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Following the sun

This article first appeared in our COP27 special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published on 10 November 2022. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

I discovered Heliomotion solar tracking technology by complete fluke in early 2018, when I was skimming through a Scandinavian in-flight magazine.

At the time I was looking for a solar solution for my own home; my roof features gables and Velux windows and has no south-facing pitch, meaning static solar PV wasn’t an option.

In contrast, Heliomotion solar panels are fixed to a column in the ground, and move to track the sun.

As well as providing a great solution to architectural challenges, the panels deliver 30-60% more energy than roof-based panels of similar dimensions.

I had never come across Heliomotion before; the system immediately seemed like a genius idea and I wanted to buy it, but quickly discovered the technology wasn’t available in the UK.

I contacted the company headquarters in Finland and the rest is history; I joined the team and started my solar tracking career managing Heliomotion’s marketing and global business development.

Make or break

The system won Build It magazine’s Best Home Technology award at the end of 2018, but this great start was quickly overshadowed by Brexit, a two-year Covid pandemic and the termination of the government’s solar subsidy – all of which slammed the brakes on our growth potential in the domestic solar market. 

I soldiered on and won the 2020 P.E.A. Award for Energy in recognition for the work I had done to bring the technology to the UK and several other countries. Things were on the up – and early 2022 heralded a new beginning. Mask-wearing rules were dropped and the market began to pick up as normal sales activity resumed.

However in May 2022, our manufacturer in Sweden ceased production at very short notice – while I had orders placed. I had to make a huge decision: should I quit or go for it?

A few short weeks of thought, planning and discussions with friends and family later, I founded a brand-new production company, Bee Solar Technology Ltd, to manufacture Heliomotion solar tracking systems and sell them globally with associated products. 

This happened at a time of global supply and logistics disruption, but we remained optimistic and found a local and very responsive family-run steel company, which managed to turn the prototype round very quickly.

We negotiated with several aluminium companies and found two that were able to supply us at a time of aluminium shortage.

We found a local fastening supplier who swung into action to help us source multiple nuts, bolts and washers, and our developer in Finland pulled out all the stops to supply control boards and sensors to meet our deadlines.

After sourcing 3D printing, stepping motors, transformers and various other components, I am proud to say that we delivered our first British-assembled systems in just under three months – a fantastic team achievement from a standing start.  

How solar tracking works

The design and technology behind solar tracking is both highly complex and beautifully simple.

The systems are heliotropic, just like sunflowers; they turn and tilt slowly from sunrise to sunset so the panels are always facing the sun at the optimal angle.

This means that they generate a great deal more electricity than static systems; in the UK it’s around 40-45% more. As a result, six panels on a tracker have the same approximate generating capacity as 10 solar panels on a roof.

Our systems are dual axis, which means as well as turning 180 degrees horizontally over the course of the day, the vertical angle of the panels alters up and down according to the position of the sun. 

They are controlled by GPS and a position sensor, so whatever the light level, they know which way they should be facing to optimise potential power generation.  When the sun dips 6º below the horizon, they start to swing back, ready for sunrise the next day.

Unlike rooftop installations, which have rails and panels that require a team of people and scaffolding, our DIY systems have been designed specifically to be installed by a single person with a willing assistant.

No lifting equipment is required as the pieces weigh no more than 30kgs, and most are considerably lighter. They can be mounted quickly using ground anchors, which we supply with a custom base plate, using a power hammer available from hire shops.

The alternative option is a cubic metre concrete plinth, though this is a far less eco solution that requires a lot of digging and a concrete mixer.

All this means that our systems can be deployed rapidly to restore power in a disaster zone, whether an area has been hit by flooding, hurricanes or war. We have started actively engaging with companies and charities who are first on the scene in these situations.

The systems are available in three different sizes – with three, four or six panels – and two colour options: silver or green, to blend in with garden foliage. The largest system requires a turning circle of around five metres in diameter.

The systems can be used at homes or businesses, as a single unit or in larger numbers to operate as a microgrid.

Six Heliomotion PV-6s are currently being installed in Norfolk at the Water Management Alliance’s new HQ, which has been designed to be as sustainable as possible.

Another five are about to be installed at a single property in Monmouth, where the words ‘light switch’ and ‘off’ largely fall on deaf ears!

The systems are engineered to withstand winds of up to 80mph, but can be parked horizontally if more serious storms are expected. An extra bonus is that if you move house, you can take your system with you. Try doing that with a rooftop system! 

Energy and cost savings

You can lower your household energy bills substantially by using Heliomotion to trickle charge your electric vehicle (EV) or fast charge if you have battery storage.

Cost savings – especially as we face a global energy crisis – are a major driver in decision-making. Everyone wants to understand the impact the technology could make on their bills now that prices have rocketed, and of course that will depend on various factors that affect energy consumption. 

I undertake site surveys, both in person and remotely by video call, to advise people on optimum siting and how to space multiple systems to avoid shading issues. I discuss whether power-hungry equipment will run when the sun is out and whether the solar equipment will generate power during the times it’s needed most.

I normally say to people that a PV-6 can enable substantial savings for a three- to four-bedroom property if the occupants plan their usage according to the power being generated, save their surplus generation and don’t expect to walk around in T-shirts in the depths of winter while keeping their house at 23º!

Teenagers using their computers all night may generate big bills if no mitigation is in place – and jumpers, gilets and fleeces are some of the best equipment for mitigating the effects of a harsh winter.

Solar and red tape

Heliomotion systems are now busy generating power all round Europe, Scandinavia and the UK, and are springing up in the USA. They have caught the attention of various newspapers including the Times and the Guardian, as well as climate organisations and renewable energy experts.

There are still some major barriers to entry to the solar PV market; no effective subsidies have been in place since the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) was closed and replaced with the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) tariff, which pays a fraction of the previous rate.

Legislation states the SEG only has to be more than 0p (yes, you read that right). The 0% VAT rate only applies if you buy your equipment from an installer who also does the work, meaning anyone carrying out a DIY project pays the full 20%.

Solar PV installations larger than 4kW also require DNO (Distribution Network Operator)
approval; this leads to bottlenecks as only qualified electricians are supposed to apply.

I have tried, totally unsuccessfully, to engage with five successive government ministers and BEIS leaders, with the help of my local MP, Siobhan Baillie. They move post so quickly it is impossible to have an ongoing dialogue that is in any way meaningful.

It is frustrating because by failing to harness the full potential of solar we are missing a huge opportunity.

New-builds should be required to have 3-4kW of solar PV (not just two panels to tick a box), rainwater harvesting and EV charge points, and all new industrial building roofs should be covered in solar.

Rules regarding the adoption of solar for those with listed properties, in conservation areas and AONBs need to be overhauled if we are to substantially increase numbers of renewable energy users.

The current percentage of homes with renewable energy is a mere 5% of the total, at around 1.4 million out of 28.3 million homes.

Now that panels are becoming more powerful and disasters caused by climate change are worsening, these restrictions need to be lifted to allow more households to generate as much power as they need.

Grid infrastructure needs to be able to meet the public’s desire to make their homes sustainable – not make it more difficult. Heliomotion systems are bringing homeowners one step closer to that off-grid, energy-secure dream.

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