STA Blogs: UK Government Funding for Solar Heating Innovation

23rd November 2018

In this STA Blog, Dr Richard Hall of Energy Transitions explores the funding opportunities for the development of innovative solar heat technologies from Government sources.

Funding: Opportunities and Challenges

As discussed in my previous blog, the provision of affordable, low-carbon heat is a major global challenge, but one with great potential for renewable heat companies. Whether the solution is based around hydrogen or heat pumps, solar can play a pivotal role in supplying affordable clean energy.

There are undoubtedly substantial business opportunities for those who can successfully bring new, affordable low-carbon heat technologies to the market. This momentum is increased by recognition amongst governments across the world, who fittingly see the development of a thriving clean energy industry as an opportunity for clean growth.

Exposure to the Best

As with any innovation, however, solving the challenge of affordable, low-carbon heat and identifying the most appropriate solutions, are not easy tasks.

Steve Jobs once said that innovation “comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then trying to bring those things in to what you are doing”. And I think this philosophy can equally be applied to solar heating: exposing yourself to the best in solar heating innovation, through international networks, discussions and joint projects, significantly aids the development of these innovations. The Solar Heating and Cooling Programme (SHC), with its wide reach and sustained activities in the area, is one of the best facilitators for innovation in the area.

Since 1977, the SHC has provided a platform for companies working in the development of innovative solar heating systems, enabling them to keep up to date with the latest developments in technology, access key individuals and institutions in solar heating, and influence global solar heating policy. Making the SHC part of your route to market increases the prospects for successful commercialisation internationally. In recognising the importance of the SHC, the UK re-joined in 2015, and some of the UK’s leading solar energy companies, such as Kingspan, Naked Energy and AES Solar, have become involved in SHC Tasks.

Sources of Funding

Although membership of the SHC is paid for by Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), BEIS does not directly fund companies to work on SHC Tasks. The main way in which companies fund their work on SHC Tasks is through innovation funding, and in 2015 the UK Government committed to double the UK’s energy innovation spend, meaning that it will exceed £400 million per year by 2021. Consequently, a range of grant programmes are now available to UK businesses that wish to take forward clean energy innovation and work with the SHC. There are currently four main UK innovation funds for solar heating research:

  • Energy Entrepreneurs Fund (EEF): This competition, run by BEIS, is currently in its 7th ‘phase’. In each phase, £10 million is typically made available for projects which will progress the development of technology that has already reached Technology Readiness Level 3 (TRL), thereby signifying the fact that the “Critical function or Proof of Concept has been established”.
  • The Low-Carbon Heating Technology Innovation Fund (LCHTIF): The LCHTIF was introduced by BEIS in late 2017 and has thus far had one phase. The scheme has the objective of supporting “innovative technologies or processes for producing better ways of providing low-carbon heat in existing buildings”. To be eligible for this scheme, projects had to be based on technologies that were ready for prototype demonstration (TRL 6). Grants totalling approximately £8.5 million were awarded to eight successful applicants.
  • Energy Catalyst: The Energy Catalyst competition is run by InnovateUK, part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by the UK Government. The 6th round of the Energy Catalyst competition, with funding of £10m. This round focuses on projects which progress technology that will “help countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia access secure, low-cost and low-carbon energy”.
  • Smart Local Energy Systems: In the summer of 2018, Innovate UK introduced two new competitions for new, smarter approaches to providing clean, local energy. These comprised a £40m scheme of grants for district energy demonstration projects and a £1.5m fund for designs and concepts. The new competitions reflect the fact that low-carbon district energy schemes, which includes heat networks, are viewed by Innovate UK and BEIS as a potential key pathway to decarbonising heat in the UK.

There is no guarantee that any of these funding calls will return, but if they don’t, then it’s very likely something similar will take their place. Information on all the current active innovation competitions can be found on the BEIS and InnovateUK websites, which are the two main UK funding bodies for solar heat innovation.

Success Stories

There is a common misconception that innovation funding is just for universities, but this is not at all the case. Looking at the details of those who have been awarded grants from innovation programmes over the past few years reveals that at least 15 early-stage, solar heat innovation companies have been successful. Examples include companies such as Mixergy (intelligent thermal energy storage), Naked Energy (combined photo-voltaic / thermal collector), Solar Polar (low-cost solar cooling), Sunamp (phase change thermal storage) and of course my own company, Energy Transitions Limited (Steel Zero solar façade technology). Clearly then, grant programmes are open to solar energy companies taking forward innovative ideas.

Tips for Writing a Successful Funding Proposal

Once you have your idea, the next step is to write a great proposal; even the best idea won’t be funded without a strong proposal. Writing proposals takes time (we usually allow at least two working weeks) and the chances of success within these competitive programmes are improved substantially by the preparation of a well-presented application. Key points to consider are:

  • Making sure that your innovation ‘ticks the boxes’ for the particular scheme to which you are applying.
  • Formulating a narrative which sets out in very clear terms why your innovation is great and how it could make a significant impact.
  • Crafting the response to each question with close attention to the scheme guidance notes and making sure that you cover every point listed there; reviewers often score the proposal against the guidance notes.
  • Submitting on time as there can be a long wait until the next round of funding.

I hope that this blog inspires more companies in the UK solar industry to take forward innovation with support from the available grant programmes and I look forward to seeing the developments which arise from them.

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  • 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.