We are in the age when computers can learn by feedback. Intelligent systems could learn about consumers' behaviour and adjust heat output accordingly. For example, it would be possible to adjust the collector pump to reduce its rate of flow in order to increase the water temperature to coincide with the regular time occupants take a shower. It may only require 20 litres of enhanced temperature to meet this need. Over time an intelligent system will learn to finely tune supply to demand, thereby minimizing the involvement of a back-up heater.
Improvements are often avoided by being hit with the argument of cost-effectiveness. This is often an excuse for avoiding changing designs and manufacturing techniques. In the case of solar thermal, simplified and standardized installation procedures should considerably reduce the 21% of total system cost currently spent on installation. Add to this the fact that the system is more efficient and faults detected instantly, then the added costs should easily be offset, bringing them overall close to the heat production costs of conventional energy sources.
A major cost burden is imposed by the use of copper for piping. The high cost of copper is unlikely to change. In fact it is a commodity likely to rise as demand increases, ironically driven partly by the growing popularity of renewables. Plastic pipes are becoming more common. New materials such as reinforced silicon hose, which is gas-tight and which can cope with high temperatures and offers a degree of expansion, will be a suitable alternative. It is flexible, which means that installation procedures are simplified. Add some clever connectors which can be installed on site and materials like silicon will capture the market.
Finally, the manufacture of solar thermal devices needs to make the transition from small-scale labour-intensive small and medium enterprises (SME) operations to high-output industrial mass production using specialized component manufacturers. This will not only change the image of the technology but would also cope with its predicted rapid growth as the energy infrastructure becomes increasingly stressed due to geopolitical factors and problems of security of supply.
For the information on the future I am indebted to Cornelius Suchy, renewable energy specialist with MVV consultants and Engineers, GmbH.
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Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.