How solar thermal energy allows buildings to heat themselves

5 Jan 2017

Christine Boyle, CEO of Senergy, on stage at the Pitch at Palace event. Image: TechWatch

TechWatch’s Emily McDaid caught up with Christine Boyle, CEO of Senergy, to discuss solar thermal panels and the future of renewable energy.

Belfast-based start-up Senergy has a different proposition to the more commonly understood PV (photovoltaic) technology. Senergy’s solar thermal panels are used to heat or cool the building they sit on. All the energy generated stays within the system of the building, meaning it’s off-grid.

According to CEO and founder Christine Boyle: “70pc of the energy used in large buildings is used on heating and cooling. We are providing a renewable energy source to replace entirely – or most – of this expense. Furthermore, our panels are less expensive than alternative solar thermal panels.”

Senergy’s panels effectively heat water to heat the building, but they also provide cooling. “For cooling, the Senergy panels use a refrigerant so they effectively work like a refrigerator in reverse. The panels absorb the heat rather than reject it, and a heat exchanger converts the refrigerant liquid to gas,” said Boyle.

“PV panels generate electricity. Our solar thermal panels deliver three times more kilowatts of energy per square metre than photovoltaic tech. Solar thermal has zero carbon emissions,” she explained.

solar roof

Solar panels on roof. Image: Senergy/TechWatch

The birth of Senergy

“For 16 years, I ran my own commercial roofing company. From that vantage point, I saw problems. I saw that contractors didn’t like putting solar panels on buildings because they were bulky and too awkward. And customers didn’t like the look of them. So that stops many installations from happening. My mission was to make something they’d like – so they’d be more likely to install it,” said Boyle.

The company has been active for nearly three years and is currently bootstrapped, using R&D grants from Invest NI. Senergy is currently offering a 10pc equity share to an investor who can actively connect them to the right decision-makers in the solar, thermal and construction sectors around the world.

“My roofing business was local – this innovation needs to go global. It’s important when you’re going global that you’re protecting your IP. There has been a lot for me to learn,” said Boyle.

Creating the perfect product

The CEO embarked on a process to invent panels that were “modular and sleeker, that might not even be noticeable from the street”.

“We are so lucky that we use polymer plastic, and the experts in that area are right here on our doorstep. We’ve used Denroy, Boomer and Brett Martin. Each have produced different components of our panels,” Boyle said.

She made sure to point out that Senergy’s panels don’t substitute as a roof. “The number one job of a roof is to keep a building watertight and airtight. Our panels sit on top of the regular roofing material,” she explained.

What about heating water in the wintertime when there’s less daylight? “We can store heat underground using bore holes … surrounding the building, heating the ground. We can then pump the hot water back into the system when it’s needed.

“There’s a large-scale research project going on in Canada right now called Drake Landing. They’ve shown that 52 houses in the estate are generating 95pc of their heating and cooling just from solar thermal. But they’ve been using typical panels – and Senergy’s panels are 50pc cheaper than market average.”


Inside the production of solar panels. Image: Senergy/TechWatch

The future of solar panels

Boyle noted: “By 2018, all new public buildings must be creating their own renewable energy. So this is the part of the market we can capture.”

“The panel design is patent-pending,” she added.

Senergy is enrolled in several business programmes, including ESpark, Pitch at Palace and Innovate UK. It also graduated Connect’s Springboard programme in February 2015.

“With funding from CASE (Centre for Advanced Sustainable Energy) at QUB, our demonstrator is being built. The demonstrator will showcase the cost savings offered by the panels. We’re looking for a high-profile public building to house it, to really get the word out about this innovation,” said Boyle.

I asked Boyle what her goals for the future were. I caught a glint in her eye, confirming that she’s serious about turning a profit.

She said, “In five years, I want to have 500 buildings using our panels. When you consider that in the next five years, 500,000 municipal buildings will need to be using renewable energy, to meet legislation, that’s a mere 1pc of an easy target market.”

Senergy will take part in a conference in March 2017 on Building Integrated Renewable Energy Systems, organised by Dublin Institute of Technology in conjunction with Ulster University.

By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch

A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland