Solar panel provider Naked Energy bares its plan to decarbonise heat

15 Aug 2022

Virtu solar energy collectors. Image: Naked Energy

The UK start-up has partnered with ELM Companies to take its Virtu solar thermal technology to the US and beyond.

Naked Energy is on a mission to decarbonise heat, using technology that generates both electricity and heat from a single solar collector.

The UK start-up announced the opening of its Series B funding round in July, with a target of raising more than £10m to help its expansion into the US. It also completed a bridge funding round led by Barclays to boost its global expansion plans.

Naked Energy has been working on its technology for more than a decade. Its Virtu products combine solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technology to generate both electricity and heat using the power of the sun.

The modular design of this tech aims to eliminate “self-shading”, which is when parts of a solar panel don’t receive adequate lighting.

It can also be combined with existing heating technology, such as heat pumps. The company said it can heat buildings and water three times more efficiently than traditional solar panels, and the initial cost can be paid back faster than commonly used panels.

Naked Energy was co-founded in 2009 by CEO Christophe Williams. He told that the decarbonisation of heat is an important area being ignored in climate discussions.

“Not many people realise that heating consumes 51pc of the energy we use globally,” Williams said. “We often think of transport or electricity as the biggest offenders, but really it’s heat.”

A report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) said heat was the largest energy end-use in 2018 and contributed to 40pc of global carbon dioxide emissions.

“Attention frequently is given to the slicker, consumer-facing solutions that sometimes feel more impactful than they really are,” Williams said. “Whilst every sector has its part to play, we won’t stop climate change with hybrid vehicles and emission-tracking software.”

Last year, an IEA report said the sales of heat pumps and renewable heating equipment such as solar hot water systems has been growing, making up more than 20pc of overall installations in 2020.

But the agency said this is still below requirements to reach global emissions targets. In its Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the share of heat pumps and renewable heating needs to reach 80pc of sales by 2030.

Family influence

Williams considers his grandfather to be one of his greatest influences, with a passion for renewable energy which “rubbed off on me as a child”.

During the fuel crisis in the 1970s, Williams said his grandfather was the head of engineering in the alternative energy division at international investor group John Laing.

“When I think about it now, my grandfather really was decades ahead of his time,” Williams said. “He was pioneering things like flywheel storage technology, similar to the technology we see in the brakes of electric vehicles today, bi-directional underwater turbines and early iterations of solar, wave and wind power.

“He even worked on the oscillating duck located in the North Sea alongside clean energy pioneer Steve Salter.”

Williams said he was “utterly amazed” when he saw models of this technology as a kid and wanted to commercialise as many of these ideas as possible. “But I was swiftly told by investors I could only pick one”.

Expanding in the US and Europe

Williams said his company has installed solar thermal products around the world, in countries such as South Africa, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and the US. Some of its clients include hotels, factories and universities.

“Most recently, we’ve installed 495 VirtuHOT tubes onto the roof of Woodgreen Leisure Centre in Oxford,” Williams said. “Leisure centres across the UK are facing closure given the rise of energy costs, and solar thermal is proving a perfect solution to their high heating demand.”

As a result of the recent bridge funding, Naked Energy has partnered with microgrid specialist ELM Companies.

Williams said this company will distribute the Virtu product range in the US and plans to open a manufacturing plant to make the solar thermal products locally.

“Our expansion comes at a time where the US is looking to diversify its energy supply, and provide a wealth of investment into renewable energy,” Williams said. “The recent Senate bill set to offer $430bn to climate change projects across the country provides the perfect opportunity for Naked Energy to begin its expansion into the US.

“A bit closer to home, we’re looking to build our presence further in European countries like Germany. They present a massive opportunity for us given their urgent need to switch to renewable energy, and we already have strong partnerships across the rest of the continent.”

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic