As we mentioned the other day, our big project of the year is building a new, eco-friendly home for Essential Care. So we’re in full on research-mode, exploring the ins and outs of renewable energy generation, low-carbon building materials and Passiv architecture (among other things!). It’s fascinating stuff. And we thought you might want to follow a few topics with us, so here goes for our first eco-building blog, on PV solar panels – a way of generating “free” and sustainable electricity.
Going solar seems to be the in-thing at the moment with plenty of installation companies leafleting homes and businesses, trying to capitalise on the government funded feed-in tariffs for which solar panels qualify. At face value, PV (photovoltaic) solar panels certainly seem like a brilliant idea. They are not intrusive in terms of aesthetics and space (compared to say a wind turbine), the feed-in-tariffs mean you get money for the electricity you generate (in addition to the money you save on electricity bills), but still less than 1% of homes in the UK have solar panels. Why is this?
First of all, not all roofs are suitable for PV solar panels. South-facing orientation is important to maximise sunlight, and will make more financial sense than a north-facing roof. If you've got a small roof or lots of chimneys and skylights it can also be tricky as you need to have at least 12msq of roof space (depending on the size of your installation). And your roof needs to slope at the correct angle - the best one being between 30 and 35 degrees and the maximum being 50 degrees. Also the roof must be free of shade for the majority of the day as shade from tall trees and buildings may affect your returns. Most suppliers offer free surveys to ensure that your building is structurally sound enough to support the panels, however many old buildings and industrial buildings are not robust enough. Finally, this point kind of goes without saying, but you must own the roof you wish to install them on, meaning that they cannot be split between flats.
Not too many requirements then..! These provisions mean that a number of households are not eligible for solar panel installation, but for those which are, it’s worth taking into account other factors such as cost and market stability.
Photovoltaic solar panels are not cheap. The average household needs at least a 2kW system to meet their energy needs and the cost per kW cell installed is likely to be around £3500. On top of this are the maintenance fees. Solar panels are designed to tolerate drastic climate changes including snow, frost and wind however basic maintenance is required to maximise their performance. Many choose to hire companies who specialise in solar panel repair to carry out cleaning and basic restoration. However, many window cleaners are adding solar panel maintenance to their services. It’s also worth mentioning that while only very few installations require planning permission, they must be insured under your home insurance policy which could end up altering costs.
The government’s plans to make renewable energy more affordable were first discussed in 2008, when the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband announced that Britain would implement a Feed-In-Tariffs scheme - a subsidy to be paid to those who produce renewable energy. He presented details of the scheme in the summer of 2009, the plans actually coming to fruition in April 2010. The idea was that everyone who owned a renewable electricity system would earn 43.1p for every kilowatt hour they produced, plus an additional 3 pence for every kilowatt hour exported back to the grid. Just over a year into the scheme however, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced that Feed in Tariffs for systems larger than 50kW would be cut. This primarily effected businesses and community establishments such as schools. But the biggest blow to home-owners came in October last year when the DECC announced sudden and astonishing cuts of around 55% to the feed in tariff rates, reducing the 43.1pence per kW to just 21p per Kw! These cuts were to be implemented from mid-December last year, however this movement was successfully challenged by environmental group Friends of the Earth, and two British solar companies - HomeSun and Solarcentury. The scheme is now in a state of limbo which has lead to great confusion over the Feed in Tariff rates, and worries about the stability of the solar market leading many to question whether it’s worth taking such a pricey gamble.
It may be a question of waiting – solar panel costs have fallen considerably in the past two years and are likely to continue to do so as technology improves. Also some companies are now offering free solar panels in return for taking all your feed-in-tariff income – this saves you the upfront capital costs but does effectively mean that you are renting your roof to someone else!