STA Blogs: How to Access Innovation Funding for Solar Heat

12th October 2018

In this STA Blog, Richard Hall of Energy Transitions details a number of challenges for the UK’s clean heat sector and outlines some exciting EU funding opportunities available.

The provision of affordable, decarbonised heat is a major global challenge; one for which current and future renewable energy technologies have a great deal of potential to fulfil. Yet the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that global renewable heat consumption in 2017 amounted to 472Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent). This represents just 9% (approximately) of the total global heat demand.

Within the UK, heat is largely generated through the burning of natural gas and a recent report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) highlighted the “formidable challenge” of replacing the UK’s natural gas grid with renewable energy. Over the winter of 2017/18, the peak daily demand for natural gas was 3.6 times higher than that for electricity. In addition, the 3-hour difference in demand for natural gas was 116 GW, compared with only 11 GW for electricity; highlighting the variability in gas demand across the day.

The IEA has formulated a ‘Sustainable Development Scenario’ (SDS) pathway designed to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting the increase in average global temperatures to well below 2˚C (relative to pre-industrial levels). As part of this pathway, the IEA sets the target of a 67% increase in renewable generation by 2030, taking the total to over 780Mtoe per year. Such an achievement will require a sustained increase in the use of renewable heat, which will need to be driven by supportive government policies. Within this context, there should be substantial opportunities for growth in the market for technologies which use solar energy to provide heat, despite the decline in the rate of new solar thermal additions in recent years.

Key areas of opportunity include the development of innovative technology solutions and of systems for deployment at a scale which reduces the cost of generating heat using solar energy. The market opportunity for innovative technologies which can help deliver this affordable, decarbonised heat is global.

An Industry in Transition

In the past, active solar heating has been dominated by residential solar thermal water heating systems, used for domestic hot water production. The largest deployment of these has been in the form of the thermosyphon systems installed in China (Solar Heat Worldwide, 2018). But with urbanisation, digitalisation and the rapidly lowering cost of renewable electricity generation technologies, the solar heat industry is changing rapidly. Two notable trends are in the increase in the use of Solar District Heating and Digital Heat.

Solar District Heating (SDH)

Solar District Heating (SDH) typically comprises of ground mounted flat plate collector arrays (usually between 0.5 and 100 MW) integrated into district heating systems and often installed alongside seasonal storage, has seen substantial use and growth in countries such as Denmark. By using economies of scale, both the capital cost and levelised cost of heat from SDH is substantially lower than that of traditional residential domestic hot water systems. In 2016, almost 500,000 m2 of solar thermal collectors were installed in Denmark, meaning that the country now has over 100 SDH plants in operation, with over 1,300,000 m2 of active solar thermal collectors. Combined with a recent strong increase in interest in district heating as a platform for delivering low carbon heat, particularly in densely populated areas, SDH offers the potential for further and sustained growth.

Digital Heat

The second big trend is in the use of Digital Heat (DH). This encompasses smart control of district heating systems, including the control of multiple heat generating technologies, the optimal use of solar thermal storage, and the intelligent use of renewable electricity to provide heating. In a sense, DH has been around for many years in the UK in the form of residential photovoltaic power diverters which redirect excess roof-mounted photovoltaic power to hot water tanks.

But there is a great deal more which can be done with DH. For example, DH can be used to intelligently control heat pumps to reduce the peak power demand or plan the utilisation of excess grid power to heat multiple internet-connected residential hot water tanks.

IEA Solar Heating and Cooling Programme (SHC)

Since 1977, the International Energy Agency Solar Heating and Cooling Technology Collaboration Programme (IEA SHC TCP), referred to as the Solar Heating and Cooling Programme (SHC), has been at the forefront of solar heating (and cooling) innovation. The overarching objective of the SHC is to provide a platform for international collaboration in applied research in the field of solar heating and cooling. The UK re-joined the SHC in 2015, in recognition perhaps of the UK Government’s recent focus on supporting innovation.

For UK companies interested in innovation within the solar heating and cooling sector, or in the deployment of innovative systems or business models, the SHC provides a means of keeping up to date with the latest developments in technology innovation. Its worldwide reach can also be used to foster networks of relationships across the globe, improving the quality of UK innovation and the prospects for its successful commercialisation internationally.

The best way to keep up to date with the work of the SHC is through the Solar Update newsletter.

There are many elements to the SHC programme, including the SHC Conference and the Solar Academy. But one of the key ways in which the SHC supports international collaboration is though Tasks. Tasks are research projects led by an Operating Agent from a single country, with participants from around 10 other countries. An example is Task 55 on district heating, led by the Austrian solar engineering company, S.O.L.I.D., and joined by participants from Australia, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

Tasks are based around an area of applied research where international collaboration would support the development of the market and a growth in deployment. A particularly good example is Task 60, of which a part involves the development of standards for hybrid photovoltaic thermal (PVT) collectors. By developing an internationally agreed set of terminology and performance calculation methods, the prospects for the market acceptance of this emerging technology should be improved.

There are currently eight active Tasks, and the UK is involved in three of these:

How to join a SHC Task?

Some of the UK’s leading solar energy companies, such as Kingspan, Naked Energy and AES Solar, are involved in SHC Tasks, and we always welcome new participants. Any UK company or organisation can participate in an SHC Task and the process of joining a Task is simple:

  1. Decide upon the Task you wish to join by reviewing the information about the Task on the SHC website –
  2. Contact the Operating Agent of the Task to discuss how your company can contribute to the Task.
  3. Decide how much time you can allocate to working on the Task and the source of funding for that time.
  4. Contact the UK alternate delegate (that’s me!) who will prepare a National Participation Letter (NPL) to be signed by a representative of your company and the official IEA SHC delegate from the UK Government.
  5. The signed NPL will be sent to the Task Operating Agent and you will officially be participating in the Task.

Although the UK’s membership of the Solar Heating and Cooling Programme is paid by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), participation in Tasks is not directly funded by BEIS. Most companies fund their participation in Tasks through completive research grants and in my next blog post I will discuss how to access Government funding for applied solar heating research.


  • Dr Richard Hall is a civil engineer specialising in solar heating and cooling. Richard is the alternate UK delegate for the IEA Solar Heating and Cooling Technology Collaboration Programme (IEA SHC TCP) and the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Energy Transitions Limited .

Energy Transitions

Energy Transitions is a cleantech innovation company. The first technology to emerge from our research and development programme is Steel Zero; an innovative, high efficiency and architecturally attractive way of using the facade or roof of a building to absorb solar energy for use in heating and cooling. We also provide incubation and consultancy services to other early-stage cleantech innovation businesses, helping access grant funding, developing strategy and business plans, and raising investment.