10 Questions on…. Solar Power


With the introduction of various Government incentives to turn your home ‘green’, including Feed-in-Tariffs introduced on 1 April 2010 and Renewable Heat Grants to be introduced on 1 August this year, we are taking a look at the different options available to homeowners to produce their own energy and reduce their bills.

We begin by looking at solar power:

1. What are the basic requirements I must fulfill to have solar panels installed?
Solar panels need light, rather obviously, and the greater the exposure to light the more effective the energy production. Thus, a south facing roof surface is preferable, although surfaces facing between due east and south, or between due west and south are acceptable.
During shorter winter days less electricity will be generated than during the longer summer days and it is worth bearing in mind that the north of the country generally receives less sunshine than the south. Although solar powers are still viable in the north, they will likely be less effective.

2. Will my electricity bill be reduced to nothing?
A common misconception, but extremely unlikely. Solar panels need light to operate, but most households’ usage of appliances does not stop when the sun goes down. Using the television, tumble dryer, washer etc. after dark will mean electricity will be taken from the National Grid and charged in the usual way to the electricity bill.
It is therefore recommended that usage of any electrical appliance is limited as much as possible to the daytime, putting the burden on the solar power and not on the National Grid.

3. What is the Feed-in-Tariff scheme and how will it help me?
The FITs scheme guarantees a minimum payment for all power generated by the system (ie. Your renewable energy source), as well as a separate payment for the surplus electricity exported to the grid. These payments are in addition to the bill savings made by using the electricity generated on-site.
Once you have a microgeneration technology installed you should experience a monthly reduction in your electricity bill, on top of receiving an income from your Feed-in tariff provider. However, if you have taken out a loan to pay for the installation you will have to make monthly repayments to your loan company.
Feed-in tariffs are designed so that the average monthly income from your installation will be significantly greater than your monthly loan repayment (with a 25 year loan).

4. What is the Renewable Heat Grant system?
Subsequently, the Renewable Heat Premium Payment scheme has been introduced in order to help homeowners with the cost of installing renewable heat systems. It should provide as many eligible households as possible with grants of up to £1,250.
From 1 August, grants for the following technologies will be available:

  • ground source or water source heat pump – £1,250 grant (for homes without mains gas heating)
  • biomass boiler – £950 grant (for homes without mains gas heating)
  • air source heat pump – £850 grant (for homes without mains gas heating)
  • solar thermal hot water panels – £300 grant (available to all 26 million British households

More information on this scheme can be found at this link or in the Renewable Heat Grant article in this edition of the newsletter.

5. How much can I save?
This can most easily and accurately be calculated by following this link to the Energy Saving Trust’s website. The site provides a calculation device that takes into account the size of the installation, the time it was installed and where in the country the property is. For example:

A 4kW installation, installed between 15th July 2009 and March 2012, with a system size of 2.2kWp and an occupant out of the house 50% of the time will produce these benefits if located in the south of the country:
Total Generation – 1982 kWh
Income from generation tariff – £858
Income from export – £31
Fuel Bill Savings – £124

Total Income and Savings – £1,013

NB: kW=Kilowatts, kWp=the peak kilowatt input or output of a device, kWh=kilowatt-hours

6. Can I heat my water as well?
If your water is usually stored in a cylinder and heated by electricity or gas, then benefits could also be had by installing a second type of solar panel. Unlike electricity which is difficult to store, heat is rather easier and in most households this is already done by having a store of hot water ready for use at any time.
The suitability of this type of panel would be dependent on checks made to the home and the incumbent water heating arrangements. These should be carried out by a suitably qualified surveyor to ensure accuracy.

7. Could my entire heating system be changed over to solar?
Practically speaking, no. The greatest usage of your heating system will be during the winter months, when the skies are generally cloudy and the days are dark and short. Bright days during the summer will be good for the efficiency of the device, but it’s extremely unlikely you will be using the heating system to any great extent.

8. What might the cost be?
Like the majority of home improvement projects, the cost is dependent on the size of the undertaking. For example, the cost of installing solar panels on a mansion will be significantly more expensive than that of a two bedroom bungalow. For the latter, costs will be further reduced as the scaffolding requirement will evidently be diminished. For most standard domestic installations, a budget of between £4000 and £14,000 should be allocated.
Do remember that there is help available for homeowners wishing to generate their own ‘green’ electricity. Visit this page to find out more on what might be available to you.

9. How do I choose an installer?
The first thing to do in this respect is to make sure you do your research on the technology. It is important that when you invite a company to quote, you can tell whether they are experienced in their field. In general, it is best to go with a reputable, local company. It might be wise to ask the advice of any other households in the area with similar installations.
It is also worth looking for the relevant accreditations. MCS is a quality assurance scheme which demonstrates that the company is committed to meeting fairly rigorous standards. You should ensure that your installer is approved within the UK Microgeneration Scheme.

10. What does the future hold for solar power?
The future of solar technology on a greater scale rests very much on the time it takes for ‘grid parity’ to occur. This is the point at which solar energy is equivalent in monetary cost to coal based electricity. Experts believe this might occur in the next five to ten years and it will be a crucial moment in the advancement of solar technology as a whole, resulting in greater take-up by energy companies.
Some of these companies have previously stated that they could not, in good conscience, raise prices in order to use solar power because they have an obligation to their customers to provide the lowest cost energy possible.
There are places around the world, however, which have already reached grid parity and are starting to focus more and more on solar power. California, for example, has reached parity and commercial rooftop solar panels are producing energy at just 45 cents per kWh. Italy too is poised to gain residential solar panel parity in the next few years.
It might be a fairly slow transition therefore, but it seems that solar power is on the up and could play a big part in lighting up Britain in the future.

1st August 2011