Winds of change
When SELECT Member Martin Wight fitted his first turbine he had no idea it would lead to a career in renewables spanning wave, wind and solar power, as well as work on an innovative new energy-efficient homes project
Ten years ago, when a new client asked Martin Wight if he could install a wind turbine on his property Martin jumped at the chance and said: “Yes, of course!” The only slight issue was that he had never installed one before, but he was up for the challenge.In order not to take advantage of the customer being his first renewable ‘guinea pig’, he offered to do the work at half his usual hourly rate, so that if he overran on time the client would not feel he had been overcharged.
Although Martin made less money on the initial contract, it proved to be a good investment in his future in renewable technology, as he went on to install more than 150 wind turbines around the UK. He is now one of the few electricians in Scotland who has experience in the installation of all four forms of renewable energy platforms: wind, solar, hydro and even wave energy.
Martin has always been keen to learn new things and is interested in renewables because of the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, as shown by man’s impact on climate change. He said: “It’s so important to be open to learning a new skill and that first wind turbine experience had a significant impact on my future career as an electrician, opening up a new world of fast-developing technology which is having a beneficial effect on how we create and use energy, and ultimately protect our planet.”
Martin’s next encounter with the world of renewables was while he was working as an electrical contractor at Knockhill Racing Circuit in Fife, as the owners were interested in installing a wind turbine to supplement their energy needs. He had invited a representative of a company up to the race track to look into the idea, and was so interested in hearing about the new technology, that when the rep said she was leaving her existing company to set up a new one to import US-made wind turbines, Martin jumped at the chance to join her as one of the installers.
“The design of the turbine was definitely configured with the installer in mind”
He explained: “We got chatting about renewables and I told her about my experience with my first client and I was astonished to learn that that person was her brother. She was so impressed with the work that I had done that she asked me if I would be interested in joining her new venture and installing wind turbines.”
Within three weeks of this conversation, Martin was in the Northern Power Systems’ headquarters in Vermont, USA, on an intensive training course learning all about the installation of their wind turbine devices. These were the NPS 60kW and the NPS 100kW wind turbines, up to 60 metres high, which were ideal for farmers and landowners wanting extra energy or to generate additional income through the feed-in tariffs to the National Grid which were available at the time in the UK.
When the company was sold, Martin went on to work with another company called Capture Energy, based in Cornwall, to install NPS 60kW and NPS100kW and wind turbines.
Over this time, Martin installed more than 150 wind turbines up and down the UK, from Cornwall to the north of Scotland, and he loved the job. “These machines were great to work on because you were out in wonderful countryside but the beauty of it was the design of the turbine, which was definitely configured with the installer in mind.
“The direct drive machines were supplied with a 400-volt transformer and the process involved working out loss on the length of the cable install as well as installing the appropriate size of cable for the turbine. If the turbine was going straight to grid it was quite simple. If we were integrating to supply other systems then it got more complicated.
“When you are building a turbine you are responsible for the whole project, from building the tubular steel monopole tower and constructing the turbine cell with its permanent magnet generator at the top with the three blades, which can more than 24 meters in diameter. Then you have to angle the blades for the average wind speed of that site, and wire the whole structure together so electricity can be generated from the turbine to where it is required.”
Electricity can be generated on these models with wind speeds from as little as 3 metres/second, but they are designed to provide maximum generation at 12-15m/s, cutting out at anything above 25m/s.
Martin added: “You are there from the time the foundations are poured until the final commissioning of the wind turbine. It’s a very intense period of work over a few weeks.”
Martin said he enjoyed the nature of the work and became one of the few people within the company in the UK that was allowed to carry out all four aspects of wind turbine operations: installation, build, commissioning and subsequent maintenance.
Over the last five years, Martin has broadened his renewables experience into solar PV systems and a few small-scale hydro-electric projects. He even had a wave energy project on the go until the developer went into liquidation.
Another exciting and innovative green project Martin got involved in around five years ago was with the Resource Efficient House, that was developed by Scottish construction firm Tigh Grian (Scottish Gaelic for ‘house of sun’) – the Scottish housing arm of Swiss company UserHuus AG that has developed energy-efficient homes.
The design concept involves manufacturing the house in pre-built sections using a structural insulated panel system (SIPS). The 4.9m x 11.4m pod modules are built to be fully serviced, fitted out and decorated at the factory in Wales and when laid on pre-prepared foundations can be assembled into a flat or a two/three/four bedroom house format, thus reducing construction costs, time and waste. Each unit is fully insulated and heated using a whole-house mechanical heat recovery ventilation system, with wall-mounted electric panel heaters giving an EPC B rating and they incorporate roof-mounted solar panels.
According to Tigh Grian, this ‘pod’ approach provides an “affordable, energy-efficient, quick-to-build volumetric housing solution”.
Martin was involved in the commissioning of many of the 52 ‘pod’ homes at the new Queen Street estate in Alva, Clackmannanshire, which comprises a mix of one-bedroom cottage flats, and two and three-bedroom homes.
These unique properties were built to meet the government’s Scottish Housing Quality Standards and were the first Gold Standard energy efficient homes.
Such was the innovative nature of the design that a number of these Resource Efficient Houses were chosen to be showcased at the British Research Establishment’s Innovation Centres, both in Watford in England and at Ravenscraig in Scotland.
The Resource Efficient House was designed to meet the Scottish Platinum Standard in Building Regulations Section 7: Sustainability, and this can be seen in the reduction of material used in its construction, and waste resulting from this process. For example, an average three-bed home built in Scotland can produce as much as 13 tonnes of construction waste. The Resource Efficient House produced less than five tonnes of construction waste, with less than one tonne going to landfill. As well as facilitating sustainable living for occupants, the design of the house ensures maximum recycling in-use and reuse of construction products at the end of life.
However, the first Gold Standard energy efficient homes to be built in Scotland encountered a hiccup early on when the developers discovered that the Welsh factory constructing the housing pods was using an English electrical contractor who had not read up on Scottish electrical regulations. Martin explained: “I was called in by Tigh Grian when they started receiving the pod units from Wales at the Alba site and discovered that the electrics were not compatible with Scottish regulations.
“We had to reverse engineer quite a lot of the electric wiring, putting cables that were supplying switches inside cupboards within the house”
For instance, in the white box where the electric meter goes outside the house they had designed the solar switches and all of the television control boxes inside this unit, which Scottish Power would not be happy about.
“So before we could put the pods together we had to figure out a way of getting those controls into the inside of the house. We had to reverse engineer quite a lot of the electric wiring, putting cables that were supplying switches inside cupboards within the house.
“Unfortunately, a little later on, the company supplying the pods got into financial difficulty. Tigh Grian had to take delivery of a lot of pods that were not fully finished, so we had to complete a lot of the wiring before they could be assembled on site.
“That’s a lot of work as you have to sort out the lighting and switches in addition to the positioning and integration of the solar PV system, as well as setting up the telephone, Cat 5 cables, plus house alarm and smoke alarm systems and make sure they all work together before handing the house over.”
Homes of the future
Although the pod estate at Alba is now completed, Martin was involved in another commission with Tigh Grian: to help dismantle the original Resource Efficient House show home that was based at Ravenscraig and help rebuild it at Glasgow College, so the energy efficient housing concept could be showcased in time for COP26, the international conference on climate change which is being hosted in Glasgow from 31 October.
Martin said: “The original site at Ravenscraig has been sold for housing development and rather than demolish the pod building, Glasgow College wanted to rehouse it at their site and highlight the new technologies built into the house regarding energy saving as well as its zero carbon, environmental and recycling credentials.”
The Ravenscraig house is a two-storey, three-bedroom family-sized home, made of four pod units providing 136m2 in floor space. The accommodation is mainly open plan with a kitchen, living and dining on the ground floor connecting via a double height space to the gallery and home office space. A stove, using a waste by-product formed into wood pellets, provides space heating and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery ensures sufficient air quality is maintained in the airtight home. Water conservation is also addressed with a grey-water recovery system and low water use appliances and fittings installed.
The house is unusual as it has two photovoltaic arrays; one of traditional PV panels and one a semi-transparent thin film PV sheeting, which covers the roof of the balcony area. This photovoltaic solar glass sheeting is a Building Integrated Transparent Photovoltaic (BIPV) product and provides a shaded area for sitting out in, drying laundry or growing plants while also contributing to the building’s electricity requirements.
Martin added: “The transparent panels above the balcony were quite revolutionary at the time; they were Thin-Fil Photovoltaic panels, not very powerful at 92watts per panel with a 1.5kW Sunny Boy inverter.”
The roof panels were REC Peak Energy Series 245watt Photovoltaic panels with a 3kW Sunny Boy inverter, and Martin was involved in taking both types of solar panels off and making the DC wiring safe to allow the roof trusses to come off, as ‘unplugging’ all the other electrics ready for reconstruction at Glasgow College. Unfortunately, the project has been put on hold for now.
Ready for a challenge
However, Martin still has another commission with Tigh Grian as its other two houses at the BRE’s Innovation Park in Watford have been bought by a property developer in Burntisland, Fife, and these will need to be dismantled, transported and rebuilt in their new Scottish location soon. This project will be more of a challenge as one of the houses has a complete building-integrated photovoltaic roof.
Martin said: “This one is going to be tricky as, upon further investigation, we can’t remove in one go.”
“These panels are designed onto walls to catch the sun, and they are colour matched with the render or fabric of the house so they were not as noticeable as solar panels”
Another interesting feature of these houses is the use of ‘fascia solar panels’: instead of placing panels on the roof, these are designed onto walls to catch the sun, and are colour matched with the render or fabric of the house so they were not as noticeable. Martin added: “It’s funny, as the BRE site in Watford is also used as a film set and I’ve seen the Tigh Grian houses featured a couple of TV programmes, like the detective series Baptiste.”
Martin hopes that the Ravenscraig house will be rebuilt soon at Glasgow College as he’s got some ideas on how its energy efficiency and green credentials can be further enhanced through his experience of electrical work in the renewables sector.
He said: “I’d really like the company to consider reconfiguring the heating system and installing a heat pump, and to also look at incorporating battery storage to conserve energy when it’s not being used. The house is very innovative but it’s using 10-year old technology and I want to bring it up to date. I just feel if we are going to showcase something then I want it to be the best that it can be.”
Martin is fascinated by the fast-moving world of renewables and glad he took the plunge 10 years ago, and he’s still keen to keep on learning.
He added: “While each company’s different renewable systems have their own idiosyncrasies, at the end of the day it’s still the basic electronics that powers them, so there is nothing to be worried about.
“I would recommend everyone to try different things out, particularly in the renewables sector, because it is great when something new comes along. I think that is one of the greatest aspects of our job; if you don’t embrace change you don’t learn, and if you don’t learn you grow old and get grumpy!”
Isle of Bute
Martin was involved in was the electrical contracting work for the development of the Kerrylamont Centre on the Isle of Bute, which is part of the late Marquis of Bute’s plans to provide flexible work spaces to develop rural skills and help businesses thrive on the island.
This has involved renovating a group of listed 19th century farm buildings and a diary to provide small and medium-size workshops, studios, stone working facilities, an open plan media studio, communal spaces and a flexible event space.
Martin said: “I’ve done a lot of work for that project which has also involved installing heat pumps. I was working on one of the farm buildings which is being converted into working units for tradespeople, such as blacksmiths, coopers and clockmakers, and there is a plan to team up with Stirling University, which offers rural skills courses, and for their students to come and study here with the professional crafts people.
“I’ve enjoyed being part of the team helping to renovate the site and also working with Johnny Bute as he has lots of projects across the island to help the local community through his Mount Stuart Trust. It was sad to learn of his death at only 62 this year in March.”
Harnessing wave power
Martin’s work has taken him all over Scotland and to install an innovative wave machine that was undergoing test trials off the coast of Mingary Castle on the Ardnamurchan Estate, near Lochaber on the west coast of the Highlands.
He explained: “This estate operated fish farms off the coast and fed the fish using an electrical powered ‘feed cannon’ that blew fish feed from a workboat directly into the fish pens. The trouble was this machine required a 120kW generator on a barge, so we looked at creating an array of the experimental 7kW wave devices being tested at the site to help generate the power required. We were able to create an array of seven wave devices, which gave us 49kW for our trials, but, unfortunately, the wave device manufacture went into liquidation and my involvement stopped, which was a shame as this technology has great potential.”
New battery technology
With a long experience of working in renewables, Martin knows that a great leap in the adoption of these energy systems will come when battery technology develops further.
He said: “Obviously, when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine then wind and solar devices cannot generate electricity, so that’s why it’s important to store it when the conditions for generating electricity are optimum, and increased capacity batteries are the way forward.”
That’s why he is excited to be getting involved with a Scottish manufacturer, On Site Generation – based at the Midlothian Innovation Centre in Roslin, near SELECT’s HQ – that is leading project to integrate a new battery storage solution to a new solar energy project in Dundee.
“One of the jobs we have in planning is to supply electrical contracting knowledge to help install 120kW of solar panels on the roof of a building to power a new 200kW battery pack to provide electricity to the building. It’s one of the biggest battery storage systems we’ve been involved in.”
Martin said it’s an interesting project and, if he gets the go-ahead, it’s another opportunity to learn more about the expanding renewables sector. If he’s successful, he will go on a training course with the battery supplier to learn how to use the new technology.
The battery system manufacturer has developed an innovative and versatile energy storage system, which uses lithium ferrous phosphate (LFP) battery modules and incorporates its own ‘intelligent hybrid inverter’ technology as well as battery management system control system in a scalable format in 2.5kWh increments up to a maximum of 200kWh.
The LFP batteries have no cooling requirements, extremely low self-discharge rates and are virtually incombustible due to the chemical stability of their iron phosphate cathode.
A history of innovation
Scotland has been a world-leader in wind power for generations. Professor James Blyth, a Scottish electrical engineer based at Anderson's College in Glasgow (now the University of Strathclyde), is credited with building the world’s first-known wind turbine in July 1887. The 10-metre-high cloth-sailed device was installed in the garden of his holiday cottage in Marykirk, Kincardineshire – making it the first house to have its electricity supplied by wind power.
Blyth offered the surplus electricity to the people of Marykirk for lighting the main street, however, they turned down the offer as they thought electricity was ‘the work of the devil’.
In July 1995, the UK’s first grid-connected wind turbine started producing electricity at Costa Head in Orkney.