The Tan Y Lan Fach holiday cottages in rural Carmarthenshire were early adopters of solar thermal, PV, and heat pumps. SPECIFIC recently worked with the owners, Jim and Sharon Hopkins, to help them better understand how to maximise the benefits from these technologies. In this Q&A, Jim Hopkins talks about his learning experience and offers advice to other small businesses looking to invest in renewable energy.
What motivated you to install the solar thermal system, solar PV, and ground source heat pump?
We installed the solar thermal and solar PV on our barn and main bungalow in around 2006 or 2007. Although we weren’t sure if they would work, we needed to rebuild the barn anyway and a plumber friend recommended we try it. We were hoping the energy generated would save us some money and off-set the cost of the slate work. We also knew we would be here for a long time and would benefit in the long-term. So, we decided to bite the bullet. We shopped around and picked up some information from the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Machynlleth. Once we installed the systems, I began monitoring them to learn about how much energy we produce and use, and I still do this today.
The heat pump was put in for the cottages around 10 or 11 years ago. The cottages were originally run on LPG gas (liquid petroleum gas). LPG costs are high and can be increased at any time, so we had to change it to make the cottages viable. Heat pumps were very new at the time and so we had to learn how they worked. I spoke to someone at CAT who explained what questions I needed to ask the companies who would install them. When we spoke to the installation companies, this knowledge helped me to filter out the two or three that gave the right answers from the eight or nine who didn’t. It was a big learning curve but the heat pump works really well. We use a radiator system with a closed loop ground source heat pump which sits 120m underground. We also added wall insulation and redeveloped the front of the cottages to benefit from solar gain.
Did you come across any problems when installing and operating the renewable technologies?
Getting the installation right was difficult. Finding companies to install the solar PV at the time was a nightmare. It was before the feed in tariffs and we had to register ourselves on the ROC system (Renewable Obligation Certificate). The only person I could talk to about registering was based in Perth, Scotland. The solar thermal system works well to heat our hot water in the summer months, but the solar PV was more difficult. We were exporting almost ¾ of what was generated back to the grid. We knew we needed a battery system, but only lead acid batteries were available at the time, and these were not suitable. I had to learn as I was going along and it was hard finding the right information or people who had done it before.
How did you find out about SPECIFIC and what support did they give you?
I found SPECIFIC through Business Wales in 2017. I knew I needed a battery system for the winter, but I needed independent advice from people not trying to sell me anything. You can’t tell with new technology how well it’s going to work. Mark Spratt helped me to understand the size of battery I would need to maximise my system on an economy 10 tariff.
What advice would you give to other small businesses wanting to invest in renewable energy?
I would say try to get independent advice, not from salesmen. This could be by word of mouth, or talking to someone who has done it before and knows how the systems work, and what types suit different environments. I’d recommend going somewhere like SPECIFIC or CAT for advice. It’s a lot of money to spend in one go, so you have to understand it first and find someone you trust. It is a daunting task, and I wish I’d had someone at the beginning to go to for advice. It was a leap of faith and I’ve learnt a lot. I’m still learning.