The truth about solar panels

Home Solar panel systems (also known as photovoltaics or PV) harness the sun’s energy to produce electricity that can be used in your home. Despite their need for sunlight, they still work on cloudy days (albeit not as efficiently), which is good news for solar in the UK. Domestic solar systems have a life-span of 25-30 years and they cost between £5,500 and £10,000 to install, depending on the amount of solar panels your household requires. The good news is that sunlight is free!

Picture of a home with solar panels

The power of a PV cell is measured in kilowatts peak (kWp), the rate at which it generates energy when it’s at peak performance in direct sunlight on a sunny day. Generally the bigger systems are more cost effective than the smaller ones and can produce up to 4kWp. A system of this size will generate more than 3,500 kilowatt hours of electricity each year (that’s a lot of electricity), about the same amount that the average household uses each year – and can save nearly two tonnes of carbon each year.

There are obviously benefits of using solar to generate electricity to power our homes, but is solar really cost effective in the UK? Well yes, and no. If the government turned off the Feed-in tariffs (FIT) solar households would be in dire trouble. Without the government’s Feed-in tariffs, based on current electrical prices, a home solar panel system’s output wouldn’t come close to covering its cost over its 30 year life – a £10,000 solar system in the south of England will produce less than £8,000 worth of electricity across 30 years.

The Feed-in tariff takes any excess electricity produced in daylight hours (the panels don’t produce energy at night), and feeds it into the national grid to be used by homeowners. This tariff rewards solar households with three times the retail price of electricity (kerching). Great for those with solar but who pays for this subsidy? Of course it’s obvious, we do, the non-solar households subsidise the tariff.

Picture of a solar powered house with panels on roof

Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment, producing nasty toxic chemicals like carbon dioxide, yet solar is eco-friendly and doesn’t produce any nasties (other than from the process of making the panels). While the government continues to subsidise solar it remains cost effective but for many people the initial install price is too high to make this an affordable investment.

If the set up costs are beyond your budget, the Rent-a-roof scheme, also known as ‘free’ solar, is an option. A company will lease your roof for 20-25 years, they’ll install and maintain the home solar panels and in return you’ll use the energy that the panels produce, but the company leasing your roof will profit from any additional energy produced. These systems often benefit the company leasing the roof more than they do the homeowner. If you’re at home a lot during the day it might be worth considering the scheme – for the typical 9-5 worker bee though, perhaps not. You should also bear in mind that if you sell the property you’ll need to find a buyer who’s willing to continue with the lease agreement.

There is of course what we’re all thinking… they’re ugly. You may be pro-eco for all things sustainable that look great (green roofs, cork lamp shades and coir carpets), but when it comes to covering your property in metallic monstrosities even the most eco of us run a mile. Their one saving grace is that they are best suited to a south-facing roof and as most people want a south facing garden with the street view of a property being north facing, kerb appeal is preserved!

Solar doesn’t have to be unsightly however, but a good looking photovoltaic system is integrated into the property’s design. Eco doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to sacrifice style.

Panels that sit on top of the roof are cheaper than ones that are built in, such as the tiled varieties, but let’s face it neither are a design statement that we’d like to make.

Picture of two homes with built in solar panels

If you can incorporate enough panels into a new build property to make solar an effective energy source for your household, do it. It doesn’t have to look bad (but aesthetics come at a price).

The fact is, solar is a very expensive way of producing energy in the UK. Perhaps it’s time we considered a different type of renewable energy? We may not have much sunshine, but we certainly have a lot of wind…

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