Solar collectors are one of several renewable technologies that together make a solar building. It is essential that, from the earliest design stage, there is a symbiotic relationship between active solar and PVs, heat pumps and possibly small-scale wind turbines. 'Integrated design' is one of the slogans of the new millennium.
Well-designed solar houses can reduce energy demand by a factor of four against conventional homes. This has been demonstrated by the IEA Solar Heating Advanced Low Energy Buildings. With the addition of PV, it is possible for buildings to become net energy producers.
The effectiveness of the solar thermal applied to the existing housing stock is slightly reduced. Nevertheless, many buildings produced in northern Europe in the 1950s and 1960s are seriously in need of renovation. If solar technology is absorbed into the total overall cost and economies of scale are realized, the payback time should be considerably less than the normal twenty-year timescale.
In the UK there is an acute problem of poor-quality housing, much of it dating from the nineteenth century, which is associated with fuel poverty, ill health and substantial unnecessary winter deaths.
In Europe there are wide variations in the application of active solar heating. For example, Austria has almost 18 m2 per 1000 inhabitants of installed capacity which is several orders of magnitude more than the UK, which has a climate that is not all that different from Austria.
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The solar Stirling engine is progressively becoming a viable alternative to solar panels for its higher efficiency. Stirling engines might be the best way to harvest the power provided by the sun. This is an easy-to-understand explanation of how Stirling engines work, the different types, and why they are more efficient than steam engines.