Buildings as power stations

Supplementary content information

Every day the sun provides enough energy to power our planet for 27 years. So why not capture that energy with everyday buildings – using coatings that generate, store and release it?

This is the challenge being addressed by SPECIFIC, an EPSRC-supported Innovation and Knowledge Centre driven by a singular vision – that buildings could be their own power stations.

  • Unique centre is developing technology to enable buildings to function as their own power stations
  • Focus is on scaling-up manufacture of low carbon and carbon negative electricity and heat systems
  • Success stories include a spin-out company and off-grid office and classroom demonstrators that generate more energy than they consume
  • Inspired £7 million investment into solar energy generation and building technologies in five Indian villages

This unique approach to the capture and consumption of solar energy is part of an integrated programme to develop low carbon and carbon-negative electricity and heat systems.

Supported by an initial £20 million investment from EPSRC, Innovate UK and the Welsh Government, together with investment from Swansea University and industry, SPECIFIC brings together a wide range of academic and industry partners to share expertise in ‘functional coatings’, such as photovoltaic materials built into a building’s cladding; energy storage; technology scale-up; manufacture at scale; business development and commercial know-how.

The centre’s approach is multifaceted. Dedicated research teams are working on the next generation of solar technologies and their manufacture; a building-integration team is creating full-scale demonstrators to prove and test the technology; and a comprehensive training programme is helping to create the next generation of scientists and engineers, from basic level short courses to doctorates.

Led by Swansea University, with Strategic Partners Akzo Nobel, NSG Pilkington, Tata Steel and Cardiff University, and a wide range of business and academic partners, SPECIFIC is now in its second phase, which has seen it attract over £40 million of funding from its original investors and partner organisations.

SPECIFIC now has four key sites in Swansea Bay, which include brand new, state-of-the-art laboratory facilities, pilot production lines which can demonstrate and improve full-scale manufacturing processes, and full-scale building demonstration.

More than 100 people work on a range of projects that contribute either directly or indirectly to the buildings as power stations vision. They include university researchers, senior industrial scientists, product developers, business development specialists and an architect. This unique mix makes for a vibrant base from which ideas are shared, tested and developed into new products.

The concept of a building as a power station has already been proven to work, with the opening of an energy-positive classroom on the Swansea University Bay campus which provides teaching space and a laboratory for students, as well as a building-scale development facility for SPECIFIC and its industry partners.

The award-winning classroom can run off grid, with electricity generated by a steel roof with integrated solar cells supplied by SPECIFIC spin-out company BIPVco.

The building uses Tata Steel’s perforated steel cladding for generation of solar heat energy. It also features an electrically-heated floor coating developed by SPECIFIC researchers and is connected to two saltwater batteries, which are being used in the UK for the first time and are capable of storing enough energy to power the building for two days. Since launch, the classroom has generated more energy than it has consumed.

Following the success of the Active Classroom, Innovate UK supported the construction of the UK’s first energy positive Active Office, capable of generating more energy than it uses.

Built using cutting-edge off-site manufacturing techniques and incorporating innovative energy harvest, storage and release technologies, the building was opened in April 2018 and immediately occupied by around 40 members of staff. It can also share solar energy with the Active Classroom.

Such has been the success of the buildings as power stations concept, Swansea University is leading a £7 million consortium of 12 UK and Indian universities which have joined forces on Project SUNRISE, which is integrating solar energy and building technologies into buildings in five villages in India, allowing them to harness solar power to provide their own energy and run off grid. 

The project has been funded by the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which supports cutting-edge research that addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. The plan is that it will encourage local industries in India to manufacture similar affordable prefabricated buildings, adapted for their environment.

Professor Dave Worsley of Swansea University, head of research at the SPECIFIC project, and leader of the SUNRISE team, says: “The energy-positive classroom shows that this technology works. Our hope is that if we can show this works on five villages in India, then it could be rolled out to other buildings in India and around the world.

“In the longer term, our vision is for a new £1 billion industry with thousands of jobs and enhanced value in the construction supply chain – a market-driven approach that addresses one of society’s biggest challenges and provides secure, affordable, sustainable energy.”