
One of her best business moves to date “has been holding on to equity at an early stage,” she says.
As to the bigger pictures changing lives, Covid pales in comparison to the climate crisis, she warns.
“Preventing damage from climate change is the greatest challenge of our time, but also the greatest opportunity.
“Heating is central to our home and working lives. This is a very timely moment to bring a low carbon roofing product to market.
“More than ever before all of us have an opportunity through technology, industry and policy to support the best engineers of our time to build the best world for our children. We dare not waste it.”
The Academy has launched a new virtual museum, The Museum of Engineering Innovation, accessed via Google Arts and Culture.