THE BLOG

Women In Innovation: Making Solar Thermal Energy Accessible

23/12/2016 11:41 GMT | Updated 23/12/2016 11:41 GMT

Within our homes and workplaces 60-70% of the energy we use goes on space heating and cooling. In order to protect our planet, prevent rising fuel poverty and provide a secure source of energy for the future it is crucial that we find a renewable source to deliver this energy. Solar Thermal is a renewable energy that is 70% efficient which far exceeds Solar Photovoltiac which is only 18% efficient. Solar Thermal also produces the lowest carbon emissions, is easily generated on site and has the potential to become the main source for heating and cooling energy in the future. However, despite the significant benefits, there have been some challenges related to solar thermal energy collection that have slowed up-take; among other issues, they're expensive, require a prohibitive investment upfront, and inflexible to existing architecture.

With 17 years' experience running my own commercial roofing company, and integrating the expertise of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at Queens University Belfast, I have developed an innovative Solar Thermal Collector System resulting in the launch of my own business - Senergy Innovations. Senergy Innovations are developing a 100% polymer plastic solar thermal panel that is 50% less expensive to manufacture and install than any panels that currently exist. The Senergy panels benefit from the advantages of the polymer materials and incorporate carbon nanotube materials, enhancing both thermal performance and mechanical strength; addressing the challenges that to date have hindered the roll out of this form of renewable energy.

I grew up in Belfast and was the first person on both my mother and fathers sides of the family to go to University. My father ran his own roofing company so I was introduced to business at an early age. However, with the family business being in the construction industry, only the males in the family were offered a job. Instead, I went off to Queens University in Belfast to broaden my horizons, and, on qualifying I secured a job in the banking sector. It was only when my father was planning retirement that he realised the skills and experience I had developed would be valuable to the family business and offered me a job; this was my transition into the roofing industry and the world of construction.

I had been in the roofing company 6 years when my father passed away and my role moved from business development to business strategy. It was in this role that I encountered my inspiration - unhappy customers! I found myself in on-site hut meetings, having constant arguments around the installation of solar thermal roof panels; architects didn't like them because they were ugly and not consistent with the building design, the roofing installers didn't like them because they were heavy, bulky and awkward to install...and the building owner did not like the high price they had to pay! I set out on a mission to develop a solar thermal panel that would solve all of these problems.

Sometimes your inspiration, a helping hand, or a useful nugget of expertise can come from the most unlikely of place - my top tips to other entrepreneurs and innovators are three Ps:

  • Perseverance - keep pushing for each small win, the snowball will slowly get bigger!
  • Patience- Rome wasn't built in a day.
  • Partners - You need to get out and find the best industry, academic and business partners to make your innovation a reality.

And partners - be they financial, intellectual, or for morale - are absolutely crucial. I was made aware of Innovate UK from Invest Northern Ireland, our local agency - and have just been announced as one of the winners of their 2016 Women In Innovation award. Seeking funding and business support gives you access to people with astounding experience and knowledge to lend - which in my experience they do generously - so stay open to opportunities and don't doubt yourself as a contender.

Christine & Innovate UK:

Christine has just been honoured as one of the 15 winners of Innovate UK's 2016 Women in Innovation awards, a series of awards dedicated to addressing the disproportionately low numbers of women entrepreneurs in the UK. Here, over a series of 15 posts we'll meet the inspiring innovators and entrepreneurs that Innovate UK is celebrating, each of whom will receive a tailored business support package, expert business mentor and £50,000 to help them reach their full potential.

Dr. Ruth McKernan CBE and Chief Executive of Innovate UK says: 'From fully autonomous drone software to affordable solar power technology and even a digital education portal which engages school children with the molecular world, the calibre of ideas is an eye-opening view into the talent and vision of the UK's female entrepreneurs. It is very clear that harnessing the talent of women entrepreneurs could significantly enhance UK economic growth. I am delighted that we are taking action; supporting and funding female entrepreneurs to help them succeed and inspire other women to come forward, apply for funding and turn their ideas into successful business.'

If you have an innovation or business idea and are looking for support then visit www.innovateuk.gov.uk for further information - go for it!

You can follow Innovate UK on Twitter at @innovateuk or subscribe to their YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/InnovateUK.