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The potential environmental and financial benefits of having more hospital buildings fitted with solar systems is very worthwhile, says Chris Roberts of the Solar Trade Association.
Hospitals are power-hungry animals. The MRI scanners, dialysis machines, x-ray machines, heart rate monitors all need electricity and, more often than not, need to run 24/7. The lights are on round the clock. Air conditioning units and refrigeration requirements are also very high.
Hospitals need a lot of electricity. But hospitals are also blessed with a large amount of empty roof space. And more and more, as solar PV gets cheaper, the roofs above our heads need to be considered as an asset to help bring energy bills down and green our buildings, rather than just empty space. The cost of solar PV has been falling fast in recent years. Prices have dropped 70 per cent over the last five years, due to a maturing supply chain for solar products in the UK and ever more efficient manufacturing of the panels themselves.
The main benefit of going solar is that it is a cheaper way of getting electricity when compared to buying in power from the grid from your usual supplier. If you assume that you are purchasing power at 10p/kWh, at the moment (and this is about to change) a solar system with a Power Purchase Agreement might be able to supply you with electricity at 7p/kWh. That means more money to spend on front-line medical care.
In addition to savings on energy bills, solar also currently benefits from a generation tariff under the Feed-in Tariff, where the owner of the solar PV system on a commercial building is paid anywhere between 3p and 10p per unit of power. Additionally, under the Feed-in Tariff system the owner is paid an additional 4p per unit for the electricity that is exported back to the grid and not used on-site. Depending on how big the solar PV system is, it is either assumed that half of the electricity is exported, or the export is measured through a meter.
However, as you may have seen in the news, the government’s subsidy system for solar PV is currently in a state of flux. The Feed-in Tariff system has undergone a complete overhaul and the government has proceeded with some fairly major cuts.
However, even with lower or no tariffs investing in solar is still very much worth considering for hospitals, due to the high power demand and the potential to therefore save a huge amount of money on energy bills. Other commercial buildings can only hope to use 50-70 per cent of the power their solar system generates, as their buildings are often dormant during weekends and holidays. Hospitals however are far more likely to achieve what in the solar industry is called ‘100 per cent self-consumption’ – the holy grail of commercial solar installations.
Meeting planning requirements
But the financial return for hospitals isn’t the only reason to go solar for existing hospitals - the Carbon Reduction Commitment energy efficiency scheme is also an important consideration and is often a driver for hospitals to put solar on their roofs. And for new build hospitals, or indeed the refurbishment of old building stock, solar can help project managers meet planning requirements and building regulations.
The 2013 Building Regulations require hospitals to achieve an additional 14 per cent carbon savings (as opposed to just nine per cent for other types of commercial buildings) when compared to the baseline building standards. In addition to this the NHS requires that all new hospital facilities meet the ‘Excellent’ BREEAM New Construction standard. And within London, the Greater London Authority has required that all new builds demonstrate a 35 per cent improvement over 2013 standards. Solar PV can help with all of this.
How to finance your solar system
There are various business models that can be used to pay for a solar installation. The simplest is to pay for the installation outright and earn your investment back thanks to energy bill savings, the generation tariff and the export tariff. At the time of going to press it typically takes less than 10 years for the system to pay back the initial cost.
Second, if the institution doesn’t have funds available to pay for the system outright you can look at borrowing the money. But the most popular option is financed or funded solar. This is where an external investment company pays for the installation and receives the subsidy payments. The hospital pays nothing upfront and buys the electricity generated by the system from the investment company more cheaply than grid electricity through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). Maintenance is usually covered for the duration of the term. See ‘Power Purchase Agreements’ panel for more information.
Keeping going during a blackout
All hospitals with Category 3 patients need Uninterruptible Power Supply to make sure there is no break in power for critical equipment and areas.
One important misconception about solar PV is that it keeps going during a power cut – unfortunately this is not the case as the ‘inverter’ machines that convert the DC from the solar panels into AC for the building need AC power in order to operate. Systems are designed however to integrate with existing emergency back-up diesel generators but it is not inconceivable that innovative solutions could be found in the near future that combine solar and electricity storage and help to displace some of the diesel generators.
And in case you were wondering whether the power will have to be switched off while the solar system is being installed – the answer is usually not. Depending on the electrical systems on site it should be possible to install without any need for a shutdown. Worst case scenario might be a partial shutdown of one area (the one served by the sub-distribution board which you are going to connect the PV system to), but this remains rare.
Roofs are not the only place to put solar on a hospital’s estate – although for urban hospitals it’s probably your best bet. A few hospitals around the country are already considering solar canopies for their car parks, which can supply both the hospital itself as well as any electric vehicle charging points and as a bonus provide shelter for patients getting in and out of cars.
Another option for rural hospitals that perhaps own a considerable amount of land around the estate is a ‘mini solar farm’ or ground mount solar array. This can then be used to supply the building with what is called a ‘private wire’ connection.
To date the biggest solar market has been for solar panels that generate electricity – called photovoltaic solar or PV. However there is also the alternative option of solar thermal hot water heating. Hospitals have considerable hot water requirements for showers and catering. Solar thermal hot water installations are typically cheaper than solar PV panels, and subsidised by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) which means that the technology has similar rates of return on investment and similar payback periods as solar PV. (Solar thermal could also in theory be used for space heating but it then isn’t eligible for the subsidy.)
However as with the Feed-in Tariff for solar PV, the Renewable Heat Incentive is being reviewed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and is subject to change.
If you decide to go ahead with a solar install, it may be worth engaging the services of an experienced independent consultant who can draft a technical specification document. The consultant can also liaise with the installer as well as inspect the finished system prior to handover – this should give you some additional peace of mind.
However if you do want to deal direct with your solar installer or oversee the process the Solar Trade Association has developed a management toolkit called the Commercial Solar Rooftop Confidence Checklist. This is freely available from the STA’s website. In brief, the ‘What to ask your installer’ panel suggests some of the key questions to ask and the full checklist can provide you with more information.
Solar has a lot to offer hospitals – a green and cost effective way of generating at least some of the power they require. But conversely hospitals also have a lot to offer solar, as a fantastic example of big buildings with high electricity demand.
As Jonathan Selwyn, managing director of Lark Energy Commercial recently said: “Despite the uncertainty over the government’s support for solar, Lark Energy Commercial is seeing an increasing number of enquiries from Health Trusts, hospitals and health centres looking to solar to reduce both their energy costs and carbon emissions”.
The policy framework for solar is changing, so make sure you stay up to date with the latest subsidy offering, but installing solar on the roof of a hospital could well still be a very canny investment for your site.
The Heart of England NHS Trust installed solar PV on Heartlands Hospital and Solihull Hospital in 2014. The Trust was spending more than £1million a year on energy before the installations. The arrays are predicted to deliver over £2 million in savings and feed-in tariff payments over the next 20 years, and a 10 per cent saving on energy bills. Pete Sellars, Director of Estates for the NHS England, said that he was delighted that the project did not result in the closure of any wards or disruption to critical services.
Seaton Community Hospital installed a solar system in 2012 – the first to go solar out of the 18 hospitals managed by the Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust. The installation was funded by the League of Friends of the hospital – a support charity – which raised £27,000 towards the cost of the panels. The Feed-in Tariff payments were then split 50-50 between the hospital trust and the League of Friends. The hospital is still saving almost £2,000 a year on its energy bills.
Musgrove Hospital in Taunton installed solar a few years ago, in a move that was part of an ongoing partnership between Taunton and Somerset NHS Foundation Trust and supplier Schneider Electric. The installation saw 90 solar panels fitted to the roof of the hospital, and it is estimated the panels will generate up to 18,960kWh of electricity every year, equating to an energy saving of £5,000.