My next holiday apartment must have solar water heating

Summer holidays are a time for reflection on family, life and the world in general. A few years ago, for our summer holiday we rented a cottage on an island in the middle of a lake in central Finland. Our cottage was the only building on the island, which was so small that I could swim around it before breakfast.

To get to the island we had to park the car at the end of a remote forest track and make the crossing by rowing boat.

Throughout each day the sun made its way around the island. Being so far north, close to the Arctic Circle, the days were long. The sun dipped below the horizon in the north a little after 11pm and rose again before 1am.

The two weeks we spent on the island was an idyllic escape. Being so close to nature I was reminded of the beauty of the natural world

and the importance of retaining it. I spent the days writing, working on the ideas in my book Adapt and Thrive: The Sustainable Revolution.

The setting, in a cradle of natural wilderness, gave added impetus to my vision of a sustainable world and how to achieve it. I became hugely optimistic that we could solve the challenges of moving from a society running on fossil fuel to one running on renewable power.

The situation is complex, and can be hard to fathom, but the solutions exist. All we have to do is explain the decisions that companies and individuals must make. As the world comes out of recession, demand for energy will return to, and then surpass, previous levels and energy costs climb ever higher. The business case for renewable energy will be easier to sell.

This year, my optimism was dented. For our holiday we were in Tuscany in a small holiday apartment in a complex tucked away in the countryside with farmers’ fields on all sides. The weather was hot and dry, the sun so intense that we spent the middle of each day in the shade. Huge fields had been ploughed following the harvest and were baked bone dry, devoid of any signs of green shoots.

With the heat of the sun on my back, I walked around the apartment complex. It was just two years old and still had a nearly-new feel about it. I looked for green features such as solar power. I was not surprised that there were no photovoltaic (PV) panels. It is still hard to make a sound business case for PV until costs drop or energy prices rise significantly.

But I was surprised that all the hot water was heated by gas. The business case for solar water heating adds up, even in the cloudy UK. In Italy the case is rock solid – particularly for apartments used primarily as summer holiday accommodation.

The apartments had been built and sold as holiday homes. Presumably the profit margins had been better by saving some construction costs through not installing solar water heating. If purchasers are not prepared to pay a premium on the purchase price to have solar water heating, builders will not fit it. This is despite solid returns in savings on heating bills over a much shorter period than the life of the system.

I felt guilty to be running hot water, and hear the gas burner lighting, when the sun shining on the patio outside made it too hot to walk on in bare feet.

When I next hire a holiday apartment I will specify that it must have solar water heating. This is what we should all do. Maybe then holiday companies will get the message. It is disappointing to find a new development in sunny Italy without solar water heating, but such short-sighted ignorance will not last long.

I believe that we are on the leading edge of the sustainable revolution. The recession has slowed progress, but development of the technologies and processes we require is proceeding. Venture capitalists with deep pockets have staked out the opportunities in the companies trying to develop the technology required, such as affordable PV panels. The winner(s) will be hugely profitable.

Every roof across Europe, and the world, is an opportunity. The recession is holding back expenditure and making organisations and individuals wary of new investment. It is also making companies look at their costs and look for savings. During this period of reflection, the priority is on cash flow and survival. Now is also the time to plan for the recovery – for when it eventually comes.

With business slow, we can find the time to spot unsustainable methods and processes, and plan investment to replace them.

Companies that can use the recession to plan ahead will lead the recovery. It costs little to make plans and gather estimates. As soon as the green shoots of recovery are showing, make the deal and sign the contracts. Acting early would be like a farmer planting winter wheat in expectation of an early crop. Businesses that wait too long to invest in the future will be left behind and not reap the full benefits.

Peter McManners is a visiting executive fellow of Henley Business School of Reading University. His book, Adapt and Thrive: The Sustainable

Revolution is published by Susta Press

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie